More on Perception: Don't Just Rely on Visual Input

In Random Training Note #6 , I noted that:

Evasion is: Perception + Agility.

To elaborate further, perception is cognitive processing of sensory input, and is crucial to both attack and defensive skills. Fast and accurate perception depends upon having a large vocabulary of relevant experiences for cognitive processes to compare to incoming sensory input. This perceptive processing may be consciously directed or below conscious thought. We have multiple systems of sensory input, yet much of martial arts training relies on only the visual realm. This may be fine for the optimal, controlled conditions of the average dojo/club etc. However, surprise attacks, or those involving multiple people will likely present other types of sensory input, such as tactile contact or acting on “bad feelings” about a situation or person. Visual perception will not help against threats that cannot be seen or on conditions that prevent clear sight. Learning to perceive and act upon these is a critical skill for fighting and self-defense.

  • Perception is cognitive processing of visual, auditory, tactile, proprioceptive (the body’s position in space and in relation to itself, and for our purposes, other people) and interoceptive sensory input (interoception refers to the analysis of sympathetic visceral responses to threatening situations via the insular cortices– this is often below conscious direction and is usually described as a “bad feeling”).
  • Visual perception fails when you can’t see the attacker, auditory perception fails when you can’t hear what’s happening nearby, aren’t paying attention or don’t know how to interpret auditory cues, tactile perception fails when you aren’t used to being in close contact with an attacker, proprioception fails when conditions overcome one’s ability to sense the position of the body in space or recognize what bodily position indicates, interoception fails when one begins to over-analyze a threat, does not know how to recognize the causes of a “bad feeling”, is terrified, in shock or working under a false sense of security from inadequate training.
  • Learning to recognize and respond to each type of  sensory perception requires specific training. Reading about it or only talking about it to students is not enough. Time must be spent learning how to A) operate on only one of these at a time, B) how to attend to other sensory inputs while relying upon one, and C) how to transition between them under changing, unpredictable conditions.

So how can we begin to train beyond the visual range of perception? One strategy that I have found to be very useful is to engage in Randori (free standing grappling that may go to the floor) with the following alterations:

  1. One person (A) will be engaged for the duration of a 2 minute bout, with two or three partners on hand. Each partner-in-waiting will rotate in to engage A after 30 seconds, which means that A will grapple with each person during the 2 minutes. While waiting their rotation, the other partners should form a loose perimeter to make sure no one crashes into a wall, etc. For reasons that will become apparent, it’s best to start this out with light force and limited takedowns.
  2. A engages with the first partner. At some point in the first 30 seconds, give the command for A to shut his or her eyes. A is now relying on tactile and proprioceptive perception to monitor his/her position and the position of the partner, as well as what options are available for responding to the attack.You may find that techniques which come naturally with visual reference are difficult to execute in this mode- or you may find that they are much more intuitive and effective.
  3. At 30 seconds, the next partner will rotate in. A‘s eyes are still closed, so he/she is dependent on auditory and tactile input to perceive the approach and engagement with this partner. Once the engagement has begun, A is dependent on proprioception and tactile perception to orient both to gravity and the partner.
  4. At 30 seconds, the next partner will rotate in, same conditions as above.
  5. At the final 30 seconds, A may open his or her eyes to negotiate the approach and engagement with the final partner.
  6. As people become more comfortable with doing Randori without the benefit of visual perception, gradually increase in both the speed, force and range of permitted techniques. Make sure that partners-in-waiting understand their role as safety-spotters during the other bouts, since A‘s eyes are closed.

A useful precursor to this type of training is as follows:

  1. A stands in the middle of a defined space, with one or more partners orbiting slowly around him/her, pushing lightly on various body segments (head, shoulders, hips, knees, trunk).
  2. As these partners touch A randomly  (giving a pause in between each to avoid overloading A) , A will respond by moving that body segment with the direction of the force smoothly and with as little lag time as possible, and return to upright.
  3. Once this is established, A will then close his/her eyes and attempt to respond in the same way. This can gradually become a free-moving drill, with both A and the “attackers” moving naturally, provided A has enough proprioceptive skill to stay balanced and upright with eyes closed.
  4. Once this is established, A will keep his/her eyes closed and attempt to move with the direction of the force, or  around the direction of force in any plane  and respond by moving towards the direction of the force and actively attempting to touch the “attacker”

Stationary sticky hands with the eyes closed is also a highly useful preliminary training exercise.

If a student has serious trouble maintaining balance and stability with his or her eyes closed, this is an indication that he/she relies primarily on visual perception to establish and maintain balance. Specific training in gradually less-stable conditions must be included to enhance proprioception and improve the ability to maintain balance and stability without visual references. Keep in mind that as with any cognitive task, the more our ability to perceive and act upon  different sensory inputs is trained with specifically related demands as described above,the more efficient the process will become. Neurons that fire together wire together, and the more perceptual processing areas become connected with memory and motor areas, the more one’s ability to respond under different conditions will improve. Post-training reflection on the relative failures and successes of  perceiving and responding to the various types of input is vital.

With a little research, reflection on training methods, the nature of violence and some creativity, more strategies for developing multi-sensory perception can be identified and put into practice. Although these drills are aimed at improving fighting skills for the purposes of self defense, they can also enhance the performance of fight athletes by widening the scope of information that they are able to act upon and manipulate to the disadvantage of an opponent. Have fun.


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