STOP! Before going any further take a moment to watch the video below:
The invisible gorilla psychology research study is one of the most fascinating (and fun) ways to look at human attention, and specifically how we “see” what we expect or want to see. Psychology researchers call it “inattentional blindness” when we miss seeing something that is very clear to the naked eye, but our attention is prompted elsewhere. In the case of the invisible gorilla, subjects are prompted to watch basketball players pass around a basketball but while they are watching the players pass the ball a gorilla walks right around the group. Amazingly, most subjects never see the gorilla as their focus was directed toward the players and the ball being passed.
Inattentional blindness is also the best friend of a magician, as many magic tricks can be easily discovered when you don’t pay attention to what the magician wants you to observe. In other words, good magicians will prompt you to follow one hand while the other hand can be clearly seen to be holding the ball (or whatever object is being hidden).
So what does any of this have to do with sports? And what good are these discoveries to the field of sport psychology? Actually, more than you might imagine.
Applying inattentional blindness to sports
When athletes struggle through a slump it is very common for them to focus (sometimes exclusively) on the negative events that happen while completely overlooking or disregarding any positive things that happen. For example, if a baseball player is in the throes of a terrible slump and then goes 0-4 in a game but hits the ball hard four times, he is likely to only “see” the 0 hits and completely overlook the fact that he hit the ball hard 4 times, and how on another day those same four hard hits might have resulted in a 4-4 day.
The reality is that we see what we look for in life, and in sports many athletes only “see” the things they do wrong. Unfortunately, the loss of confidence that often accompanies failure also negatively impacts focus, motivation, and resiliency — qualities directly related to sport success. As a coach or parent, you can help kids successfully navigate these situations by helping them identify the errors of their thinking by helping them redirect their attention to the small victories they experience that aren’t always easily observable — especially during sport slumps.
If it’s been proven how easy it is to miss seeing a gorilla walking through a group of basketball players passing a ball, then you can imagine how easy it is for athletes to miss seeing the little things they are doing right (that will eventually lead to bigger successes) when they are playing below their potential or consumed with perfectionist thinking.