‘Uncanny Prescience’: the psychology of boxing reaction time.

There’s a common misconception that boxers aim to punch people in the face. We don’t. We aim slightly off.

Unless your opponent is completely stationary, you punch not to the target, but to where it will be in a moment’s time. The novice boxer who stabs uselessly at the old head position soon finds themselves chasing phantoms. 

To box effectively, therefore, one must have a sense of where the opponent is moving and how fast, in order to time a punch to arrive simultaneously. The timing difference is slight, milliseconds (more of that later), but is nonetheless a factor. Boxing might be considered as a study of the human being with reference to what it is about to do next: step closer, move away, flinch, duck, and of the human psyche which acts in fear, boldness, courage, nerves, or anger. Using such a model, we know where to throw the punch, just ahead of what the opponent is doing, sometimes before they know it themselves.

‘There are boxers possessed of such remarkable intuition, such uncanny prescience, one would think they were somehow recalling their fights, not fighting then as we watch’. 

Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing, Dolphin. New York. 1987. p9

Boxing makes psychologists, of a sort, of its practitioners. A professional psychologist will usually spend a longer time formulating hypotheses, conducting studies, and testing data, whereas the boxer uses an heuristic to act within a few milliseconds of the information. (I guess a clinical psychologist does have to act quicker, in the moment). But how are fast responses to complex human variables made with such precision and accuracy, under stress, with no time available?

The Savate factor.

As a sidenote I will mention that in my sport of French Boxing, Savate, we are particularly strict on distance, which exacerbates the above difficulty. There is a ‘no tibia’ rule for kicking which prohibits making contact with anything apart from the shoe, which is, after all, from what ‘Savate’ draws its name. If you shin an opponent, even accidentally, the referee will stop and caution you. The shin scores no points and puts you in jeopardy of a point deduction. Now, kicks are slower than punches, more inert, with longer levers. To judge where the kicking target is going to be by the time you have changed body weight, lifted a leg, and extended it is a more acute version of the boxer’s problem. Timing a shoe strike with strict avoidance of the shin requires a heightened predictive accuracy. Further to this, almost all Savate kicks require a ‘chamber’ or ‘armé‘ before delivery, as swung or reckless kicking is also frowned upon, adding extra waypoints to the trajectory and slowing down the strike. A Savate fighter, therefore, needs a boxer’s predictive capacity all the more.

How quickly do we react?

According to David Papineau‘s chapter ‘In the blink of an eye’ in his book ‘Knowing the Score’ (Constable, 2017), we can approach the problem via some accounting of time scales. A Roger Federer tennis serve takes 400ms to travel from racket to opponent. The issue here for the opponent is apparent when you add a 150ms human reaction time to the 25ms it takes to commence any limb locomotion to – crucially – the 500ms it takes the visual cortex to process complex information. Well over the 400ms it will take for the ball to whizz past. An opponent facing a serve at this speed simply hasn’t the time to react to what they are seeing. But elite tennis players do manage to go left or right accurately and predict where the serve is going. How?

If tennis players cannot use the visual information post-serve, they must be using prior information. Which is to say, the position and gestures of the player before they serve indicate to a pro what is to happen next. This arm twitch, that extra bounce, a sense of whether the server is going to be more aggressive, is losing confidence, or will switch or stay a strategy. That is, they become a psychologist, for a moment, using physical and mental predictors of human behaviour. This is borne out in a study in which lenses designed to occlude at the moment the serve is struck are worn, but still the elite player moves in the right direction. The conclusion: it was their prior assessment and prediction that counted.

How fast is a punch?

  • Estimates from a google search are between 2-10m/s, but do not give the acceleration and whether that is constant.
  • Boxing Science says 50-100ms to complete a punch
  • My personal observation is that I can do 36 jabs in 10s which reckons at 278ms per jab, or 139ms to throw (although the outward arc is likely faster than the return and it would land before having to make the turnaround, so this is an overestimate).
  • This World Record is 334 in a minute (180ms per punch) this looks like it includes the drawback of one hand overlapping with the extension of another, so it overestimates a single punch speed).

The timescales of punches at close range (see above) places boxers firmly in the same category of problem. Boxers cannot react to the visual information of an in-flight punch, but they may use what experience teaches them about how sparring partners behave, to what gestures they know precede certain types of strike, to what they see in the temperament of this opponent, and so forth. Experience of opponents and understanding them is what counts for timing punches. Which is why I give a 1-star review to those boxing devices which mount a ball on a string to the fighter’s head. The trainee pumps their arm quickly, for sure, but they are not gathering data about how real people move, which is what they need. All the shoulder speed in the world cannot give you enough of an edge with a feinting, darting, disruptive fighter in front of you.

My opinion is that while tennis players have to deal with the faster moving object, boxers are far more involved with their opponent. Boxers stand closer than almost any other pair of sports people. There is no more intimate sport than boxing, except for wrestling, which requires the same use of foreknowledge but does not require interception of projectiles. Boxing is a full-body, full-on interaction and, for me, that only heightens the human skill in its predictive demands.

If you empty your mind, you will simply react, and react simply,

Foreknowledge is going to be mainly conscious and, before anyone says it, neither Papineau nor I advocate slipping into an unconscious response in an effort to speed up. If you empty your mind, you will simply react, and react simply, and be subject to the misdirection of a skilled opponent. A ‘muscle-memory’ response to a jab, say, will likely only operate in a single manner and this will be no use when your strategy is to make your opponent overextend, to slip inside, or any other of the plethora of useful responses. Of course there is no time to have a ‘bit of a think’ during the actual flight of the punch, but our conscious strategies do manage to intervene in the millisecond responses we end up making. You decide before the round, or the whole fight, what kind of replies you will make to the likely attacks and these conscious vignettes end up being deployed in sub-conscious timing. Again, experience is what has furnished us with these patterns and allows us to discriminate between them. 

Think while you fight and while you train. It will allow you to discriminate between responses and increase the probability the more appropriate ones are used. Switch off, become automatic, go with the flow, and you will become one-dimensional. Any opponent with ‘uncanny prescience’ will take you apart.