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Use vision


Your visual system represents 80 percent of your sensory perception. Good vision represents more than just having 20/20 sight; vision involves other things, such as the ability to track and focus at the same time. You need to see and track fast-moving objects, to see things and people in the corner of the eye (peripheral vision), and to filter out visual distractions. You also need depth perception and eye-hand coordination.

To improve sparring skills, most students train to improve techniques and increase physical fitness. It’s just as important to train your vision so you may detect movement quicker, see movement from your sides, track movement trajectory and speed more accurately, see other movements around you and determine if they are a threat, and coordinate your movements to counter any attack.

There are visual therapy programs to improve vision that cost hundreds of dollars, but there are some exercises you can do yourself that may improve your vision, and thus, your sparring. The following exercises are recommended by the American Optometric Association to improve vision.

Visual concentration

Visual concentration is the ability to screen out distractions and stay focused on your opponent. To improve your visual concentration, have other students stand around the sparring area while you are sparring and have them wave their arms and move in and out of your field of vision. You also can spar in a darkened room with a slowly pulsating strobe light but be careful, strobe lights are disorienting.


Eye-tracking helps you keep your balance and react quickly. You must be able to follow movement without much head movement. To improve your eye tracking, have two people stand about ten feet apart and toss a ball back and forth. Stand between them, centered and to the side, with a book balanced on your head, and follow the ball’s movement with your eyes without the book falling. You can also train by using your eyes to track a small ball rolling inside a Frisbee. Change the ball to a smaller size and/or faster rolling speed as you improve.


Visualization is seeing yourself do one thing well in your mind's "eye," while your eyes are seeing and concentrating on something else, such as a moving ball. Research as shown that picturing yourself performing well at something, such as sparring or performing a hyung, can improve your ability to perform things even though you are not actually performing them.

Where to look

When dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, we learn to look them in the eyes when talking with them. This shows we are paying attention and that we care. However, a hostile person may take eye contact as a challenge. Also, looking an opponent in the eyes keeps you from noticing any signals that he or she is about to attack, and the person may be scary and “psyche you out.”

A better place to look is at the "triangle;" the area enclosed an imaginary line that runs from shoulder to shoulder and to top of the lines that run from each shoulder to the point of the chin. However, you do not want to stare at the triangle. Move your eyes periodically between your opponent's eyes to the triangle. Now you are not focused on one point.

A good street fighter knows how to use his or her eyes to deceive. He or she will look one direction and attack in another. To avoid becoming a victim of this tactic, keep your eyes moving back and forth from the eyes to the triangle. You don’t want to avoid the eyes completely since you may miss a change in the opponent’s attitude or emotions.

Any movement of the body is echoed by a movement of the shoulders or head, the triangle. These movements may telegraph an attack. For example, if the opponent is in an orthodox fighting stance (left foot forward):
  • When the shoulders and chest rotate a bit counterclockwise, it indicates a possible right-hand punch to your upper body or head.
  • When the chest rotates counterclockwise and shoulders dip forward, it indicates a possible right upset punch to your midsection.
  • When the chest rotates either way with little shoulder movement, a punch may follow with either hand.
  • When the shoulder angles backward and chest rotates counterclockwise, it indicates a possible right leg kick.
  • When the chest rotates clockwise and shoulders angle back, it indicates a possible left leg kick.
  • If the upper body suddenly lifts, it indicates a possible push or tackle.
Watch the triangle to time the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. An attack will most often occur as the opponent inhales, the moment when he or she is strongest. Conversely, the opponent is weakest during exhalation, so time your attack to coincide with the exhalation.

Where not to look

When you attack an opponent, avoid looking at the target of your attack. You may keep watching the triangle in case your initial move is countered, you may detect it and be ready for it. You may also look off to the side while keeping the person in your peripheral vision.

Cold stare

The eyes are "windows to the heart." In most people, they reveal a person's intentions. A sharp inhalation, deep squint, hardening of the face, or barring of the teeth indicate an imminent attack. Darting eyes indicate fear, looking for an escape, or looking for help or a weapon. Upon observing any of these indicators, don’t freeze your gaze on his or her eyes. While the eyes may communicate intended actions, keep watching the triangle for indications of any action.

Be leery of the "cold stare." The cold stare is one that shows no emotion and thus hides intentions. Be especially leery when the cold stare begins to look through you or to your side. If you are familiar with dogs, you know that this look means an attack is imminent.

I first started my martial arts training in karate. There was a senior color belt in the class who had black, stone-cold eyes. If you ever looked at his face while sparring him, you would be psyched out and your confidence would be drained.

While in the Navy, I once had a commanding officer, Captain Weir, who had black eyes that seldom blinked. When he stared at you, it sent cold chills down your spine. He could elicit fear simply by looking at you.

Blank stare

When an opponent's face goes blank (the eyes flatten like those of a fish, the face goes pale and slack, and the body slumps), it indicates a person who is ready to explode. If the opponent is standing, the shoulders will relax, the chin may drop, and his arms will go limp at the sides. If the person is sitting, he or she will move to the edge of the chair in your direction and will place his or her hands so he or she can push off toward you. A slight twitch of the body is an indicator that the person is ready to attack. Be cautious of a person who ignores you and acts as if he or she does not hear you, such as continuing to commit a crime even after seeing you; they could erupt at any moment.

Use your eyes effectively

Sometimes your opponent has an intense, hypnotic gaze that seems to bore into the soul. This can be disconcerting or at least distracting. You may look away to break the intensity of the moment, but when you look back, the stare is more intense than before.

Looking away may indicate your weakness and encourage the stare, so instead of looking away, look between the eyes, at the nose, at the eyebrows, or even at the cheekbone. Try looking through the eyes, as if looking at a spot beyond the person. This will keep you emotionless and unaffected by the hard eyes. It also helps keep your face blank, giving the opponent nothing to feed upon.

Use the sudden look

When an opponent is becoming hostile with you, as you talk, look off to the side (while still monitoring the opponent with your peripheral vision), and then abruptly turn your head back and look hard into the person's eyes. Some people, though not all, are momentarily frozen by this technique, a moment that provides an opportunity to move in and take control of the person.

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