I'm interested in what exercises/training I can do to help with reaction time and timing for martial arts. Specifically, how can I improve parrying and countering a strike? I'm not looking for speed drills (speed is different than reaction time and timing). I need to be able to react based on some cue and then determine the on-coming strike speed so I can appropriately parry it and counter...any suggestions?
Anderson Silva, who is what one could conservatively call one of the most successful counter-punchers in modern mixed martial arts, includes two elements in his training that I would say are vital to that success:
- Copious sparring, focusing on technique and defense
- Dodging a racquetball thrown at his head
Other than footwork drills for agility, conditioning work to make sure you're fresh enough to present an intelligent defense, drilling boxing defense and head movement techniques, and power training to develop explosiveness, I would focus on these two methods (mostly the first) for improving one's martial arts reaction time.
Given that you seem to be very experienced in the field, i.e. know all the technical aspects of the situations back and forth, and assuming that you are fit, it might make sense to focus on meditation.
Over time, meditation can help you with of seeing the situation as it really is and that might be better for reaction speed and timing than basing the reaction pattern on a specific cue.
My own experience from playing basketball is that I was more likely to get into a "flow" state (i.e. where your opponents seems to be in slow motion) if I have had the possibility to meditate before the games.
Besides meditating before home games, I did it 15-20 minutes twice a day, just based on reading about it, not following any particular meditation school.
You can find a deep-level answer to your question by studying D.T. Suzuki's book Zen in Japanese Culture and he goes even deeper in his essay in Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (by Fromm, Suzuki, and De Martino). The picture is filled out by Eugen Herrigel in Zen in the Art of Archery. Thinking to ourselves in words gets in the way of responses that have been trained into us by long practice. We need to be able to put the conceptualizing part of our minds into the deep background when a crisis-reaction demand comes up. Zhuang Zi talks about the fully realized human with the same needs in mind
I'm not sure if there's much you can beyond practicing (Unlime others here I'm skeptical about meditation), but make sure to practice a lot.
- Practice slow, or in a speed that you can execute the technique 100% correctly (so you don't drill wrong movements), and increase speed from there. Make sure your partners understand this also.
- Conditioning - during sparring or other exercises, you don't want to be distracted by beeing exhausted, having aching muscle etc.