If you have seen The Karate Kid (the original movie), you will undoubtedly remember the wise old karate sensei, Mr. Miyagi telling his student Daniel-san to “Look eye! Always look eye!”
Well, not necessarily. At least not in martial arts.
In fact, in Japanese culture, excessive eye contact is considered rude. And being rude to people, regardless of culture, is probably not the smartest thing to do if you are trying to avoid getting into fights.
So where exactly should you focus your eye contact in a violent combative encounter? And are the eyes reliable?
Effects of Adrenaline and Stress on the Eyes and Vision
When you are faced with violence, your body goes into freeze, flight, or fight mode. Adrenaline is dumped into your bloodstream to give you extra energy to survive the situation.
Adrenaline causes several different effects on your body systems. For the sake of this post, we’ll only focus on how it affects your eyes and vision.
- Pupil Dilation: Your pupils tend to dilate in order to allow more light to enter and create a brighter picture of the threat. This allows your brain to receive more info about the threat to improve your chances of survival.
- Tunnel Vision: You lose your peripheral vision and retain your central vision. This can be dangerous because while your central vision is focused on the primary threat, you may not see secondary threats, weapons of opportunity, or possible escape routes. Some people even experience increased visual clarity in their central vision.
- Loss of Depth Perception and Near Vision: Under extreme stress, threats may appear closer than they actually are due to loss of depth perception. Also, things that are nearby may become more difficult to see clearly.
It’s important to know that these effects typically happen when your heart rate reaches about 175 beats per minute while under the influence of adrenaline. You won’t have the same effects by raising your heartbeat through exercise alone. Without an actual threat, real fear or stress won’t bring the same adrenal effect.
Because of the above factors, it’s important to learn specific training methods that will lessen the effects of adrenaline and stress to your body systems. You can also decrease these negative effects by maintaining a healthy body; especially your cardiovascular system.
Levels of Training
Where you direct your eyes also depends on what level you are at in your training.
- Beginning Level: When you first learn a new technique or movement, there is a tendency to look directly at the body parts associated with the application of the technique. For example, when learning a wristlock, there is an unconscious habit to look at the hand the wristlock is being applied to and forgetting about the possible threat of the opponent’s free hand. This act of looking can also cause subtle shifts in body posture and mental focus that can cause a technique to fail.
- Intermediate Level: Once the mechanics of a technique are learned, you should focus your vision on the overall opponent. Specifically, you should look at the opponent’s shoulders. Punches and hand attacks are often too fast to try to watch with your eyes. His shoulders can give you movement indicators to help you more quickly detect what kind of attacks he is throwing.
- Advanced Level: If you are familiar with the Bujinkan, you’ve probably noticed that Hatsumi-soke rarely looks directly at his opponent. There are several reasons for this. The most basic reasons are that he’s scanning for multiple attackers, weapons of opportunity, or environmental factors such as obstacles and escape routes. There are deeper reasons that we’ll look at in a moment.
Special Situations to Consider
The adrenaline/stress factors and basic ideas of where to center your visual focus are all based on the idea that you’ll actually be able to use your eyes to gather information about your opponent and tactical situation – even if your vision is somewhat impaired. What about situations where your eyes and vision are even more compromised?
- Environmental Factors: We’ve already looked at the idea of scanning for multiple attackers, weapons of opportunity, obstacles and escape routes.
- Rear Attack: Your eyes will be of little use if your opponent attacks you from behind with a bear hug or gets behind you while in a grappling situation.
- Temporary Blindness: What if the sun is in your eyes or your night vision is compromised in a low light/nighttime scenario? What if sand or even sweat gets in your eyes? If you wear glasses, you could lose them in the heat of conflict. If you are punched in the nose, it’s likely that your eyes will tear up and blur your vision.
Psychological and Spiritual Factors
So what about those deeper reasons on why you should train up to the level of not looking directly at your opponent? These are for psychological and spiritual factors. You can’t rely solely on physical attributes if you’re physically compromised (sun or sand in your eyes) or if your opponent is stronger, faster, and tougher than you. You’ll have to find an advantage on the psychological and spiritual levels.
- Opponent’s Fighting Spirit is too Strong: They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. If your opponent’s fighting spirit is stronger than yours, then you could be frozen by it through looking into his eyes. The next time you are training, and your partner is a little overwhelming, try not looking directly at him. Go slow and be careful.
- Your Spirit is Stronger than the Opponent’s Spirit: On the other hand, if your spirit is stronger than his, you could look into his eyes to dominate his spirit and psyche. This is very important in a self defense situation before physical action takes place. By looking directly at your opponent, you send a subtle signal to him that you refuse to be a victim. This alone can often end an attack before it begins.
- Direct your Intention: Another reason to not look directly at your opponent is to conceal your intentions. This way your opponent has less information to read what you may try to do. Conversely, you could look and position your physical posture to send a false signal of intent to the opponent. Professional fighters often look low (opponent thinks a low kick is coming) but actually kick high to catch their opponent off guard.
- Use your Intuition: Seeing is not always believing. You probably remember Luke Skywalker training blind with Obi-wan Kenobi. “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” You have to learn to trust your intuition as well as train all five of the physical senses to take in information about possible threats.
I know you are familiar with what is commonly referred to as a “sucker punch.” An extremely practical way for you to use your eyes is to know what to look for before a physical attack begins. We’ll go into more detail on this in another post, but here are a couple of simple things to look for.
- Emotional State: Is your potential opponent agitated? Have you seen him previously exhibiting aggressive behavior? Is he under the influence of alcohol or drugs? Is his speech aggressive, hateful, or threatening? These could be indicators of an impending attack.
- Hand Placement: A common phrase among law enforcement circles is, “The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but the hands will kill you.” Watch the person’s hands! That’s worth saying a second time. Watch the person’s hands! If you can’t see his hands, then assume that he may be hiding a weapon of some kind. This is why police officers command suspects to show their hands.
Often there is a pretext to an attack. You can go to YouTube and research videos of police patrol car dashboard cameras and CCTV security footage and study the indicators preceding a sudden attack.
Jishin Kappo is the skill of seeing/reading your opponent’s spirit. Does your opponent have a strong spirit or a weak spirit? This skill only develops with training, practice, and experience.
One way you can practice this skill is to try reading people’s emotional states. Perhaps you’ve walked into a room and things just felt tense and awkward. Then later you found out that some of the people in that room were in a heated argument just before you entered. Learn to listen to that. Learn to cultivate that skill. Try to sense if someone is happy, mad, sad, excited, bored, being sincere or hiding something.
So what is the moral of the story here?
The moral is to use your eyes and vision, but avoid becoming dependent on them. You have to learn to perceive rather than just see. Perceive with your entire being. Physically, psychologically, and spiritually. And the secret to doing that is training.
Here are some ideas for your own training.
- Blindfolded Training: To adapt to the possibility of your vision being temporary impaired, try grappling blindfolded. Gradually add in some striking and training weapons. Start very slow and increase the difficulty as your skill improves.
- Scenario Training in Low Light Conditions: You can try scenario specific training in low light. These could simulate scenarios such as an intruder in your home at night or an angry drunk in a poorly lit bar. Think realistically and creatively to come up with your own scenarios to work through.
- Simulate Tunnel Vision: One good exercise to see how debilitating tunnel vision can be is to train slowly while wearing a Halloween mask. Get a mask that allows for clear central vision, but obscures your peripheral vision. If the mask covers your nose and mouth, be sure to cut out large openings to allow for labored breathing. When you are under stress, your heart rate and breath rate will certainly increase. Be sure that you can breathe freely.
You should only try these training exercises and drills under qualified supervision. Always have a third party not directly involved in the drill or scenario to act as a safety officer. You may not realize how hard you may be training with a partner when added stressors are in play. Your safety officer’s commands are final. If anyone thinks that safety is becoming an issue, they may stop the exercise.
What experiences have you had in training or in actual situations? How was your vision affected? What kind of drills have you come up with to facilitate your training in this area? Please let us know in the comments.