Aikido and the art of mountain biking. Part two: Vision

My last article on this topic looked at the concept of energy and the commonalities in its expression on a bike and in the dojo. This time I’m going to address the concept of vision.

The topic of where to focus on your opponent is a frequently addressed one in the martial arts. Some schools say to focus on the opponents eyes/hands/hips, etc. Musashi comments on this in the Wind Scroll of his Gorin no Sho. First he says: “To fasten the eyes in this way on a particular spot is liable to interfere with the mind and is a fault in strategy.” This basically says none of these is correct for your focus. It causes you to attach your attention on one thing instead on the totality of the action. Later Musashi states: “as a result of narrow and minutely detailed vision, you will let something big escape you, and your mind will become uncertain, which will lead you to let a sure chance of winning get away from you”. This is probably good advice to heed from arguably the most successful swordsman of all time (at least in Japan.)

In mountain biking, the number one rule is “don’t stare at the rock”. On a trail, especially in the desert where I live, you encounter many rocks and other obstacles. It’s a virtual certainty that if you stare at the rock, you will hit it, disrupting the flow of your ride (or crashing). Your bike will follow where you look with an almost magical accuracy, sometimes to your detriment. So to be successful, you need to look where you want to go. You can’t attach your gaze to individual parts of the trail however. You need to look down the trail and dynamically pick a PATH. Done properly, this creates a smooth, low effort ride at high speed.

In my mind this “path” selection on the bike is like seeing telltale clues in your opponent and predicting their movement for the next second or so. This allows you to select the appropriate response with some speed and accuracy, increasing your odds of surviving the encounter, or escaping injury. This kind of vision is what is commonly called a “soft gaze”. You look at the center of the chest of your opponent but you don’t focus on the chest. Instead you de-focus, or look beyond him so that you are able to detect movement in his entire body at the same time.

In this metaphor, the attack is like the rock, if that is all you focus on, your response is likely to clash with it. Instead you need to see the attack and your response as part of the whole. Once you engage with you opponent, you add the sense of touch which can guide your response even faster than vision. So to focus on what you are seeing is only part of the picture.

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