When going into a longsword bind, or getting hit as part of a Kata, I tend to flinch visibly and shut my eyes.

What are some exercises I can do, solo or with a partner, to help me keep my eyes open?

  • 1
    I do not believe that flinching is a bad thing. It is just a natural reflex (which is healthy). Getting rid of your flinch lowers your reflexes, which can be problematic. Trust me.
    – LemmyX
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 21:52
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    I found I simply flinch less after sparring (boxing) for a while. Took maybe 6 wks (6 sessions). I do flinch more after I get mentally tired though Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 17:49
  • I love full contact fencing with blunt blades, but my main critique is that it takes away the flinch factor. There is nothing that focuses the attention quite like a naked blade close to your naked face, even where not sharp. It's a good bet that fencers who have also fenced without protective gear are much more likely to survive a real world engagement. That fear of death, disfigurement, or maiming is essential because that is specifically what swords are designed to do. If you don't feel that edge, and you don't spar like you're fighting for your life, that's when you need to worry.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 0:43

12 Answers 12


The flinch reaction is a nervous system reaction to a stimulus in order to protect a portion of the body inherently felt to be at risk. When your nervous system is repeatedly overridden (for example, when we repeatedly stretch past the point of basic resistance) the body relaxes and the signal to fire that reflex is no longer sent under that stimulus.

Therefore, the simplest way (and I say simple meaning "basic", not "easy") is to repeatedly expose yourself to the stimulus and consciously resist the urge to flinch. Performing waza (techniques) at a slow pace and building up speed can allow you an opportunity to convince yourself consciously that you can avoid that flinch response, and that you are in fact protecting that portion of your body (usually the eyes) that is felt to need protection. Ultimately, however, you need two things to happen:

  1. To realize that the threat is not as significant as perceived (being hit in the face sucks, but isn't usually as bad as we make it out in our imaginations). We can do this by actually getting hit to accelerate the process.
  2. To control the reaction that we have to the stimulus. Visualization and experience can help a lot with this, as both are a method of sending neural impulses to the region of your body needing to act.

Flinches are not, by and large, a bad thing. The response is, in fact, quite healthy. It can, however, be controlled, and this is the far better use – redirect rather than inhibit natural responses.

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    Great answer! Repeated exposure to the stimulus should desensitize the natural reaction.
    – Swift
    Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 21:18
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    I can just feel the gloves hitting my face my first month of boxing. Repeated exposure isn't fun but it gets results!
    – user66
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 12:46
  • +1 for repeated exposure and "redirect rather than inhibit natural responses".
    – Nick
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 13:42
  • That's what I came here to say. Well played. Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 22:57
  • I was just going to say : get punched more, but yours is a very eloquent answer! Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 8:41

stslavik has the right idea. You need to dampen your current reaction so you can substitute another.

Martial Arts hoodoo talk:

You flinch because your mind gets caught on the idea of being hurt. If you can still your mind, your reactions will become more in line with your intent.

For me the thing that's helped most is visualization. As stslavik says, you need to repeatedly expose yourself to the stimulus in order to change it. Fortunately you can avoid actually getting hit, because visualization actually fires the same neurons that would fire in the real situation!

So find a "natural" (comfortable, easy to concentrate, etc) spot and visualize getting hit or getting into a bind. During the visualization, really concentrate on the idea of keeping your eyes open and staying focused. You may even feel an impulse to close your eyes or half-flinch while you're going through the flow in your head. Notice it, address it, and change it.

  • I like the "shadow boxing" idea. I will give that a try.
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 5:20
  • The insight is sound though I'm not so sure about the drill. +1 anyways. Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 16:49

As @stslavik already gave an excellent answer, I'll just throw in an anecdote.

Not long after I started Judo, one of the more senior members of the club decided that he needed to cure my flinch that I had developed over being thrown. That evening he took me to the end of the mat and if my memory doesn't fail me, threw me solidly for at least half an hour. By the end of that time, I was tired and had completely given up fighting being thrown. That was the beginning of the end of my flinch.

Just goes to show that you can "train in" or "train out" muscle memory.

  • Im fairly certain i've been "trained" to flinch as well, from a night job and a bored boss and a couple years. I think its sounding like I just need to get someone to do the same thing to me as they did with you.
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 5, 2012 at 16:52

Following up from @stslavik answer:

Flinches are good. A controlled but instant reaction to a threat developed through muscle memory,

Flailing is bad. An uncontrolled reaction to a threat that will likely get you hurt.

Obviously, closing your eyes is "A Bad Thing", and that comes from you not trusting your blocking or your footwork (say, from a standard tsuki punch to the head) from stopping or missing the fist. This is quite natural!

With the aid of a good training partner, they can drill and repeat the punch to you while you practice and improve your (in this order):

  1. Footwork (feet first)
  2. Timing (later the better)
  3. Angles and distancing (closer is better)
  4. The block (deflect, absorb, stun or whatever your style enjoys)

Your partner needs to try to hit you! No flouncing about with punches that are 6 inches short of your nose (that's called dancing!) But, with practice, you'll start to internalise the movement so it becomes less of a shock and more controlled until you get to that "controlled twitch" state.

With a bit of luck, you will get hit a few times, but it will be a graze and you'll laugh it off.


This happens as a natural reaction but you can train to 'disable' this reflex.


  • stand without defending while a colleague performs strikes(straight punches for instance) very close to your face and focus on not blinking.

  • with large(boxing or kickboxing gloves) cover up when receiving punches and keep your eyes on your opponent through between your arms/gloves, don't flinch when hit.

  • sparring with light contact to the face will remove some or all of the subconscious fear in time as you get used to getting hit sometimes.


Flinches are caused by fear and fear is caused by:

  • bad technique. Your defence is lacking and you instinctively realise that.
  • lack of strength. The attack is too strong for you to parry
  • surprise. Your timing/position is bad.

The first one applies much more often than you'd think.

The second and third apply when you're training with opponents that are too novices to actually control their rhythm and strength in order to help you learn.

I find that cyclic exercises may help much. If you're practising a sword for example it could be something like that:

  • up-to-down vertical cut, the opponent parries. Then he attack up-to-down in the same way and you parry. And so on.
  • opponent does tsuki, and you swordbind and deflect. then you do tsuki and he deflects.

Those are just examples you can adapt to your art of choice. Keep in mind:

  • plan your exercises to include the most minimal movements available. The time between your attack and his next attack should be minimum number-of-movements wise.
  • the strength should be minimum. And should not increase with experience. Resist the temptation to do it with strength.
  • the speed should be slow but should increase pretty soon. It may eventually go up to a point when you're not knowing what you're doing, but just doing it.
  • you should get the strong sensation of not relying on your eyes that much any more rather than on the sensation you get from the clashes of the weapons.

Example of how it should feel (empty handed): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcwccwO57UQ (jump to the middle of the video)

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    I just have to say that flinches are an automatic behaviour of the body's nervous system. They are absolutely not based on fear. Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 23:08
  • @SimonPeterChappell - Though flinches can be an automatic behaviour of the nervous system (the lizard brain response), they can also be based on fear (the monkey brain response).
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 23:26
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    The Duke says that bravery is being afraid and saddling up anyway. I'm sticking with a flinch being an automatic reaction to physical stimulus. These reactions can, with dedicated effort, be trained out or trained in, so that tends to discount the fear stimulus. Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 15:56
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    @SimonPeterChappell Flinches come from fear. Fear is fundamentally the instinct to avoid danger and we're biologically wired to avoid pain. Bad technique, lack of strength, and surprise all fall out from avoidance. Commented Feb 4, 2012 at 16:51
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    Like @Ho-ShengHsiao said flinching is a fear reaction from stimulus, but it's the brain and nervous system that does the reaction. So Simon is partially correct. WebMD has a decent article on it: men.webmd.com/news/20040820/what-makes-you-flinch
    – Swift
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 21:50

I've done some studying with Tony Blauer and I'm also a Personal Defense Readiness coach in his program. We use Emotional Climate Training to do what you describe. In this case it i more of converting the natural flinch response to a tactical response.

Adding some information on Emotional Climate Training (too long for a comment).

Okay, Emotional Climate Training (ECT) is a six stage drill used to help convert the startle/flinch response into a tactical response. Drills are done at a safe speed and under control. The various stages are designed to wean the initial startle flinch, progressing to identifying pre-contact attack cues, identifying safe/unsafe moments during the attack, and finally taking the trainee through the primal SPEAR tactic (think cover and protect yourself), the protective SPEAR (pushing away danger), and finally the tactical SPEAR (launching at the initial stage of the attack to intercept and counter the attacker. Hope this gives a little more detail about ECT. It is a lengthly process but you can use it in any attack scenario (haymaker punches, tackles, kicks, etc,).

  • I am afraid that this reads like a lot of clever sounding jargon and buzz words. You give no description of what you do. For example: what does "protective SPEAR" means? Why the need for capitalised letters? In additions, a single method which can be used "in any attack scenario" is wishful thinking. Can you narrow it down a little? Would it protect against a fire arms ambush? Commented Aug 12, 2013 at 6:44
  • SPEAR: Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response. Protective SPEAR is the act when you are attempting to push danger away from you, which tends to be a natural response. I will modify and not say any attack, you can't do an ECT drill against a sniper with a long range scope and high powered rifle, but talking physical attacks. Commented Aug 12, 2013 at 19:00

The best thing i recommend is standard boxing sparring (with someone much better than you). Once you have been hit in the face enough times, you can keep your eyes open. You will only flinch when you have no experience. If you have racked up significant spar time you can dodge rather than flinch.


Go slower and lighter, at a pace when you're not flinching. That might mean tai ji quan speed. Then over the course of a few weeks, you'll get used to more and more speed and power.


Repetition will help reduce the reflex of flinching. Another tip is that I used to train with a bunch of Indonesians in 'Silat' and their advise was a drill they usually do to avoid flinching.

Basically they would stand waist deep in water, whether a pool or the sea, and started to punch or hammer fist the surface of the water. They try their best to keep their eyes open when the water splashes on their face. My eyes were sore due to the salt water but i swear these guys doenst even flinch when getting punch in the face.

I practice this whenever i can.


There is no way that you can override the Flinch or Spinal Reflex, it is activated by the fact that your System is surprised, training the same situation until you are no longer surprised by it is not the same as controlling your Spinal Reflex action, you quite simply knew what was coming so it did not surprise you. All these threads that talk of controlling the spinal Reflex Arc make the same mistake, and this could lead to a dreadful beating if you think it will work in a situation that once again surprises you.

I have been in the M.A. for over 50 years and have heard all this before, trust me your training will have no effect on something your Conscious Brain does not register. And before any one goes off at me about using your Sub - Conscious Brain if you do activate an action Sub-Consciously it is no longer you in Control, still not your training method just a Spinal Reflex in itself.


In my experience, with straight swords, you have to train those "flinches" to become effective parries because it's such a fast weapon, even longswords. The instinct to flinch is correct, but if you can't channel it into an effective parry, an experienced fencer will exploit the reaction and take you apart.

Fearing the blade is rational because swords are insanely dangerous when wielded correctly, but you need to channel that fear into productive response.

This only comes with the reps. But, when it comes, it becomes natural.

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