Look Them Straight In The Eye . . . . . Or Should You?

Every now and then the question comes up, where do you look when you have to square up to somebody, be it for a real fight or just for sparring.  The common answer that comes back is, “look em straight in the eye”!

But is this always the right thing to do?  Let me draw an analogy.  When you learn to drive (or cycle if you’re younger), what are told to look at.  You’re told to keep your eyes on the road.  The road is quite big and can take up practically the entire range of your vision.  You’re not told to focus on the car in front, or focus on the street signs, or focus on your mirror, or focus on the pedestrians on the side, or focus on vehicles coming from the other direction or focus on any vehicle overtaking you.  You are expected to be aware of  ALL OF THEM, all at the same time.

What’s that got to do with martial arts?

I’m glad you asked me that.

If when driving, if you focused one thing, you would miss the other things.  So it is with sparring or fighting.  Many a car accident has happened because a young lad sees a shapely young lady and focuses on her to exclusion of all else.  He then fails to notice what is right in front of him.

Many a young fighter has been punched in the head because he/she knows that their opponent is a good kicker and was watching their feet (or kicked whilst watching their opponents hands).

So what’s the answer?

Going back to the driving analogy, when we drive we learn to relax our eyes.  The pupils of our eyes dilate and become bigger, so that we can take in more information.  The price we pay for taking in the more information is a tiny loss of clarity, but anybody with reasonable eyesight will have ample clarity for the job of driving.  This allows us to be aware of the road, oncoming traffic, traffic in front of us and pedestrians at the same time.  This awareness allows us to detect and react the instance something happens, like a pedestrian stepping out or a car breaking hard in front of us.  Obviously we instantly focus on the problem, but by doing so we lose some clarity of the other potential hazards around us.  This is usually OK when driving, because we seldom have more than one real hazard at a time, and having spotted the first, we are already taking action (usually braking).

However, when we are fighting (or even sparring) we can have multiple and continuous hazards coming at us all the time in the form of multiple punches, kicks, headbutts, elbows, knees, etc; which can come at from different level and directions.  It could even multiple opponents.

So when fighting/sparring we have to try to maintain the relaxed dilated pupils so that we can keep track of these multiple hazards.  I have sometimes sparred with lower grades, where I have just sparred defensively in order to help them build up their confidence in attacking.  They are sometime frustrated and bemused that I can block/parry multiple attacks coming in at different levels and directions.  I’m not trying to say that I’m brilliant, but the point is that when you get used to relaxing and dilating your pupils you can keeps track of multiple attacks be they kicks, punches or combinations of both.  The split second you focus only on that kick coming in, is the split second that you get punched.

Going back to the driving analogy, if you have to squeeze between say a parked car and an oncoming lorry, would a driving instructor tell you focus on the lorry?  Would he tell you to focus on the parked car?
No!  He would tell you to focus on the road in the direction you want to go in.

Why?  Because when we focus on either the lorry or the parked car, we tend to drive towards them instead of where we want to go.  Notice however, even if you keep your eyes on the road and drive straight ahead, you are still very very aware of that big lorry right next to you (even though you don’t look right at it).  When fighting/sparring we don’t want to focus on blocking/evading/parrying all the time as we can never win like that.  We can only win by hitting the other guy (or throwing/locking etc, but you get the point).

By focusing on the attacking limbs you are drawn to them (like focusing on the lorry will make you tend to drive towards it).  By keeping your attention on the whole of the attacker, you will spot the openings that will allow you to counter attack, (like keeping your eye on the road will allow you to steer clear of the obstacles).

From the self protection point of view, it also allows you to be more aware of a possible second assailant.

Now with many people being into reality based martial arts and studying the psychology of fighting and the effects of adrenalin, I’m sure that some of you are already thinking, “yes Charlie, but when you have an adrenalin dump you get tunnel vision”.

This is true.  However, tunnel vision is a possible effect of an adrenalin dump and not a guaranteed effect.  Also, part of your training should deal with the effects of adrenalin so that you get used to it and the negative effects of adrenalin are minimised with constant training.  Also, if you train your eyes in this manner under pressure, then you’ll be able to do it under pressure.  Just keep it in mind when you are doing any partner work at all.

So does that mean that we never make eye contact at all?  Well in may well be necessary at some stage, particularly in the pre-fight build up stage.  Very generally speaking, there are 2 main tactics used by reality based training when dealing with the pre-fight build up:

1.   Match their aggression with equally assertive behaviour so as to get them to back down (often used by FAST Defence).
2.  Act mildly so as to lull them into a false sense of security and hit them with a pre-emptive strike.

If you are matching their behaviour with equal assertiveness, then you will want to meet their gaze and stare them in the eye.  However, as soon as it is clear that it’s about to go physical then you relax and dilate your pupils to take in all of their weapons (even if its only hand and feet).

If however, you are trying to lull them into a false sense of security so as to use a pre-emptive strike, then you don’t need to stare them in the eye as this will be seen as a challenge and alert them to be more cautious of you.

There is no point in having fantastic blocks, evasions and parries, if you are not aware of the attack coming at you.  Although this is not often taught, it is a very necessary and vital skill.  Fortunately as people learn to relax their bodies in training, so they usually learn to relax their eyes and very often over time start doing this naturally.  But it must be practiced under pressure so that you don’t lose it due to the effects of adrenalin when you need it most.

Of the subject slightly, it is also a very good metaphor for dealing with any of life’s problems, be it family, business, relationships, whatever.  One of the most terrifying things that can happen to a person is a physical assault.  If you learn to relax enough to keep sight of all the weapons that your attacker will throw at you; then with everyday life problems you should be able to do the same.  Don’t look too closely and focus on just one detail of the problem.  Stand back and take in the whole picture so that you are able to react to any circumstance which may arise from this particular problem.

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