How do I observe and improve my hand-eye coordination (in martial arts)?
April 17, 2015 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I have terrible hand-eye coordination, lack awareness of my surroundings, and don’t know what to look at when observing martial arts (aikido) demos (or most sports for that matter). How do I improve my observational skills? Should I focus on nage (attacker)? Uke (receiver of attack)? What do I look for? Can I approach my observations systematically?

I've attended yoshinkan aikido classes twice a week, each week, for less than two months. As a beginner, I spend most of my time confused and immediately after sensei and uke have completed their demo, I have already forgotten where to begin ...and everything that follows.
Team sports always terrified me and consequently my athletic pursuits tend to be solo (hiking, yoga, cycling, etc.) I have terrible hand-eye coordination at the best of times and I lack a general awareness of my surroundings. I walk into trees, out of doors into people's paths -- my partner always notices these before I do, like some kind of wizard, while I don't even realize anything has happened. My partner developed intuition for this by playing sports as a kid. How do I develop this intuition as an adult? How do I even figure out what to observe? For example, I used to miss most shots in squash. Then a friend I practiced with told me to look at the ball as it approached me and to move around instead of standing around waiting for it to come in contact with my racquet. This probably seems stupidly simple, but it was a revelation. It never before occurred to me that squash players move toward the ball, racquets poised to hit, rather than standing around and lifting the racquet when the ball was nearby. Soon I was hitting the ball forcefully and volleying regularly.

In aikido, there is an overwhelming amount of information -- footwork, where are the knees, are the knees bent, where are my thumbs when I do a wrist grab, elbows down, punching, subtle movements in form and shifting weight, etc. My senseis and fellow practitioners (most of whom have years of experience) are incredibly helpful and repeatedly review the movements with me when it's my turn. They point out what I guess I probably should have attentively looked at when observing the demo. I don't know where to focus, and even when I focus on one component, I forget everything else and tend to miss things like my forearm should be vertical this time.

Practicing aikido is incredibly challenging but equally fulfilling. Please help me learn how to learn, where to look, and coordinate. Books with photos, tips, videos, child-oriented teachings, anything would be helpful. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total)
Two months at aikido isn't all that long. You're still learning the steps. In a sense, you're not even really practicing yet. You're building a foundation so you can begin to practice. Remember that everyone else in your dojo were beginners too and had the same challenges.

I know your question isn't about aikido specifically, but I think keeping up with the practice is at least one great way to achieve the hand-eye coordination and situational awareness you want.
posted by Leontine at 10:06 AM on April 17, 2015

I practice aikido and started with a group where almost everyone was a beginner. It took all of us several months to get the hang of the movements. What you're going through is totally normal and the more advanced students will understand bcs they were all beginners at some point. Give it another 6 months and you'll find that you're naturally improving as you become more familiar with the various moves.

I also had terrible hand/eye coordination when I started martial arts, and within a year this improved considerably and now I kinda shock myself with how good my reflexes are. I didn't consciously try to improve, I just did. Your brain is working hard at these motor skills, even if you can't really tell yet.

There are various good videos of aikido on Youtube but really you have to practice with a partner. Often in a dojo there will be small subsets of people who get together informally after hours and practice with each other; ask around. But mostly just keep doing what you're doing; it does get easier with time!
posted by phoenix_rising at 10:17 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Patience, Grasshopper. One must learn to walk before learning to run. You are learning a completely new skill, one that takes years to become truly competent at. I have a few suggestions.

1) Don't compare yourself to the others in your class, only to yourself. Actually, I think this advice is good for most situations.

2) In scripted demonstrations (Kogeki will attack with a right punch, uke will...), focus on the uke. You already know what the kogeki is going to do. In freestyle practice, switch it up. Concentrate one for a while, then the other.

3) Work through your technique slowly. Make sure you understand how your body is moving. Speed will come. This is much easier than it sounds. There is a little Ricky Bobby in all of us, yelling to go fast.

4) Ask your sensei to demonstrate the technique on you, with you acting as the kogeki. I've always found that it helps me to understand exactly what it is you are trying to accomplish.

5) I was taught to look the kogeki in and around the nose and the mouth, which allows you to see their eyes and the rest of their body. Be aware of the elbows and thighs of the kogeki. It's much easier to head/hand/foot fake than it is with the elbows and thighs.

6) Create a target of some kind, even a dot on the wall or a door knob. Practice slowly touching the target with the different body parts you use. Slowly. Accuracy will improve over time.

7) Watch people you interact with in the real world. Don't be creepy about it or anything, but notice how they are standing and how they move. Think about how you would react.

8) Don't underestimate the consolidation that takes place when you are not practicing. I often find that when I am learning something new, I struggle the first time but see vast improvements the next.

9) Patience, Grasshopper.

If you have specific questions, send me a message!
posted by Silvertree at 10:41 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

How do I develop this intuition as an adult?

Do something sportive as close to every single day as possible. Volume of training is really the major factor here. Athleticism takes a lot of practice, and benefits from exposure to a wide variety of play. Do whatever activities are available, particularly new ones, to fill up your week.

Two days a week is generally considered in martial arts to be the amount where you'll barely progress in terms of real skill. If more classes per week isn't possible, then other arts (judo? boxing?) or sports (lifting? bodyweight fitness? running? community basketball?) can fill in the gaps.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:32 AM on April 17, 2015

I started my martial arts journey just over five years ago. While I'm still a fundamentally uncoordinated human being... my body at least entertains the idea of moving where I want it to go these days. At my martial arts studio we have the following saying, "What do you call a black belt? A white belt who never gave up."

One of the reasons why martial arts is so tricky is that, unlike most* physical activities, both sides of the body are expected to be used equally and have to cross the body's midline.

I think martial arts is a lot like poetry. There's the first impression of the technique. But the more you study it, the more you start to uncover additional meanings and alternative interpretations. At appropriate moments, ask more senior students (and different instructors if applicable) for help. They may break down the technique more slowly, or perhaps they may explain the technique in a different way that makes more sense. I have found it invaluable to work with very experienced, and visually gifted people who physically move my body where it is supposed to go when I just can't get it (yet).

I am still not great at knowing where my body is in space, but I am getting better. I do not train with ankle or wrist weights, but I sometimes walk around my house wearing them since they help me feel where my limbs are. Yoga has also helped me a lot with mindfulness/ knowing where my body is in space.

Once concept that I am just starting to understand now is body weight transfer/ body mechanics. I have always had weak ankles, and had the twisted ankles to prove it. However, I was pleased to discover that strengthening my ankles also improved my balance significantly. With better balance, I could move better. Martial arts in general has a lot of techniques that one might initially think are hand movements but are really all about good stances/ lower body position. So when watching demonstrations, sometimes watch the lower body, especially the direction of the hips.

*additional exceptions: gymnastics and dance
posted by oceano at 11:10 PM on April 17, 2015

Two of the best exercises for improving coordination are the olympic lifts: the snatch and the clean & jerk. Because the barbell is infinitely scalable, the weight can always be appropriate tailored to stimulate an adaptive response. These weighted movements promote balance, coordination, and power that translate to almost any other athletic movement, and render these exercises perhaps unrivaled in the simultaneous development of these fitness parameters.
posted by tiburon at 6:26 PM on April 19, 2015

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