Eyes on the prize: beating back the flight impulse (again)

A good workout and five decent rounds in the ring today. It was the first time I ever came away with a headache, mild though it was. My trainer’s been letting me take more frequent and intense punches, I think, and she’s also set off my flight reflex again. It’s unbelievable how strong the desire to step backward and turn away is.

Today she pointed out how, after I take a jab or a hook to the head, I am (belatedly) throwing my guard up and physically turning my head away so that I can’t see her, thus allowing her the chance to reset and prepare her next move. By the time I turn my head back into position she’s already launching her next attack. It’s amazing how dramatically your boxing game can improve if you can take a punch and continue to stare straight ahead at your opponent, while also keeping your (ringing, buzzing, just clocked) head clear enough to plan and release an offensive. Aaargh. Who knew boxers had to think and work so hard?

It sounds incredibly simple, doesn’t it? Keep your eyes on your target. Sharpshooters do it. Ballplayers do it. Even guys tossing darts in a bar do it. And boxers absolutely have to do it, yet over and over again we fail to do it. It would seem to be natural and obvious. Yet so often I hear our coaches tell us, “Open your eyes! Keep your eyes on your opponent.” Why would we have to be told that?

The difference for boxers has to do not only with the flight impulse, but also with cultural notions of appropriate space and aggression. Basketball players may get in each other’s personal space, and even look at each other intently, but the basketball and the goal are the real focal points, and the visual interactions between players are rapid-fire rather than prolonged. Runners look toward the next hurdle, the horizon, or the finish line, not at another runner’s eyes. Football players, particularly linemen, probably come closer to understanding this issue than any other I can think of, but even they don’t continue to stare down the opposing lineman after the block. It’s incredibly hard to be that close to an obvious and understood aggressor and watch them intensely, even after getting hit. It feels completely unnatural.

Some parts of the complex interactions in boxing can be practiced. Obviously we train for power and endurance. Our coaches also work hard to prepare us to overcome or be resistant to dizziness and head shock (spin training, neck exercises, etc.), and to increase our ability to react quickly (speed and timing drills). But there’s not a single exercise I know of that can help you learn to keep your eyes on your opponent after they rock you a good one to the head; it just takes experience in the ring.

And it’s just plain crazy how happy I was today to not only get some of that experience, but also to begin to tease out the reasons for what makes it so difficult. Now. Somebody please pass the ibuprofen.

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2 Responses to Eyes on the prize: beating back the flight impulse (again)

  1. Ginny January 16, 2009 at 2:24 pm #

    I think throwing the punches could be fun, but I don’t see how I could ever prepare myself to take a hit and then keep looking at the opponent. I don’t know how you do it, but you are definitely one tough woman.

  2. Lisa Creech Bledsoe January 16, 2009 at 3:03 pm #

    It’s totally strange, and I have NO EXPLANATION for why I like it. But boxing does make me feel in better shape, more focused, and generally strong. Unless I’m getting my butt kicked, of course!

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