The Speed of Thought

When I teach an advanced class devoted to moving fast, I always start by telling my students, “If you can see your hand move, you aren’t fast enough.” Advanced Class on speed with Ted MancusoThe point is not that they should try to hurry up their moves, but that they should abandon speed as something they can “control” or “will” into happening. Speed, real speed, is something like warp drive in science fiction: the only way to move faster than light is to do so in another dimension.

Speed is like that. It is movement in another dimension.

There are ground rules, of course, things everyone agrees to. Speed is related to relaxation, especially when relaxation is an expression of effortless efficiency. The path a relaxed movement takes is often the path of the most efficient muscular movement.

Here’s another basic tenet: speed comes from knowing the path. Familiarity may indeed breed contempt, but it also breeds acceleration.

Which brings up another point: speed is not an attempt to reach high velocity; it is a hungry search for endless acceleration. Speed never slackens and it never peaks. This is in part, as I’ve said, because it is not something you control.

Another important idea is that speed is like the way your hair grows: it manifests differently for each person. I have seen many people attempt to develop speed inappropriate to their bodies. That’s too bad, because such a quest often takes them right past the spot where their speed lurks.

So you have the basics: well-grooved movement, relaxed motion, efficient action, and all tailored to your body. But there is another variable, as important  as all of the rest put together.

It lies in how you think.

Let me talk about the restrictive effects first. I have, for instance, seen a number of students who cannot accelerate. They get their limbs moving fast but never pass a certain self-imposed peak speed. In other cases, I have students who always look away from their own strikes and cannot seem to keep constant pressure on their intent. They throw the limb but do not seem to understand what it means to keep throwing it, even while it is in flight.

This comes back to what I first said: a key to speed is to abandon the idea that when you move rapidly, you will still be in control. Speed is like diving off the high board: you may control twists, turns and holds in the dive, but you are dropping despite what you think or what you do.

There are a lot of mental adjustments you must make to reach top speed. One of them directly relates to the diving board analogy. It is the difference between pushing the weapon and releasing it. The Chinese masters called this ‘bowstring release’ energy. Like a string with its notched shaft, explosive speed comes from release, not pushing.

Try this little experiment. Take some motion you well know, like a single straight punch. Instead of throwing it to extension, start with your punching arm already extended. Open and close your fist  a bit, then imagine you are grabbing a huge rubber band and pulling it backward. Hold it back at your chest until you have convinced yourself of its constant pull. Then just release and let the band take over. Note not only the speed, but record how it feels to just let it go.

(One point is true about this exercise and all speed work. As you relax you will experience extra stress on your muscles and tendons. You can relieve these growth pains by making sure you never fully extend your limbs.)

You can definitely increase your speed with the above exercise for a very simple reason: by imagining the rubber band stretched back, you will also be pre-tensing your muscles, and automatically overcoming the tendency to tighten before shooting. If nothing else, this simple pattern will reduce that.

There are all sorts of ways to build up speed. Much remains to be said about the right procedure for using the eyes to increase your speed, and turning them from obstacles into aids. Like some things in life the visualization is actually in the way. As martial artists we are sometimes asked to do things we cannot even see in front of us. But sometimes that’s part of the fun.


Speed Records: Bruce Lee used to demonstrate that he could move forward and throw a front hand strike from four to six feet away before you could raise you hand.

Joe Lewis would do a similar feat by striking from five feet to seven feet away over your forearm held neck high. He could do it before you could raise your forearm an inch.

William Cheung, noted Wing Chun practitioner, held the World Speed Punching record a while at 8.3  punches a second.

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