It’s important to understand the distinction between real speed and effective speed. As I’m using the terms, real speed is how fast something actually is moving, while effective speed is efficient. In fighting, it has a lot to do with perception of motion.
A lot of people put a great deal of emphasis on real speed, but it isn’t always an effective approach because the amount of effort put forth can result in excess motion or wasted energy. One can often see a similar result in drag racing, where the losing car is going faster at the end than the winner. That’s because the winner had a smooth launch, getting up to speed quickly, whereas the loser might have used too much power at the start, creating spectacular wheel spin but resulting in an ineffective run that could not make up the time lost before the finish line.
I spent ten years getting beat to the punch by my Kenpo teacher. Finally, one day in frustration I said “Someday I’ll be as fast as you.” He just looked at me and said “That’s not the problem; you’re already faster than me!” That’s when I started to realize why he was such an effective fighter, on the mat, in tournaments, on the street. He initiated his movement so smoothly, by the time you recognized what was coming, it was too late to react effectively.
Often when fighters try too hard to be fast or powerful, they telegraph their movement. If a smooth start covers a quarter of the distance before an opponent sees it coming, that is a huge advantage because speed has already built up and so perhaps half the response time is gone.
There are a few ways to minimize telegraphic movement. Being relaxed is one, though one can be relaxed and still telegraph by looping movement to generate momentum. This is still akin to the guy who pulls back his fist to throw a punch. Of course one can use this to disguise an attack using the principle of equal-and-opposite reaction to throw the other hand. Kenpo is famous for such combination attacks, but that doesn’t address the problem of telegraphing an individual strike.
Spring-loaded forward pressure is a way to initiate movement in a direct line, helping overcome this habit. This requires good grounding and a sense of internal power because there has to be a base from which to project that forward movement. Sometimes I visualize the catapaults on aircraft carriers, which use hydraulic pressure to help launch planes off the deck in extremely short distances.
Spring-loaded pressure is a good tactic for closer ranges, but at longer ranges that smooth direct start will work wonders. After winning the grand championship at a major tournament, my Kenpo teacher got a lot of phone calls from other schools, wanting him to teach their black belts how he exploded out of his low stances with either hand or foot. He turned them all down, saying there was nothing to teach except hard work and practice. What they saw as explosive was the powerful end of his technique, because he closed the gap so cleanly his opponents never saw him come off the line.