When martial artists refer to “timing”, they are usually discussing anticipatory skills. Anticipation is the ability to predict outcomes of an action (largely external, for our purposes), plan an appropriate response, and initiate it with the correct timing relative to the external action. Numerous studies have shown that superior anticipation timing is indeed what sets expert practitioners apart from novice practitioners in a given activity. The person who can successfully anticipate the outcome of an opponent’s actions before they are completed, and then formulate and initiate a plan of their own response with the appropriate timing will be able to effectively counter an attack. But the important distinction in quoting this information is the context in which it is applicable. Two people facing each other for a match or duel-type fight have the following advantages:
a) Knowing full well when that fight will kick off
b) Knowing the range, size and intent of their opponent
c) Having made a decision to fight
d) Having some control over the environment in which the fight happens
As we can see, people in a duel-type fight have time to prepare for the coming fight, whether that’s seconds or weeks. Since a fight is imminent, they are psychologically and physiologically primed for the activity. When one person throws a punch at another from a body length away, the target has time to perceive the action, anticipate outcomes, and respond with the most appropriate response that they can muster. This is an ideal environment for timing/anticipation skills to come into play. And whether they can recognize it or not, the majority or martial artists who place prime value in timing skills are training for conditions that have more to do with competition, not the non-ideal conditions that will likely accompany a self-defense situation. Recognizing this makes it obvious that training methods and priorities need to be appropriate to the goal.
Contrasted to competition or dueling, self defense situations involve a victim reacting to an attack that was not obvious or expected. If there is no time to orient to the attacker and perceive incoming attacks in a self defense situation, anticipation timing cannot come into play. The attacker has the advantage of having initiated the attack before you knew it was coming. So there was likely nothing to anticipate, which means that you didn’t have the ability to plan and correctly time an appropriate response. And if the attack continues, your ability to correctly anticipate and respond will be dramatically reduced by being mentally and physiologically several steps behind the attacker. In this case, recognizing that the attack is happening and acting to minimize the resultant damage is more useful than trying to use practiced techniques which depend upon preparation, space and time to apply successfully. If you train primarily in a competition-inspired format (reliance upon anticipation) then you may have good success in conditions that are closely related. But this does not predict success in responding to attacks which negate the conditions for which you have trained to anticipate and respond.
Timing is important, but it’s not everything. Be honest about the times and places in which anticipation is a valuable skill, and the times and places where it cannot effectively operate. If techniques rely upon anticipation to be successfully applied, their utility decreases as the ability to anticipate decreases.