What is selective attention? It's not the same as selective hearing, which comes with a negative connotation. For particular attention examples, look no further than sports.

In sports, you see selective attention on full display. You will see a basketball player see his defender lean just a little bit too much on his toes, and that will tell him that he should fake right, crossover, split the defenders, and go straight to the whole for a dunk.

All of this information is picked up in a split second. Every time you watch sports, you see athletes making decisions of ques that flash before a blink of an eye. What is selective attention? It's able to pay attention to the right cues.

What is Selective Attention?  

Selective attention is when you know where to focus on producing the best results. Any time you see a high performer, chances are that they have practiced particular attention whether they realize it or not. 

Selective attention is when you practice with intention so much that you learn different cues and the actions that they produce. You understand them so deeply that you only have to pay attention to one thing, and you already know what will happen. 

How I Developed Selective Attention as a Child

When I played football as a kid, I hated only one team, and it was the Pickering Dolphins. They were our rivals, but one particular year it got even deeper because one of our best players moved to Pickering, and his dad used to coach us. There was a lot on the line. 

I spent a month studying their playbook and film. I had learned it so well that I only needed to see the first second of each play, and I had a good idea of what was happening already. I was developing selective attention. 

I knew that if the QB did his cadence in a certain way and backed up in a specific pattern, the play was likely to be a run. Based on how he turned, I knew which direction it was going. 

I did not need to worry about: 

  • The coaches
  • Our coaches
  • The fans
  • The referees
  • The WR
  • OR anyone else

My film studied helped me pick up what the QB was doing, so I focused on the QB. Everything else for the first second of the play was just noise, and it needed to be ignored.

Read - How Gritty People Stay Focused

Selective attention is when you practice with intention so much that you learn different cues and the actions that they produce. You understand them so deeply that you only have to pay attention to one thing, and you already know what will happen. 

How Do You Improve Your Selective Attention? 

It will help if you put in more reps to improve your selective attention. It takes engaging in deliberate practice. You practice needs: 

  1. Goals 
  2. Feedback 
  3. Focused Practice Sessions 

There is no way to develop selective attention without engaging in deliberate practice. When you see a fighter knows that a slight drop in the right should mean that a left hook is coming, meaning they need to prepare a block and a counter with a left uppercut, it only comes from training. 

How Most People Practice 

Most people practice without any goals. They step up and start trying things. That is an ok way to get started, but you eventually plateau like this. You start working on something that you're good at instead of trying things you suck at. 

When you take this route, there is no way to engage where you are. You won't know where you're going either. How will you know when its time to move to the next skill? 

The truth is that this form of practice is more comfortable. Your ego is protected when you practice like this, and you rarely step on anyone's toes. When you're looking for selective attention examples, this is not it. 

How You Should Practice

When you begin to engage in deliberate practice. The first thing you need to decide is the end goal you're looking for.

The Goal

When I played the Dolphins as a child, I wanted to the patterns of their offensive play calling. I was not going to stop watching the film until I knew everything about them. 

When you see many NBA players go to practice, they have a specific skill to improve that day. They will do other things, but their main goal may be to increase their post scoring by 20%. 

The Feedback 

Getting feedback is the part that makes this the most challenging because it's not easy. Its not fun to be told you're not doing right or to get tested and realize that you still don't get it yet. 

When I was watching the film, I went through it with my dad, who was also the team's coach. He would frequently ask me what I saw and then test me on certain tendencies. It would help me to see what I was grasping and where I was struggling. 

For this to work, the feedback must be instant. You need someone to help you make corrections in real-time. If you don't do it right away, you may forget what the correction was for and not have enough time to make adjustments.

Focused Practice

The last part of this all is focusing on the right areas when you do the practice. Here is the difference between the amateur and the pro. The amateur course practices for fun, but the pro practices like their lives depend on it. 

What that means is that all distractions should be eliminated. When its time to practice, you need to focus on the skill you're trying to improve.

Each time you work at it, you need to engrain new habits. If you're not focused, you could create poor habits that stick with you. 

Read - Focus On What You Can Control

There is no way to develop selective attention without engaging in deliberate practice. When you see a fighter knows that a slight drop in the right should mean that a left hook is coming, meaning they need to prepare a block and a counter with a left uppercut, it only comes from training. 

Selective Attention Examples 

Here are some selective attention examples that will bring light to how this theory is all around us. I will start with some sports examples, but then I will branch out into other areas to make this more real. 

Fighting - A fighter knows when another soldier is tired enough to go in for the knockout punch based on their hand position. 

Football - A quarterback knowing when to call an audible based on how the defense lines up for play. The QB also can choose the best audible to go to based on the defense and game situation. All of this can be done in less than five seconds. 

Doctor - See a patient and feels a gland in their neck and immediately know they need to get imaging done to make sure its nothing too serious. Everything else is noise until that MRI comes back. 

Housekeeper - A housekeeper focused on how new guest put their stuff in the room. Do they put their things in drawers, or do they leave them in suitcases? They will adjust their cleaning approach based on this.  

Self-Awareness - Being aware enough to pay attention to your mood at certain times of the day. If you feel tired or hungry, you know not to make any decisions until you satisfy those needs. 

Selective attention is all around us. It comes from practice, experience, and reps of doing things the right way. 


Read - Why Bad Habits Are Sticky & Good Habits Are Elusive

Why Selective Attention Will Help You Dominate 

The only reason any of this matters is because you want to be a winner. You want to have more success at whatever it is that your working for. 

The beautiful thing about a habit is that its automatic. Selective attention brings your habits to the forefront. The problem with learning new things is that it takes a while for them to become a habit.

You need to know what punch to throw without having to think about it. If you think about it, it's too late; you miss your opportunity. 

Imagine if you could know what life is going to throw at you, and you know what counter punch to throwback because you have studied life that closely? 

You will dominate! How can anyone beat someone who always knows what counter punch to throw without even thinking about it?

You see this in sports all of the time. Athletes like Michael JordanLebron JamesTom Brady, and Peyton Manning so locked into their film and practice reps that it looks like they can tell the future. They become unstoppable. 

You can be too, but you have to learn about the areas that you need to do these two things. 

  1. Learn where you need to focus 
  2. Block out all other noise

Read - 10 Lessons Learned About Success

You need to know what punch to throw without having to think about it. If you think about it, it's too late; you miss your opportunity. 

Keep Learning More...


Ian Warner

About the author

I went from a broken leg to a 2012 Olympian. I have spent the last 15 years building positive habits as a track athlete and entrepreneur. I founded Habit Stacker and dedicated my life to helping people to develop winning habits. I have helped over 5,000 people...

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