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Concentration in the martial arts is paying attention to the opponent while being aware of your surroundings. It involves concentrating on the situation at hand, but not to the point that you lose touch with what is happening around you.

How to concentrate

In a stressful confrontation, the tendency is to concentrate on the situation to the point that you exclude everything else in the environment. You sense the opponent's breathing and the timing of his or her breaths. You sense the opponent's movements and your relationship to the movements. You react from instinct and may later not remember what you did. This pure concentration may help you handle the fight at hand, but it may hinder you in your defense against other possible attackers since you are not aware of their presence.

Nowadays, we are conditioned to remain attentive while being distracted. We learn to concentrate on paying the bills while the television is playing, people are talking, kids are playing, and neighbors are yelling. We drive a car while listening to music, talking on the cell phone, and thinking about a work problem. However, this type of behavior must be learned. A novice driver cannot do all these things at once and drive safely, but with training, one may develop the skills required.

Many centuries ago, Zen master Ikkyu wrote that the highest wisdom was "Attention, attention, attention." When asked to explain, Ikkyu replied, "Attention means attention.” Attention is an attitude and a way of being rather than a method or goal. It is the ability to focus on the task at hand and to the nuisances in the environment. Krishnamurti wrote in Listening To The Silence:
"If you listen both to the sound of the bell and to the silence between its strokes, the whole of that listening is attention. Similarly, when someone is speaking, attention is the giving of your mind not only to the words but also to the silence between the words."
Martial arts training helps us become aware of our surroundings while concentrating on a specific task. In pattern training, you concentrate on the techniques and reject everything occurring around you that does not pertain to your performance of the pattern. While sparring, you are concentrating on your opponent, but you are aware of other students sparring around you, the location of obstacles, and the instructions of the referee. You are attentive but not judgmental. You accept and react to whatever is or is not without presumption. You are unconsciously aware of your environment until it changes in some significant way.

As we enter a martial arts school, we change into a combat uniform, adopt a warrior attitude, and separate ourselves from our daily lives, freeing ourselves to concentrate on the task at hand. Flora Courtois wrote in The Door to Infinity that once we quiet down, there is "no need to look for vast, cosmic fireworks or for a great, big impressive way to enlightenment if we enlighten each moment with attention."

This attention and concentration on training does not produce fatigue; rather, it is refreshing and invigorating. It permits us to release the stress of the day and to be one with our body. This ability to reject stress and concentrate on the task at hand then carries over into our daily lives when we leave the school.

Attention to detail is the essence of concentration. When you are seeking perfection, practicing a pattern over and over is not boring. Christopher Fremantle once wrote, "Boredom is simply a lack of attention." Concentration is not thinking of the one thing just completed or the one thing to come but paying close attention to the one thing being performed. The past is past and the future will come, and we prepare for it by paying attention to the present.

Change blindness

Research at the University College London, published in the September 2005 issue of Cerebral Cortex, has shown that we often do not notice major changes in our surroundings when we concentrate on one thing because it can push our processing capacity to its limits, a phenomenon called “change blindness.”

The brain’s parietal cortex, located just above and behind the right ear, is the area responsible for concentration. The problem is that this is also the area used to detect changes. Concentrating on one object, such as an opponents' face, hands, or feet, may cause you to miss a secondary attack. This is why people concentrating on a cell phone conversation while driving may miss seeing a red traffic light. This when a person fails to notice large changes in his or her visual field while concentrating on small changes within the visual field.

Magicians rely upon this effect in their slight-of-hand tricks. If a magician can get a person to concentrate on one thing, such has his right hand, then that, along with the magician's constant patter, will overload the person’s processing capacity and they won’t be able to pay attention to new things. At this point, subtle movements by the magician’s left hand will go unnoticed.

This phenomenon is also useful to martial artists. When sparring an opponent, you should not concentrate on any one area. When you concentrate on one area, it takes time for you to switch focus back to general awareness. During this time, an opponent's strike from another area will not be noticed. It is better to look beyond and through the opponent, so the opponent is out of focus. The you will be able to notice any of the opponent’s subtle movements that may alert you to an attack. You may also use this phenomenon against an opponent. If you can get your opponent to concentrate on one thing, such a persistent and annoying jab to the face, then a kick to the opponent's midsection may go unnoticed.

  • Weil, A. J. (2002). Karate and the Art of Paying Attention. [Online]. Available: [2003, October 23].

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