Peripheral Vision and Self-DefenseBy Jennifer Shipp
One of the best kept secrets to being successful at Taekwondo sparring and self-defense has to do with peripheral vision. When our students first start working with each other on sparring, they don’t believe me. “Use your peripheral vision,” I tell them, “then you’ll start hitting your target.” They struggle with the exercise. “Soften your gaze.” I say. But it isn’t as easy as it seems. It’s counter-intuitive to use the peripheral vision fields for sparring. It seems so much smarter to really focus on your opponent’s fist as it nears your face. But if you can teach yourself to use peripheral vision, your body will start to respond in surprising ways. We’re capable of taking in the bigger picture in self-defense situations, but not without training.
For one thing, when we get scared. . .I mean really scared, we develop tunnel vision. This is a normal human response. Police are taught about this tunnel-vision effect as part of their self-defense training. In fact, you can lose an entire sense (touch, vision, hearing, etc.) if you’re traumatized enough. The body will shut down any extraneous information and naturally funnel in the most relevant stimuli in an effort to facilitate survival. But unfortunately, this funneling effect often doesn’t work in our best interests. It’s better for us to take in a panorama of any given situation rather than shut things down. This is Combat Science 101 (so to speak), but do check out the link which talks at length about peripheral vision. When you spar, you can help train yourself to take in the big picture by softening your gaze so that you’re visually taking in everything, not just the stuff that happens in the middle of your visual field.
Softening your gaze is a trick that hypnotherapists teach as a method to promote hypnosis. This is relevant because you’re more likely to do well at sparring if you’re lightly hypnotized. You don’t need a hypnotist to make this happen, but you do need to learn how to hijack your brain. Softening your gaze is a good start. We do this a lot when we’re driving. We soften our gaze to take in all lanes of traffic and we make decisions about whether to switch lanes and how fast to go, etc. based on this composite view of our surroundings. It’s complex and risky. Driving can kill you. But we go about our driving every day with very little anxiety, often while singing along with the radio. This is the same state of mind that you need to cultivate when you’re sparring and it starts with softening your focus and taking in the broader picture.
As a general rule, women have a broader field of peripheral vision than men do. This gives them the advantage in sparring situations. Women can be watching their opponent intently while gazing off in a completely different direction. Men get caught looking at other women sometimes because they underestimate how much women can see out of the corners of their eyes.
Finally, make sure that you use peripheral vision not just when sparring but also when you’re practicing your skills through one-steps or combinations with a partner. Some people like to rest their central vision at their opponent’s throat while other people feel more comfortable staring past their opponent or even staring at something in the distance, off to the side. Figure out what works best for you and practice using your peripheral vision regularly. With peripheral vision practice, I guarantee that you’ll make leaps and bounds at sparring and you’ll be much better equipped to defend yourself from an attacker on the street.