This is one of those old favorites… every beginner always asks at some point, “What do I focus on? Where should I look? What should I look for? How do I avoid ‘x, y or z’ move?”
Good and reasonable questions for sure, but actually the answer is so much simpler than people imagine. The real challenge is in explaining it.
To preface, there are certain things we learn in life that are largely intuitive in nature and explaining them to someone just confuses the heck out of people. For example, try explaining to someone exactly “how to ride a bike”. You can tell them all day and more than likely they just won’t get it until they get on that bike and feel things out for themselves.
The same can be said for those who practice martial arts and spar with others. In the beginning an instructor will give tips here and there, what to focus on, what to look out for, but in the end these are more distracting than they are effective in instruction. The real way you learn is through practice. Eventually you develop an intuitive approach to combat that allows you to respond to the environment naturally. The more you think about it, the more distracted you are from what is actually going on during a fight.
So let’s get back to the topic at hand. Where do you look during a fight? Well the simple answer is directly at your opponent, BUT (and this is important) you must do so without focusing on any one thing about your opponent. You need to look at them and be aware of everything they are doing without devoting all your attention to one or another movement or body part.
The best analogy (which I have seen others make as well) is driving. When you drive a car you learn to look at the road and be aware of everything that is going on in your path but you aren’t distracted by a pedestrian or a car on the road, you acknowledge their presence and make course adjustments as needed to navigate traffic. The more experienced drivers develop this skill over time, where they scan the road for obstacles, navigational land marks, hazards and so on and so forth. The amateur driver is easily distracted by specifics on the road, which is why the accident rate for less experienced drivers is generally higher.
We could go into detail on distracted driving and how that’s affecting accident rates as well, but suffice it to say, just as in driving, during a fight your should look at your opponent without focusing on any single thing and being aware of all things.
This fundamental approach is absolutely paramount to surviving a fight. Unlike on the road in a fight you have an opponent who is actively engaged in competition and they will try to attract your attention with feints in a hope that you will be distracted by one action only to come back with a true attack, where if they were successful with their feint, will end up with you being caught off guard and possibly waking up from a TKO.
It will be challenging at first as there is an extreme tendency to focus on what we aren’t familiar with and for an amateur fighter everything in combat is pretty new in the ring. However, in time and with practice you will begin to desensitize yourself to the stimuli and be able to look at the whole opponent and not just one specific part of them.
One drill that I have used to desensitize myself from the distraction of strikes in boxing has been repeated one hour drills with my coach just throwing random punches and practicing, slips, bobs / weaves, blocks and parries. Eventually you become accustom to the strikes coming at you and you’re no longer just focusing on one movement but rather scanning the whole opponent and all their movements without putting much thought into it.
Naturally we recommend that if you engage in any drill like this you do so with a professional and you wear all the appropriate protective gear, and remember combat sports are contact sports, anything can happen so always be careful, even when sparring!