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Are you “inattentionally” blind?

Learn how to control your focus and stop missing out on important opportunities!

Photo by Josh Calabrese
“How did they not see that? It was right in front of them?”
This not uncommon, one-sided conversation between an observer and him or herself when they witness an error or missed opportunity (to their great dismay. Feel free to replace the “it” in the opening question with an empty net, open receiver, or flying object. The observer asking the question often scratching his or her head and left wondering, How can someone miss something so obvious? Well, it turns out that we have likely all been blind to opportunity at some point. Please say hello to inattentional blindness.

To fully understand inattentional blindness, we need to take a moment to clarify what is meant with the term attention. There are several dimensions of attention that we need to be aware. This includes broad versus narrow focus of attention and external versus internal focus of attention.

Broad focus of attention is defined as “allow[ing] a person to perceive several occurrences simultaneously” (Weinberg & Gould). Narrow focus of attention is when a person “respond[s] to only one or two cues” (Weinberg & Gould). Depending upon what we are doing and when we are doing it, we need to have the flexibility to shift between broad and narrow focus as well as from internal to external focus. When we are externally focused, we are focused on our environment and those people and things around us. When we are internally focused, we are focused on our thoughts and feelings and likely paying little attention to what is going on around us.

How do I know what type of focus I need to be using? Begin by asking yourself a couple of questions can help answer this question.

  • Do I need or want to see the “big picture”? Think broad, external focus. This will help you collect large amounts of information and then act appropriately.
  • How do I think, feel, and perform when I’m doing my best? Here trying using a broad, internal focus. When you are in “the zone”, how are do feel? What are your thoughts? How are your emotions providing you with the right kind of energy and motivation you need. I find using a “Game Day Prep” form with my clients is extremely beneficial because it helps us create a sure-fire plan to help them reach their mental, physical, and emotional best.
  • To perform at this high level, do I need to remove internal distractions and focus on one thing? Utilize an external, narrow focus. Strong concentration and attention skills help us remove detrimental stimuli so we can focus on what we need to and where we need to in order to be successful.
  • Do you feel unprepared for an upcoming event, competition, or presentation? Internal, narrow focus is helpful for these types of situations. Mental activities, such as imagery and mental rehearsal, can help us mentally and emotionally improve our performance.

Stress + Narrow Focus = Inattentional Blindness

When we are under stress, our vision narrows and constricts. Rooted in our survival mechanism, stress propels us find a way to survive and move all over energy and resources on survival. Therefore, in sports or other situations in which we may be experiencing stress, it can be helpful for us to be cognizant of the four types of attention and decide what focus would be most helpful in the different situations we will be experiencing.

A narrow focus may be our default focus mode, but this may not be the most helpful or appropriate, if we get too stuck in the details and miss the big picture or important information occurring in our environment. However, if we are feeling lethargic or lacking motivation, a narrow focus may help us identify one or two important tasks or goals to help us become more productive and less distracted and inefficient with our time and energy.

“You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle.” Paulo Coelho

(Weinberg & Gould, 2011. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5th Ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.)

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