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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Where do you look?

When confronting a villain or ruffian (or sparring with a fellow practioner) where do you look?  In my experience, Japanese martial arts tend to encourage students to look their opponents dead in the eyes.  I was once told that the reason for this is that an untrained attacker will often look at a target before executing the corresponding attack.  Indeed, it did work to some degree.  When playing tag with some of the lower ranking students, I was often able to anticipate the next move based on where I recognized their attention being.  When working with higher ranking students, however, that advantage no longer existed as they were sufficiently experienced to locate targets without needing to glance away from my face.  I find it very difficult, ultimately, to pick up on subtle eye movements, especially in the heat of the moment, for the practice of looking at my opponents eyes to confer a meaningful advantage.

At other times in my practice, I was told to look at the pectoral area, because that area will have to move before launching any sort of attack, and so it provided the greatest amount of telegraphing from my opponent.

Another teacher would instruct me to watch my opponent's lead elbow, which would have to move to throw any hand technique.  (As for techniques using the legs and feet, I would need to rely on my peripheral vision.)  In this particular system, once a practioner makes physical contact with the lead arm, he/she would then watch the elbow of the arm he/she was not in contact with.  And every time that contact changed, so too would the focus of the eyes.  I actually found this method made my life much easier, once it was sufficiently trained.

I am wondering though, what are your prefered methods regarding the use of your eyes?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Drew Loto wrote:
I am wondering though, what are your preferred methods regarding the use of your eyes?

If I’m crossing the road I look out for moving vehicles … because those are the things going to hit me. When sparring I therefore look at the hands for exactly the same reason. I’ve never bought into the “look dead into his eyes” thing for sparring. He’s not going to hit me with his eyes :-)

As always, everything is context driven. For example, when you hit grappling / limb-control range where you look becomes largely irrelevant as it’s now much more about what you can feel (feeling is also quicker than seeing). In self-protection there are time to make direct eye contact (i.e. let the potential attacker know that you are aware of their presence) and there are times to avert your gaze (i.e. when trying to defuse a situation and to avoid intimidating or antagonising the other person).

There is no “one size fits all” place to look. However, when discussing sparring / fighting I would go with looking at the hands for the reasons stated above (looks can’t really kill, but punches can :-)). The arms also tend to move when the person is kicking so you get visual cues there too.

All the best,


Mark B
Mark B's picture

I think in a self protection situation the one thing you must avoid is "fixating", whether that's eyes, hands, or anything else. In a sparring environment you know your opponent will attempt to deliver an attack , the same can't be said in a self protection scenario. As a personal rule of thumb in a self protection situation I aim to maintain a manageable distance- allow your opponent to get too close will reduce your ability to cover his actions visually. I also constantly subtly change my position and angle in relation to the potential aggressor whilst visually "covering" his movements , mainly shoulders/arms and head. Regards Mark

Dillon's picture

I don't really *look* anywhere. I keep my eyes relatively level, chin slightly tucked, and my gaze unfixed. My teacher calls it "enzan no metsuke"- eyes stuck on the far off mountain. I also tend to move pretty quickly into infighting range, even when I'm striking, so that may have something to do with it.

Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture

Someone on Facebook raised an interesting point, he wrote, "For me, Its the same as driving a car. I look at and through. Being aware of everything. I also look at the movement of hands and legs."  I think there are some major truths to that comparison with driving.  With driving, if you stare at a single given point for too long, your eyes actually can begin to unfocus, which can be hazardous to you.  I think a similar consequence can occur if you don't keep your eyes active (assuming you're using your eyes at all.)  I have found that when sparring (with tournament rules, where the match is like a chess game), some people can actually pick up on that moment when your eyes unfocus, and will attack you then.  

But I am also sensitive to the point that tactile sensitivity is much more needed in self-defense, where distances close much more quickly.  The eyes are just another way to acquire sensory information.  And more information can't be a bad thing.  Or can it?

Kokoro's picture

I trained under a number of Japanese instructors.  Most always told us to look at the chest or the center. A few claimed the eyes. A couple of non Japanese instructors said to look at the feet. And some said the hips.

I prefer the to look at the chest, and get an overall picture, of the person rather than the eye’s or other parts. I enjoy fighting people that stair into the eye’s as I like to look where I’m not striking just to mess them up.

‘I think its more of a personal preferences. Each one has its place.



Wastelander's picture

When I did wrestling for a couple months in Junior High School, they taught us to look at the chest. When I started training in karate, years later, I was told the same thing. Or, more specifically, your eyes should be "aimed" at the chest, but you should be "seeing" the whole person. The reason given was that their shoulders have to move to do pretty much any attack, so looking at their chest gives you that first indication of movement, and being able to see their limbs tells you the rest of what you need to know. This has worked out pretty well for me.

Recently, I had a Rokudan in an American (but strongly Japanese-influenced) style of karate insist that I need to be looking at my opponent's eyes. His reasoning had nothing to do with seeing what your opponent was doing, but everything to do with intimidation. He said that looking them dead in the eyes "gets in their head," and that looking anywhere else was just stupid, because you were "letting them beat you, mentally" by looking away. I don't agree with him, but when I spar with him, I try to do what he wants.

Mark B
Mark B's picture

I think one thing that needs clearing up is whether we are talking about a "real" confrontation, or sport based sparring. I know the original post question banded both together but really you can't do that. In sparring the hands are in front and centred - easy to keep in view at just outside punching and kicking distance. That's usually not the case in a "street" confrontation. In that environment the hands can be very active as people often speak with their hands , or when agitated gesture vigorously. If you focus on the eyes or chest you are fixating!! An absolute nightmare in self defence , also, focusing on their eyes is a bad idea. It sends out a direct challenge and rather than unsettling them can make up their mind that, to save face they must attack. Your physical approach should be similar to your non physical approach pre-engagement. In exercising everyday awareness you wouldn't stare or focus on one thing, even if something of interest is happening. You would still scan and visually cover your environment. Pick pockets and thieves use this fixation on an unusual event (fight , street performer etc) to ply their trade. The same principle is appropriate when faced with a potential physical situation. Cover, scan and as I Mentioned in my previous post get cute with subtle position changes. Regards Mark

karate10's picture

My personal experience for self protection scenario, chances are, that you may not even have a chance to look anywhere except be focus on your opponents next move and try to be as relax as much as you can so you have a chance to move with ease and protect yourself, now in dojo sparring, I manage to look the center kneck, chest area because I can see whats coming at me compare to "Stare at the eyes" theory.

Dillon's picture

I'm of the camp that in terms of personal protection (counter assault, etc), everything needs to operate from touch, not vision. 

DaveB's picture

When sparring it's the chest for me. Like others above I feel I get the best overview until I get close enough to rely on sensitivity.

For self protection I have only ever been faced with multiple opponents. I avoid prolonged eye contact because it gives you tunnel vision and can its self be a direct challenge, sending the unstable one in the group into a rage. Unless the situation calls for a direct challenge, i.e. showing no fear. Even then standing to keep your back covered and opponents in your peripherals is a must.

Finlay's picture

I have been told to look in the eyes and to look in the chest.

I think in the end you won;t have a choice. If someone is shaking a fist, weapon etc. your natural response will take over. you will look where your body tells you to 

sampsi's picture

In fencing they look at the chest since it is hard to move it away if your going forwards and vice versa, you always know where your opponent is so you can always try to get out of range if you can't do anything else.

Nick Browne
Nick Browne's picture

I have been taught to look at the chest, because it both keeps the hands in focus and also gives away any movements they are about to make. Usually the shoulders move before any punch or kick so you can usually see it about to happen. The only thing is that if they have their right leg back so their right shoulder  is away from you and they then twist the shoulder forwards they could be either kicking or striking, but knowing that an attack is coming from the right hand side seems to give enough information to initiate a response. 

Most of my teachers have told me to look at them where the gi crosses on their chest, whilst another has said to watch the collar bones. 

Ian H
Ian H's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
If I’m crossing the road I look out for moving vehicles … because those are the things going to hit me. When sparring I therefore look at the hands for exactly the same reason. I’ve never bought into the “look dead into his eyes” thing for sparring. He’s not going to hit me with his eyes :-)

I am reminded of that old song about the dangerous woman who "has Bette Davis eyes". 

I suspect that most of the training and instruction we have received on this point is designed for kumite sparring, and for the particular distances of kumite.  With personal variations, that advice boils down to something like "look at the upper chest, and see everything".  That often works well, with peripheral vision doing a good job of picking up attacks and the like.  

In a 'self defence' situation, things will perhaps be more situational.  In the lead-up to potential attacks, making eye contact, or not making eye contact in the right circumstances, can make all the difference between just walking away and having to slug your way out of there.  Your attacker may have a weapon, in which case I suspect the weapon deserves a bit more attention.  You may have a face-full of warm lager, and not be able to see anything anyhow.  Or perhaps you are attacked from the rear.  Maybe you are in close butting heads and operating by feel ... remember, all that holding onto your opponent is penalised in kumite but often essential in self defence ... so again you aren't really using your eyes much, and maybe all you can see is not particularly important.

So for me, in a self-defence situation, I'd point my eyes where they need to be ... which is the same idea as for kumite, except there are more options as to where that 'needs to be' actually is.

OnlySeisan's picture

I look at nothing inparticular and then go by touch when i get close enough. Put a soft hand on the small of someone's back and you can feel every single little tiny weight shift. It works basicaly just as good on other body parts.