The Case of the Basketball Hands (and Other Startle-Flinch Enigmas)
by W. Hock Hochheim
In the 1990s, I read an interesting college lab study on the internet covering reflex response - a subject once so near and dear to us all here in the fighting business.
First, this study collected and identified volunteer students on campus for an undescribed "sports-psychology" test, a not uncommon practice on a campus. They filled out a deceptive questionnaire, and hidden in the questions were identifiers on who were sports players and who were not. Then specific sports were listed on the interview sheet. One of the check-off sports boxes was for basketball - which as it turned out, was the real subject of the test. The test givers secretly collected the students who had played basketball and those who had not, as this was some sort of sports psychology study.
In the test, each testee student stood still in an empty room. A test-giver quietly approached from the side and rear of the student. He suddenly shouted, “Hey!” while throwing a basketball at his torso at his side. The following response was a complete zero-to-sixty reaction.
All the test takers turned and saw a basketball speeding toward them. As you might have imagined, many of the students with no basketball experience flung their arms up in the direction of the ball and to their sides, not their fronts, in a reflexive movement of self-protection. Some dodged the ball without any arm movement at all. And yes, some were hit by the ball.
But all the experienced ball players when surprised tried to catch the ball with the palms of their hands as they'd done in basketball. Some caught the ball; some failed. But they tried! With their palms up and out. This further proved again that some sheer reflexive movements can be coupled and honed with conditioned response.
We do not know the level of experience the people who had checked off the “played basketball” box had. But the moral of the story is full of common sense. People with some level of experience responded instantly with more of a trained response. This struck me as yet another case in a long string of experiments that strongly suggest proper training leads to quick, smarter, forged, instantaneous responses, and, in many cases, shape reflex. Not eye-blink reflex or hammer-tap-on-the-shin reflex mind you, but as proven that not all - but many - types of responses that are officially considered to be "reflexes" have been shaped and tweaked.
The surprise "HEY!" Since I really dislike basketball and NEVER have played it, except when forced to in public school gym class, I know I would block the basketball with my arms to the side, (not the front,) and be like a flailing, idiot caveman. Or, try to dodge the ball. Or maybe just get hit? But if you tossed a football or baseball at me as some of my knucklehead friends have done to me through the years, I probably would try to catch it properly. That is what practice/repetition does for you! And that is what proper martial training can do for you, too. Conditioned responses.
True, startle-flinch fanatics today believe that every person, every time when startled, no matter the distance of the surprise, will ALWAYS throw their hands and arms up as in some kind of fighting stance. Yet the opposite can be seen weekly on America's (or whatever country's) Funniest Video TV show or shows like that. Or in modern textbooks where over 30 different startles have been recorded.
If you are unarmed, getting your dukes up fast in a fight is a good idea. But when pulling a knife, a baton, or a pistol, reinforcing the idea that throwing your hands up first and then down to the weapon is not a good idea. It is a waste of precious time. While your arms may well go up DURING an explosion, like a close gunshot, there is way less of a guarantee they will fly up BEFORE the gunshot or upon seeing any threat at any distance. Couple that with countless occurrences of surprised people pulling their weapons and not throwing their hands up first, then how natural and mandatory could/should "hands-up-first" be?
Unarmed? "Dukes up!" Simple. Get your arms up in fighting training. You need to anyway. Natural or conditioned. No big deal. No secret message there. That is why I basically ignore startle-flinch fanatics. The arms get up anyway. I do wish they would realize they took the wrong (and expensive) roads to get there.
Armed? Need to pull a weapon fast? DON'T always train to put your arms up first when "calm" and at the range. It will add a step in your muscle memory through conditioned response. And also remember not every fight has a startle in it, and your repetition training doing this on the range will create that extra conditioned response. This way you are training yourself in ALL circumstances to waste a second every time you pull a weapon, by throwing your arms up first then down to the gun. These training repetitions have a far-reaching effect, startle or no startle. Natural or conditioned. Mandating this is an unnecessary mistake. If you cannot grasp this simple training process? You might well be too dumb to be instructing people.
I might mention here that there was another test I found in a 1990's internet search that covered very similar problems. I found some interesting 1980s US Army tests. One test was identifying soldiers with a karate and judo background and then some with no martial arts background. In a very simple test, these soldiers, unaware of the subject matter, were told to walk through a semi-dark walkway in what I recall to look like some kind of warehouse, into a room, and sit down. As they walked through, someone jumped at them from the dark, yelling with a threatening manner. The results? Most karate folks jumped into a karate-like stance. Most Judo people did theirs. Most untrained soldiers had no ready stance. I also recall this Army test being discussed on some early talk forums in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Two interesting little studies to at least consider and discuss. I so wish now I had cared in the 1990s to record these study names, the college, etc., of that basketball experiment and little Army experiment years ago. Some startle/flinch fanatics today must believe I am lying, I guess, when I report this. But, I was a working cop then, never dreaming I would be reaching a vast audience or having to challenge the cognitive dissonance of startle flinch fanatics who have invested so much time and money over that as a priority. The studies are so buried in time, so smothered by search terms, I just can't find them anymore.
Back in the 1990s, I had no idea I would need to record the specifics of this study on the internet and quote them as gospel to today's naysayers. To me back then, it was just a martial arts gossip story over a beer or coffee. And it was forever to be on the net! Right? Not buried away. I had no idea I would be debating such common sense issues decades later and worldwide. People are left to argue what precisely is and what is not an "official" startle-flinch action, when it doesn't fit their idea. And, as if it is all so utterly important anyway. It really isn't that important, and you have been sold a marketing bill of sales-pitch goods when you think it is. Rather, the real subject matter is the bigger category called "ambush."
But perhaps these little buried tests I found are not that important anymore, anyway. Just watch America's Funniest Videos! See all the reactions.
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