Thoughts on mental attitude: Concentration

The other day I was analysing a [Shinergy bout] that took place at the Shinergy[battle] autumn 2011. In that bout, one of my students got knocked down by a wild, uncontrolled haymaker. Now Linkusually I’d say that kind of strike is absolutely no threat to a fighter. We know how to deal with that. Blocking and countering a swing on the outside line is probably the first thing a fighter learns to do. This is not because those attacks are particularly common when facing an experienced fighter – learning how to deal with haymakers is the first step because it’s so easy.

Then again, I’ve been knocked down in my career. I’ve been knocked out. I was hit by mediocre strikes that should never have so much as touched my skin. Sometimes it’s the unorthodox fighters and their „inferior“ technique that pose the biggest threat to the black-belt martial arts practitioner. „Reality based“ self defense styles take that into consideration and expand their technical arsenal to a point where nothing can surprise a fighter, because he’s seen it all in training. At least, that’s the theory. Obviously, if it was so simple, no mugger would ever be successfull.

Why is it that sometimes we miss the obvious? That’s a good question and in my opinion, probably one of the most critical of them all. As martial artists, we learn to concentrate. Concentrate on meditation, concentrate on technique, concentrate on the drills we practice. Concentration, by definition, is punctual. When queried for the term „concentration“, defines it as „a. The act or process of concentrating, especially the fixing of close, undivided attention.“ ( So apparentaly, concentration is focussing one’s mind onto something. So far, this ain’t rocket science. However, things get tricky when one needs to figure out what to concentrate on.

If you’re a fighter, you know that you concentrate on your opponent rather than yourself. My teacher, trainer and mentor, Ronny, always used to say that „martial arts begin where technique ends“. If you really need to think about how to pull off a certain technique, that technique should not be in your sparring-arsenal. Of course, if you need to think about every single technique in your repertoire, sparring ain’t for you, yet. Coming back to the topic at hand, there’s more to concentrate on in a fight than just two fists and two feet. I’m not talking knee and elbows here – I’m talking about things like distance control, mat/ring management, timing, etc.

For example, if you want to put an annoying kicker in his place by countering his next roundhouse kick with a spinning backkick of your own, that’s where your concentration is – most likely you’ll be observing the other guy’s hips, looking for a sign of that roundhouse. You’ll pay close attention to timing so as not to miss your chance. Then, when your opponent finally gets into your range, you pull off that spinning backkick – only to get hit in the back of your head because the other guy did something completely different than throwing a roundhouse kick. Probably threw a cross, but then you can’t tell because right now, you’re on you back, looking at the ceiling. You anticipation was wrong. Your (selective) concentration/attention has worked against you.

This is one of the most basic examples we Shinergy instructors always bring up to explain why we need to concentrate on this very moment. You simnply can’t foresee the future. If you could, you’d probably be rich today – after all, you could easily win any lottery.

However, is that really the secret? Concentrating on here and now? What does that even mean? Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris did a study on selective attention. Take a moment to watch the video below and solve the presented task. Don’t continue reading until you did.

How about you? Did you see it? I bet your concentration was on the moment. You didn’t think about the past or the future – after all, you had to count them ball passes. Still, most people fail on that little test. How does that relate to the martial arts?

Well, we’ve already stated that concentration is by defintion punctual. Hence, concentrating on just about anything will most likely prevent you from perceiving everything that is going on. That which you don’t see is what kills you – or gets you knocked out.

Concentration just might not cut it. Quite on the contrary, rather than concentrating the mind on something, a fighter probably needs to disperse his attention. Modern psychology has a name for this: flow. Zen calls it mushin. Being very anti-dogmatic, I really couldn’t care less about which terminology you stick to. Just pick the one that suits you better. Personally, I like the picture language that describes one’s thoughts as clouds in the sky. The sky – basically your mind – stays unmoved while the clouds – your thoughts – are constantly moving. In the end, we’re talking about a state of mind where you’re not trying to concentrate on anything particular. You don’t try anything – you act naturally. This is where things just happen and you’re part of it. No second thoughts, no doubt, just a feeling of being perfectly in sync with your environment. If you’ve ever experienced the flow sensation, you know what I’m talking about. If not, there’s nothing I can do to describe the experience.

How do you reach that state of mind? Honestly, I don’t know. As always, I guess that depends. For some, zazen might help. Personally, I never reached mushin through zazen. Sparring is what worked well for me on a couple of occasions. Not always, though. In early competitions, when winning or losing were of absolutely no consequence, I sometimes experienced flow. Ronny told me that he can’t remember most of his good fights – but he can recall most bad fights. I absolutely agree on that. Good fights tend to be good because of that special state of mind, whatever you may call it. Bad fights tend to be bad because your mind fails you. That’s where I believe those reality based systems don’t work. All those brutal bad-boy techniques won’t save your life if you don’t see the gorilla (or the kick to the groin, in a self-defense situation). I really think that reaching flow/mushin is one of the highest goals a martial artist must strive to achieve.

Then again all of this is only a thought that has crossed my mind. Could easily all be wrong and nothing but meaningless blabber. I really don’t know. What do you think? Just let me know in the comments section below.

So long,

take care

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