Speed: The myth of faster reactions

"Deep knowledge is to be aware of disturbance before disturbance, to be aware of danger before danger, to be aware of destruction before destruction, to be aware of calamity before calamity... By deep knowledge of principle, one can change disturbance into order, change danger into safety, change destruction into survival, change calamity into fortune." ~ The Art Of War.

1st December 2010


There's a long-standing meme about "reaction time"; it's that somehow highly-trained athletes / fighter pilots / racing car drivers somehow are wired genetically such that they have faster reaction times than us mere mortals. This meme is, bluntly, wrong. By and large, these people have no quicker reactions than you or I.

Don't believe me? Here's a test for you then; see how well you do. If you're lucky, you'll get close to about 0.2 seconds. That's about peak performance - for anyone.

So how do they react so quickly then?

They don't. Or, more precisely, they react to different things. Most importantly, they react to earlier things.

Examples: Driving and Spider-Sense

The magic Formula 1

To take a racing-car example, if I am driving a Formula 1 car and it starts to skid, I'll probably crash because I won't react until it starts to skid. Whereas if Sebastien Vettel is driving the car, he will react earlier, to more subtle cues, and will correct the problem behaviour - before it actually becomes a problem.

He will be using his experience and instincts, not to react faster, but to continuously "feel the car", and so negate any need to actually take drastic action to fix the problem, by nipping the problems in the bud.

So what differentiates me from Sebastien Vettel is not some mystical superhuman reaction time, it's reading the signs and being continuously connected with his car, with the road, and with the other conditions. Combine this developed awareness, with the deveoped knowledge about how to correct problems effectively, and you may get a champion.

Some examples

The above is a fun video with Jeremy Clarkson, where he beats Michael Schumacher at slapsies...

(Although, that said, it's worth noting that reaction time is based partly on muscle memory due to the way synapses work. So Jeremy wins at slapsies because Schumacher presuambly doesn't devote a lot of time to playing them. If you got them both to do a reaction test based on racing driving, Schumacher would win.)

Here's a couple of other examples, in other disciplines:

  • The classic martial arts example is dodging a sword attack. A beginner will (quite rightly) leap back out of the way. A master will move just enough so that his jacket is cut but not his skin; this minimum movement allows maximum response.
  • Similarly, these factors help tennis players return a serve - there's an excellent article on this area here: Reading the game.

But the main point is, general "reaction time" is not really decisive.

(Can you see where I'm going with this?)

My Spider Sense Is Tingling

Let's really hammer this home by taking the most extreme "reaction time" example - spider-sense.

Spiderman has a spider sense; it allows him to react to danger. One explanation I've heard for this sense is that it's basically "heightened awarenesss" - he picks up cues from his environment, continuously, that allow him to react to danger so quickly that it looks like he anticipates it; it verges on precognition.

Let's face it, Spidey could never dodge automatic gunfire based on "fast reactions" - even if his reaction time were effectively zero, it's only giving him a 0.2 second advantage over a normal human being.

OK, it's a silly example, but again this explanation is arguably simply an extension of what some champion athletes and masters in other disciplines can achieve, with training and ability - reading the environment, being connected with things around you.

(Another phrase that expresses this benefit is "making it all look easy".)

(Have you got it yet?)

And so to Tango

Right, so, that somewhat-lengthy preamble out of the way, let's have a look at a couple of ways in which this translates to Tango.

If you watch truly gifted milongueros, dancing socially, the thing that usually strikes you is the old classic "they make it look easy". They seem to have a talent to create smooth, continuous, relaxed movements, always in total control. It almost seems like they're creating time out of thin air, where other dancers look flustered or rushed.

Again - and I'm hammering the point home here - this is not because they have superhuman reaction speeds. A lot of the time, these are unfit octagenarians we're talking about, they're not likely to win at slapsies. But they can achieve this, because they are connected; with their bodies, with their partners, with the music, with the other couples, with the floor - basically with everything around them.

This allows them to react sooner in a relevant chain of events; the milonguero will read hundreds of visual, audio and tactile cues. His experience and talent will allow him to recognize these cues, and react to that information sooner than others would. He simply gets more information about his circumstances, and can react more appropriately, due to a combination of his experience and his natural ability (in the way that some people are just naturally better at driving racing cars than others without knowing why).

Example: leading an ocho

When we lead an ocho, given enough experience, we should know what should happen when it's done correctly. We also develop, over time and with work, the ability to recognise when this isn't happening correctly. The more experience we get, the earlier we can recognise this, and the more techniques we will develop to correct it.

So if I'm an experienced leader, and my partner starts to go off-axis with a pivot, I will pick up the cues early, and correct this - for example, by automatic adjustment of posture - before it becomes a serious problem.

So what does this mean?

It means that these skills, by and large, can be learned. In fact, if you dance enough, there's a good chance that you'll pick them up anyway. This is why dancing with a lot of different people - and yes, dancing with beginners - can help leaders; it hones precisely this "pick up problems early and fix them soon" ability.

It also means that - probably - you won't be able to pick up these talents from classes; they need to be trained in through lots of dancing.

So if you go to enough milongas, you'll leave with the ability to tap more information, consciously and subconsciously about your situation which will enable you to act to events sooner, not faster.

And in time, you'll find you have a spider-sense of your own :)

~ David Bailey, 1st December 2010

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