Fighting demands a very high level of focus.
Focus is the ability to concentrate on the task at hand. While athletes in different sports sometimes report difficulty focusing during performance, I‘ve never heard of a fighter report focus difficulties.*
Fighters simply don’t suddenly remember that they forgot to put the washing out, or wonder what is happening on Facebook, in the middle of a fight.
It is possible that the inherent risk to one’s health and safety while fighting – basically, getting hurt or knocked out – mean that, from a survival point of view, a fighter simply cannot afford to lose focus. A lapse in focus for a tennis player might be detrimental to their game, but it won’t affect their health in the same way it can for a fighter.
I want to make the argument, that fighters are, mostly, very good at focusing in the sense that one hundred percent of the fighters’ attention is on the fight. However, fighters often report feeling like they didn’t fight well. Sometimes they feel that they didn’t do what they had been practicing in training, or that they couldn’t counter the opponent’s move, even when they knew what was coming and when.
Often, the disappointed fighter will begin their post-fight analysis with the words “I should have done…” It seems that they know what they would have liked to have done – whether or not their analysis is correct or not is another matter – but feel that they couldn’t actually do it in the fight.
Let’s assume for now that the under-performing fighter wasn’t matched above their level, and that their sub-optimal performance wasn’t due to the superior skill of their opponent. If the fighter is focused, then how come she or he isn’t fighting well?
Is it possible that the under-performing fighter is in fact, too focused on what they think the fight should be? Less experienced fighters will often try to keep a combo in mind, or they will try to repeat to themselves certain instructions when they step into the ring. When they do this, their mind is focused on how they think they need to fight. In fact, their mind may be so preoccupied with preconceived ideas about the fight, that they fail to see the actual fight unfolding in front of them.
Nobody can micromanage a fight, no matter how hard they think and focus. The process of dominating the fight comes from reading the opponent, responding, and pre-empting the opponent’s movement as to control the fight. The more experienced fighter trusts their experience and their training – they don’t need to remind themselves to keep their hands up or to return to stance after kicking because they have practiced this so often over the last decade or more, that these elementary principles are second nature for them. In a sense, their high level of experience frees their mind to think less about technique and more about fighting.
Yet, it would be wrong to say that the the experienced fighter is thinking about strategy when fighting. In a sense they are, but this thinking is not a laborious process; it would be more accurate to say, they are feeling the fight, or even just going with the flow.
Fighter Ghot Sernoi (NTG Brisbane) who trained and mentored me in my early career once described the fighting mindset, “Your mind should be so clear that you can hear a pin drop.”
I’ve never forgotten the conversation. At the time, he was describing something that was beyond my ability to fully understand because I had yet to experience this state. I certainly don’t claim to be a master of the fighting mind-set at this point in time, but I do feel like I am getting closer to understanding what he meant.
When I spoke to psychologist, Boaz Ozeri, I tried to describe the state of focus in training as a state of being both simultaneously alert and relaxed with an effective, yet empty mind. Drawing on his sport and exercise psychology training, and building on my description, Boaz suggested that that focus isn’t about holding on, but rather, it is about letting go. He used seemingly contradictory analogy of falling asleep; you can’t force yourself to sleep, or try harder to sleep, but rather, you have to let go in order to reach the desired state.
I like that idea. Focus is about letting go of your thoughts rather than holding onto preconceived ideas about the fight, the opponent or yourself. It is about trusting what you know and what you can do, and giving yourself free reign to apply this knowledge in an unpredictable situation. In fact, it reinforces everything I’ve learned about fighting so far: fighting is not so much about trying harder, but rather, it is about understanding how to fight better.
*I am not including fighters who cannot focus for reasons of head trauma.