Over the last several months I have had the privilege of training a wide spectrum of people. From the every day guy and girl training their martial skills for personal self protection, to people who are competing in combat sports, to law enforcement officers who need to deploy functional defensive tactics in their professional roles.
As is customary when coaching any audience, I highlighted the need for a broader understanding of what was being taught beyond the physical. As I have written elsewhere, there is a tendency for people training in any type of empty hand combatives approach to overly focus on the development of physical technique as the crucible of victory in any fight. However, there are subtle skills, many of which are mostly overlooked by trainers that require equal attention (no pun intended) — if success in any fight, be that in self preservation or in the ring is possible.
In my experience one of the most overlooked of these subtle, yet primary skill sets is attention. For example, I have found that for most people it is not immediately obvious that where they place their attention in a one-on-one encounter, say in the sportive space of combat sports, is different to what would be required in self-preservation, where more than one opponent may be present. Even more concerning, even those teaching others for the reality of self-preservation, neglect not only highlighting this aspect of fight survival, but don’t teach it either.
Attention: First Things First
Before I delve into what I outlined in the previous paragraph, I want to first set the stage so to speak of what is meant by attention. Attention is what we choose to think about in a particular moment. As I walk around in my daily life I have what we could call a general awareness, but when something catches my eye, or I need to deliberately focus on something, I then ‘attend’ to it with my full attention.
The experience then of invoking my attention in a fight, is going to have different consequences to the attention I place while scouring the isles of my local store for my favourite cheese. One has the potential to lead to my demise, the other simply frustration on not finding what I want. What’s crucial to understand here then is that what might lead to the degradation of my performance in a fight, isn’t distractions or obstacles per-say, but rather how I choose to focus when those distractions or obstacles occur. It is for this reason that every student of the fighting arts should know how attention actually works.
As a way of introduction, there are three main components to attention:
- Attention Capacity: First we are limited on what we can focus on at any one time. It’s incredibly difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time. In fact, a person’s martial performance is disrupted when they don’t focus their attention on one thing.
- Attention Readiness: Secondly, our readiness and ability to focus is influenced by our emotional states. For example, anxiety tends to narrow a persons focus, where they become narrowly focused on their internal state. This is where people second guess themselves, or attach to how they feeling (i.e., “I am afraid”). This narrowing of attention to the internal, severe’s a person from what is happening ‘out there’ which in turn then makes it far more difficult to react, execute and aim at the incoming threats.
- Attention Selectivity: We all have the capacity to engage in selective attention, or to choose where and how we place our focus in different situations. Attentional Selectivity can be trained, and in doing so, enables a person to prioritised their Attentional Capacity to what is important, and to ensure their Attentional Readiness is placed where it is the most appropriate in the given situation.
For example, coming back to what I outlined earlier, noting that there is a difference between attentional requirements in an actual one-on-one encounter, versus dealing with a multiple opponent situation.
In the first example in a one-on-one encounter (often in a more sport combat experience) attention needs to be external, but narrow. This allows for enhanced capacity of reaction time, leading to quicker execution of appropriate technique, and improved aim on engaging the appropriate target. Here, centralised attention on the opponent in front of you is required.
However, in self-preservation, this overly centralised focus can lead to you being killed. While I am a huge fan of training in a combat athletic base as precursor to self-preservation efficacy, this is actually one of the biggest draw backs to this kind of training. For self preservation, you need to equally develop your external-broad attentional capacity, for the simple reason that you may be required to engage with more than one threat (i.e., you need to be able to see more of your environment, not just the immediate threat in front of you).
As such in the later example of a multiple opponent/threat, attention that is external and broad is preferred. Here, this type of attentional capacity allows for better assessing of the situation, leading to greater observation of the environment, which in turn allows for the broader scanning of cues (i.e., assessing multiple threats at one time, and based on their movement patterns, deciding on which threat to engage with first).
External Versus Internal Attention
In the previous paragraphs I outlines the ‘external’ attentional approach needed depending on one-on-one or multiple threat encounters. But there is in addition to this ‘internal’ attentional aspects occurring too. This brings me back to what I wrote earlier, what might lead to the degradation of a person’s fight performance, isn’t distractions or obstacles per-say (both externally and internally), but rather how a person then chooses to focus when those distractions or obstacles occur.
When someone is internally-narrowly focused, but things start to go wrong (i.e., a person begins to focus on the things going wrong), there is a tendency to overly self monitor one’s mental and physical state. Overly self monitoring leads to an attempt to regulate one’s mental and physical state. Which in turn can lead to panic, often leading to a person falling back onto their instincts, forgetting their training, and loosing all reason.
Conversely, when someone is internally-broadly focused, but things start to go wrong (i.e., a person begins to focus on the things going wrong), they lose the ability to effectively strategise, which leads to being overwhelmed by decisions, which in turn can lead to analysis by paralysis (i.e., overwhelmed by internal information being created, one then over-thinks the situation so that a decision or action is never taken).
How You Train Your Attention Then, Matters in a Fight!
How you then train, or are coached to apply your attention to the fight game matters. Obviously, the topic of attentional training is far more nuanced than I have highlighted in this article. For example, everything I outlined earlier on internal-narrow and internal-broad attention was in respect to when things go wrong. But in the same light, each of those aspects can be trained to be assets of attention.
For example, knowing the consequences of the negative side of these attentional states, allows for a greater understanding and flexibility on what to avoid. If I find myself in an internal-narrow attentional state, I can use the natural tendency of want to monitor my physical and mental states as an opportunity to regulate my physical/mental state to one that is more conducive to the task at hand. Here, the ability to be mindful-in-action in those moments, which leads to paying attention, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally is key. If I don’t judge my internal states, I am then able to refocus back to reacting, executing and aiming my fight game at the appropriate targets (i.e., external-narrow attention).
Knowing that there are different attentional states, with different outcomes, equally allows a person to make appropriate adjustments based on the threat they are engaging with. With focused training in this area, a person can selectively switch between external-broad/external-narrow/internal-narrow/internal-broad at will, and in turn harness the positive aspects of those attentional states, while equally knowing their drawbacks, and steering clear of the negative side of those attentional states.
In fact, both in one-on-one or multiple opponent encounters a person will be drawing from all four attentional quadrants. For example, when I sparred 4 X EFC Champion Costa Ioannou this past Monday I was intent on keeping my external-narrow attention engaged during the rounds so I could react more proactively, execute the counter measures I needed at my own pace, and in doing so effectively engage the openings.
When I found myself being drawn into the internal-narrow aspects of my attention during the round, I was proactive in being mindful, so as not to be drawn into a negative thinking spiral when things weren’t going as I hoped. During the round breaks I switched to internal-broad attention, making adjustments to how I was going to come out in the next round (i.e., strategy), analysing quickly what needed to be fixed from mistakes in the last round (i.e., got tagged a few time with the left hook when throwing my cross. So I needed to be active in getting my hand back to my face in time).
To then coming out in the next round using external-broad attention when needed to reset myself (i.e., disengaging from the fight, making space to breath etc), while reassessing the situation in real time in front of me, and scan for cues of Costa changing his game plane from the last round. While all the while being cognizant of the fact that where I really wanted to be most of the time, especially in the round, was eternally-narrow with my attention.
All of this has to be trained. This is why I put together a course on the inner game for sparring. You have to learn how to do all of this. You have to apply it into your game on purpose. Ironically, while I believe the inner game, which learning about attention is part thereof, is the most important aspect of the fight game, and the fastest way to get good – most people training ‘martial arts’ don’t fully understand the importance of this part of their game development.
Out of all the products and courses I have ever developed, my inner game for sparring course has sold the least. Maybe it’s a good thing in the end, because for those students of mine who train it and get it, their fight performance is through the roof.