How to Boost Awareness


I was chatting recently with Nate Sanderson, a top Iowa high school girls’ basketball coach. The subject turned to favorite pieces of advice. I expected to hear him start talking about lay-up drills and passing technique. But I didn’t. Instead, he said this:

Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be.

That’s it.

Know where you are, and know where you’re supposed to be. 

Over the next day or so, I started to appreciate why this was his favorite. Basketball, soccer, algebra, comedy, skateboarding, spelling — it doesn’t matter. The advice applies in all cases:

Know where you are.

What move are you making, exactly, right now? Are you tuned into the precise knowledge of your performance as it unfolds? 

Know where you’re supposed to be.

Where are you in relation to the ideal move? If you could superimpose yourself over the ideal performance, where would you match, and where would you fall short? 

This advice fits with our scientific picture of skill acquisition. Psychologists say that learning new skills is like entering a dark room, feeling around for the furniture, and memorizing its location, so you can move through it  — perform the action — ever more swiftly. In a word, it’s about cultivating awareness — awareness of ourselves, and of the path to our target performance.

The really interesting thing, though, is that we mostly take awareness for granted. We don’t instinctively train it, or devise ways to develop it. Maybe we should. Here are a few ideas:

  • 1) Freeze. Develop the habit of stopping the action at unexpected times, to get a precise snapshot of where you’re at, and where you should be. An equally good technique is to drastically slow down the motion. Many musicians do this; so do athletes like Ben Hogan.
  • 2) Embrace video. It’s used all the time in sports, but for some reason it’s used less in disciplines like music or business or art. If video can help develop tennis technique, why not use it with a boardroom presentation? A piano recital?
  • 3) Build in a pause before each rep. Adding a momentary stop just before the action helps increase awareness by letting you take time to focus on the two things that matter: your knowledge of where you are, and where you want to go.

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7 Responses to “How to Boost Awareness”

  1. Hi Daniel, Loved the book and was fortunate enough to listening to you a couple of years ago at the EGU headquarters at Woodhall Spa.
    Awareness is in my opinion the master skill and as you say we don’t do enough to enhance it.
    I use slow motion (not super-slow)swings on a regular basis with all my pupils to great effect. However the Ben Hogan clip that I presuming you’re speaking about has an interesting twist to it! His regular swing was slowed down and synced with his super slow version. And the result… was as if we were watching two different players. The swings were totally different! I believe that he had been asked to make the swing to allow everyone to see the great mans action in detail. There was of course no slo-mo available at the time and people had hoped that they could discover his “secret”. And whilst he didn’t know it at the time it was not even close to achieving that.
    I’m sure you’ve seen this, it’s David Feherty’s take on awareness and attention. Undoudtedly the most insightful thing I have ever heard a Tour play say.
    Looking forward to your next book!
    Kind Regards
    Kendal McWade

  2. djcoyle says:

    Hey Kendal, Thanks very much! I was not aware of the Hogan difference, though it makes me feel a lot better about my own swing. It also makes sense. It would be hard to replicate, in slow-mo, such an explosive action. I guess that’s why physiologists call the golf swing an example of “ballistic motion.” Though slow mo would work for non-ballistic motions. Thanks also for the Feherty link — completely on target, in my opinion.

  3. Mike says:

    Awareness is the most overused term in team sports and the one that is least understood. Many coaches tell their players to be more aware, to look over their shoulder, to keep their head on a swivel, etc. The problem is that coaches rarely give players specific things to look at. Progressive coaches have players identify colored cones or colored gloves held up by other players. The individuals involved in the game must pick their head up and call out the color cone/glove being held up. While this is not realistic to the specific sport, the habit of looking up and assessing one’s surroundings will eventually transfer to the actual game.

    Many coaches of sports played with a ball, such as basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, and soccer, will blame a players inability to carry out a tactical game plan on poor effort or poor skill. The truth is that players are working hard and can perform a specific technique if given enough time and space. The reality is the player had poor awareness and was not allowed enough time and space to perform the specific technique while also assessing his or her surroundings. In order to have good awareness one must know the position of the ball, the opponent, and their teammates. Modern coaches are ones who focus on awareness training where as traditional coaches are ones who consistently just tell their players to be more aware and look around.

  4. Timoteo says:

    It’s very similar but slightly different what I tell my soccer players: Always be reassessing: 1) Am I in the best position to support my teammates? 2) If I receive the ball what am I going to do with it?

  5. Robert says:

    Yea Mike,
    unless you also give directions awareness as a suggestion wont get you anywhere. You could train such awareness playing games also. Not as physically demanding but also train the same stuff in regard to the patterns the team or individual applies and then your able to read the action they are going to do before them even knowing they are going to do it. That is what made Gretsky the icehockey icon so great he always scated to where the action would be.

  6. Scott says:

    Daniel, I stumbled upon your blog and found this topic to be on point with two very important aspects of my life. CrossFit and training deputies. In Crossfit it’s about putting out more to become better than yesterday. This relates to becoming a better cop which will in turn keep you alive. Would you direct me on a path to enlighten me? For instance which book would you recommend on the topic? Thank you!

  7. Todd says:

    When watching star athletes on tape, what do you look for and how can you identify things to apply to your own game?

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