The Flinch Reflex – 5 Tips for Making it Work!

by Fran on February 5, 2015

Flinch – Oxford English Dictionary Definition
Make a quick, nervous movement of the face or body as an instinctive reaction to fear or pain.

I remember a few years ago watching a documentary about an amazing man.  This man’s name was Harry Patch and he ended up being the oldest survivor of the horror of the trenches of the Great War.  Harry lived to the ripe old age of 111, obviously none the worse physically for his experiences.

As you would expect of a man like Harry, he had a host of evocative tales to tell.  In my capacity as a boxing coach there was one story in particular that really struck home, and it ties in to the flinch reflex.

In the years after The Great War, Harry observed that it was always straightforward to identify a veteran of the trenches.  When walking down the street, the all-to-regular event of a car backfiring caused your Average Joe to jump with fright – literally.  They would instantly become upright and rigid, scanning the immediate area for the source of their rude awakening.

In veterans though the sound drew a very different response.  A former soldier would instinctively duck to the ground with his arms cupped around his head.  This is easy to understand.  If in the trenches a soldier jumped every time he heard a loud bang then it would not be long before that soldier became the subject of a grim telegram home.

As well as all of the horrific memories that these amazing men had to endure in the years after, this response or ‘reflex’ was so ingrained that it was performed without thinking.  Instant, natural and entirely borne of the instinct of self-preservation.

This was the result of the soldier’s environment ‘training’ him over time (I’m guessing a fairly short time) to do the right thing in response to that particular stimulus.  In the environment of a boxing ring the very same mechanism is in play.

When a novice boxer is faced with an incoming punch (one that they see anyway), the natural reaction is to close their eyes, or turn their head away or even pull their head upwards – like those civilians of whom Harry spoke during the automobile malfunction.

These reactions to the threat of a punch to the head, whilst entirely understandable, are something that all boxers must curb at the earliest opportunity.  There are a number of ways to achieve this and in this article we are going to look in some detail at the flinch reflex and learn how we can make it work in the right way for you.

The Flinch Reflex and Boxing

Boxing is very much a business of reflexes.  This can be amply demonstrated when considering the man who many consider to be the greatest of them all – Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s ability to see punches coming and use his body and feet to avoid those punches was at times breath taking.  In his early days he was about as difficult to hit as it gets.  His whole style was dependent upon his reflexes.  Even as he grew older, he still relied greatly on his reflexes, choosing to block shots as much as evade them or pull his head away so that the ‘sting’ was taken out of any shot that struck home.

It was when Ali’s Doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, recognised a range of physical problems with Ali in 1977 that the two parted company – Pacheco urging Ali to retire, the Champ deciding otherwise.  Many would suggest that Ali’s reflexes were dimmed much earlier than 1977 but that’s another story.  It was the decline in Ali’s reflexes that troubled The Fight Doctor as much as the problems with his speech and liver and kidney functions.

Whilst we may not be blessed with the capabilities of The Greatest, we can and must take advantage of the flinch reflex, the importance of this cannot be overstated.  Developing that initial desire to close your eyes, turn away or crane your neck into something that is fundamentally useful is the first major step to becoming a seasoned fighter.  So, how exactly can we do this?

Tips to Manage Your Flinch Reflex

In order to successfully develop the flinch reflex into something helpful, there are two steps of conditioning to achieve:

  • Recognise the signs of an incoming punch
  • Control your response to that punch

Each of the tips identified below will help you deal with the flinch reflex and banish the potentially damaging consequences into something that will contribute massively to your overall fighting style.

#1 – Boxing Drills

Drills are quite simply the most important aspect of developing the appropriate responseDrills in boxing, as they are in any other sport or activity, are the systematic training of the body and mind by multiple repetitions.  Drills, when practised with discipline and regularity, enable automatic responses – autopilot if you will.

Drills are not about shutting your eyes, but about executing a perfectly timed block.  Drills are not about turning away but firing a head-jolting jab.  Drills are not about lifting your head in shock but executing a controlled push away so that you may ‘live to fight another day’.

So by practicing your drills in a disciplined way you will ensure that you have something genuinely useful to use as your controlled and instinctive response to threat.

#2 – Remain Compact

This is about erring on the side of caution.  If you have a loose and open guard then any threat of an incoming punch is likely to further expose an already porous defence.

Instead you can resolve to keep a tight and compact guard when in range of an opponent.  This does not mean that you tense-up and become rigid.  It means that you stick by the fundamentals of the boxing stance and guard.  Arms up, chin down into your chest, elbows into your sides.

You can go one better. For extra safety bring into play the double arm block at the same time.  Whilst you are not particularly using the your flinch reflex in your favour you are certainly increasing the likelihood of your flinch reflex simply tightening up your guard rather than creating the situation where your neck cranes, your eyes close, you turn your face away or towards the floor

#3 – Learn to use your peripheral vision

Some fighters constantly look into the eyes of the opponent and some fighters look at the centre of mass of the opponent (that is the chest area).  The fact is that given time and the right amount of exposure to different opponents you will recognise the tell tale signs of an attack, and you achieve this by using your peripheral vision.

Peripheral vision will enable you to see the foot movement that brings an opponent into range.  Peripheral vision will enable you to recognise a small flare of the elbow of the opponent before they throw a jab.  Peripheral vision will enable you to identify a small drop in the hand before an opponent may throw a right hand.

This is not an overnight thing.  It takes time and experience of being exposed to different boxers with different styles.  When you do ‘tune in’ to your peripheral vision it will make you a much smarter and more effective defensive boxer, and take your counterpunching capability up a notch or two as well.

#4 – Technical and Controlled Sparring

There are broadly speaking 3 types of sparring; technical sparring, controlled sparring and open sparring.  The first 2 types create an environment where a boxer can have a level of expectation as to what is coming their way.  But what does this mean?  Well, let’s take a specific scenario and it will become very clear.

You could set up a ‘spar’ with an opponent where Boxer A (your opponent) throws a jab and Boxer B (you) blocks that jab.  Do this repetitively.  The more you do it the more you will come to recognise the signs of the jab coming.  It’s a very simple and very effective way of nailing both the technique of the block and conditioning yourself to recognise the signs of the incoming jab.

#5 – Open Sparring

Whilst you are working drills, undertaking technical and controlled sparring, the final step on the journey ahead of any fight is to test yourself in open sparring.  Open sparring is basically a simulated contest, with full speed, full movement and the full range of punches.

Boxers learn by doing.  Open sparring is the ultimate way to really begin to hone your flinch reflex.  Whilst open spars can be tough, they certainly shouldn’t involve punching with the kind of venom and intent that are used in a full fight.

When mistakes are made in sparring they should absolutely not result in heavy punishment being received.  This means that new things can be tried and failure can enable genuine learning to take place.

A Final Word

Don’t, whatever you do, fall into the habit of waiting to see what the opponent does.  Of course this article is about focusing on the flinch reflex and how to master it but this should not be taken as an overall fight strategy!  It is really important that you ‘own’ the ring.

You put pressure on your opponent.  Let him or her worry about what you are doing.  Throw your punches, look to feint your opponent.  Take the initiative and be assertive.

You see to my mind boxing is a pressure business as well as a reflex business.  That means that if you are not punching you should be feinting, and if you aren’t feinting you should be punching.  So bear that in mind whilst developing your effective flinch reflex.



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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill April 22, 2015 at 4:40 am

I’m a new visitor to the site and found this page. thanks for the in-depth info on flinching, definitely food for thought. cheers


Fran April 23, 2015 at 7:47 pm

Cheers Bill, glad it helps


Tommy G February 9, 2015 at 5:49 am

Great article, thanks Fran. Here is something I’d like to add to the discussion. I’ve heard several people state that one of the benefits of using a speedbag in training is that you get used to a fast moving object coming towards your head (or even just being very close to your head) and therefore you can learn to control the flinch reflex.Other people have rubbished this notion. But to me there does seem at first glance anyway to be alot of logic in it. And I’m sure that the same thing would apply to the use of the double end bag. I know that when I started using the double end bag it used to smack me in the face quite alot but now that I have used it for a while it doesn’t manage to hit me anymore!

So any views Fran on the speedbag/double end bag and contolling the flinch reflex? Thanks.


Ivan February 8, 2015 at 11:16 am

Hello Fran,
You mean If you have to flinch, flinch the right way and in the right direction, flinch fast and accurately. Agreed.

As to sparring, there are degrees and phases a boxer has to go through and the most effective kind of sparring – the unrestricted real thing – is actually a luxury and sometimes the only way to get it is to compete. Being a contact sport, boxing does not allow total sparring too often for obvious reasons. It’s a an inherent setback to boxers as it deprives them of their ultimate training tool – it’s like telling a 100 meter sprinter he can only run full speed once a week.
This is the only reason I am still missing my wrestling stint (before amateur boxing) – you could go at it every day full throttle with anyone in the gym and you could have immediate rematches 5 minutes later. As a boxer I’ve had to wait for weeks before I can lay a glove on a specific irritant, and still I could not do it openly and honestly, with all the conditions, restriction and head-guards you had to go to the ribs if you wanted to send a message.


Fran February 7, 2015 at 8:53 pm


Thank you very much for posting a link to your article. I’ve had a quick scan and would indeed recommend others give it a read – I will be reading and digesting at length in due course. Thank you again Ralph, excellent additional learning for folks 🙂


Dave Waterman February 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Really liked your reference to Harry Patch, Fran. Albert ‘Smiler’ Marshall, who prior to his death in 2005, was the oldest surviving cavalryman from the Great War, lived near me. He told some pretty horrific tales of the trenches of the Western Front too.

With regard to the flinch reflex, there’s a no-bout young lad at our club who is great on the pads, got all the moves and some nice power, in a technical or conditioned sparring environment is OK, but in open sparring just goes to pieces so he avoids that (totally his choice of course).

I think there’s possibly some credence in a nervous boxer overcoming the flinch reflex by being exposed to punches in the face. Also discovering that 16oz gloves don’t sting too much and a good guard and riding the punches will take most debilitating effects out of a shot.


Fran February 7, 2015 at 8:41 pm

Hello Dave

Always difficult but all of us coaches have at least a couple of those kids in our care at any one time. You are obviously showing patience and that’s all we can do. Careful development through conditioned sparring that almost imperceptibly becomes open sparring. Maybe he’ll click, maybe he won’t, but guys like us invest the time anyway and are happy doing so! 🙂


Opspeculate February 5, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Great instruction as always Fran
Thanks Man !!!
Going to send you some media of my home gym growing over the last few years via you are my online coach.


Fran February 7, 2015 at 8:32 pm

🙂 – OK, look forward to it.


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