The old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees” refers to letting the clutter of life distract you from seeing the big picture. However, in combat, the saying should be “Can’t see the forest because of the tree.” If you watch a tree, you will not see the forest. If you concentrate on one soldier, you may not see the surrounding army.
Military pilots are aware of the “target fixation” phenomenon that occurs when concentrating on the target so much that you forget where you are. While in the Navy, I was stationed at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada where pilots practice bombing at bombing ranges located in valleys between mountain ranges. Sometimes pilots focused so much on the target that they flew straight into a mountain. When riding a motorcycle, you learn not to look at something you want to avoid. If you look at a rock in front of you, you will probably hit it. To protect yourself in combat and to be an effective fighter, you must learn to look not look at the opponent, but to look beyond the opponent.
Focus involves close attention or concentration upon one thing. Tell a fighter not to worry about an opponent’s jab and the fighter will concentrate either upon watching for the jab or upon trying to not watch for the jab. Either way, the fighter will be focused upon the jab and not upon the opponent’s other weapons. In some activities, such as bowling, golf, or target shooting, focus upon the target is essential; you want to ignore noises and other distractions. However, in combat, target fixation will get you killed; you must always be aware of your surroundings.
When perfecting patterns, you train to focus on your proprioception, your internal awareness of exactly how your body is positioned at each moment. This allows you to master the movements and use perfect form while executing techniques. However, when sparring, your focus must be external; it must encompass both the opponent and your immediate surroundings, including the ring boundaries, the location of the referee and judges, the elapsed time, and the score.
Focus also applies to adjusting the focal length of the eyes to make an image more distinct or clearer. When the eyes focus on one thing, other things within the field of vision are out of focus and not as distinct or clear, which causes the brain to concentrate upon the object that is in focus. When sparring, this may lead to fixation on one area of the opponent’s body, such as the feet, and cause the fighter not to see a hand attack or not react fast enough to a hand attack.
The eyes not only perceive colors and details, they also detect movement. The retina, located at the back of the eye, contains two types of receptors, cones and rods, which transform incoming light into the electro-chemical signals. The cones are more sensitive to color and detail, while the rods are more sensitive to light and movement. There is a higher concentration of cones near the center of the retina; therefore, there is clearer focus and more detail in the center of the field of vision. The surrounding retina consists mostly of rods that are more sensitive to movement. Fighters are more concerned with movement than they are with detail.
A fighter does not care about the color of a hand protector or what is written upon it; the fighter is only concerned about when the protector moves and in what direction it moves. Therefore, a fighter needs to use the lenses of the eyes to direct the incoming light from the pupils of the eyes over the entire retina rather than just at the center of the retina; this action is called divergent focus. It occurs when you look beyond the opponent, which causes the opponent to be slightly out of focus but any movement of the opponent may be detected over a greater area.
Movement is perceived by the eyes by two means. They detect movement when they detect changes in an object’s size as the object’s range changes. They also detect movement by occlusion, which is when an object blocks or occludes images in the field behind it as it moves across the field. By defocusing the eyes, the background field becomes more prominent, making objects moving in front of the field easier to track. Baseball fielders use this technique to catch fly balls. If their focus is on the ball, they only see a stationary ball against a moving background. If they defocus their eyes, they see the ball moving over a stationary background, which allows them to judge the trajectory and velocity ball and calculate where they must be to catch the ball.
When applied to sparring, looking beyond means you should slightly defocus your eyes and look through, not at, your opponent so that details will be blurry but movement is more noticeable. When you defocus, do not cross your eyes, just relax them. Look toward and beyond your opponent’s upper chest. You will then be able to detect any movement of the opponent’s body, including the eyes, whose movements may indicate the opponent’s intentions before an actual movement of the body occurs. When the opponent looks at your face, you will appear to be lost in thought or dazed, and not concentrating on the fight. However, in fact, you will be acutely aware of the opponent and everything around you.
Ocular dominance occurs when one eye dominates the other and focuses on an object while the other eye remains slightly unfocused. This is normal occurrence in all people. The disparity in focus is not noticed because the brain compensates for it and presents a clear image. By relaxing your eyes and allowing them to defocus, you decrease ocular dominance and your eyes are less likely to fixate upon a particular object.
Humans evolved for survival in the outdoors where the ability to see beyond the obvious helped keep them alive. However, for the last few centuries, we have spent most of our time indoors concentrating on specific objects, such as books, televisions, and computer screens, oblivious to our surroundings. We have developed a type of tunnel vision where we only see that which we are directly looking at. The best way to develop the ability to look beyond is to be outdoors as much as possible. Looking at vast expanses, helps keep us from focusing on individual objects. If you are jogging along a mountain trail, you have to look beyond that which is directly in front of you, and be aware of things such as an upcoming low hanging limb or a snake in the trail; looking beyond keeps you safer and makes you a better fighter.