By Danny Horgan –
Last fall I picked up a book called “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein. The book delves into the laws of success and the science behind exceptional athletes in a variety of sports.
Wing Chun (and self defense in general) is very far from sport. But as Wing Chun practitioners, there is much to be gained from studying the human body and the patterns of success that create high-level skill. Examining sport is just one of many means to learn about how to make any skill-based practice more efficient.
While “The Sports Gene” is full of interesting tidbits that have significantly helped my Wing Chun training, there was one fact that absolutely blew my mind and reminded why I’m practicing this art in the first place:
Visual acuity, which humans rely on to pick up on incoming stimuli, starts to deteriorate at the age of 29.
We will get to the significance of this fact to Wing Chun practitioners later in the article. But first, let’s examine it closely in terms of sport.
From boxing and kickboxing distance, fighters need to see punches and kicks coming in order to block them, move, or counter. This ability stems from visual acuity, or the acuteness or clarity of vision.
Not unlike figthing is baseball, where athletes are required to pick up 95 MPH fastballs from 60 feet away. According to “The Sports Gene”, the world’s best baseball players aren’t exceptional because of their strength or reflexes; rather, they simply have amazing eye sight, which helps them pick up on incoming balls.
In 1992, Los Angeles Dodgers opthalmolgist Louis J Rosenmaum tested the visual acuity of 87 players within in his organization. According to the book, “nearly all of the 87 players in the organization he tested exceeded the 20/15 visual acuity test,” and “in each eye test, pro baseball players were better than non-athletes, and major league players were better than minor league players.”Half the players on the Dodgers pro roster exceeded 20/10 vision.
If you’ve ever wondered why professional boxers and MMA fighters start to decline in their early-to-mid thirties, visual acuity is your answer. The world’s best strikers rise to the top of their sport through incredible eye sight, which allows to pick up on their opponent’s feints and tells and see openings the average fighter simply can’t. But when that eye sight starts to go, so does their ability to win. They’re so used to relying on eye sight that they don’t know how to fight without it. You see past-their-prime boxers commenting on this phenomena time and time again:
“I could see the openings, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger.”
In reality, these boxers are simply seeing the openings a split second later than they used to, no longer allowing them to be one step ahead of their opponent.
So what does all this have to do with Wing Chun? Thankfully, our art is one of the few that doesn’t rely on visual acuity. We train to feel our opponent’s movements through contact rather than see them from a distance. Chi Sau varies very much from school to school, but regardless of how it’s performed, the benefits of training from the touch allow us to transcend the limitations of the human eye.
In many martial arts, the goal is peak in your mid twenties, a time when your eye sight and athleticism are at a high. But Wing Chun is different. From my experience in touching hands with men in their late 30s to mid 40s, sensitivity actually increases over time. So by putting in years of Chi Sau, Wing Chun practitioners can actually get better at their craft with age.
Don’t let turning 29 be a death sentence for your improvement as a Wing Chun practitioner. The science indicates that your best years as a martial artist are still ahead of you.