Perception in Sports: Do You Know What You’re Missing?


We all know the importance of maintaining awareness when competing.  All sports require us to keep an eye on our position, the state of the game, the location and tactics of our opponents, the flight of the ball or puck, or the swing of the bat, racquet, or pitch.

Yet, you may be surprised to find out that you miss a vast amount of what’s happening, and it may be losing you the game.

A now famous 1999 study (repeated in 2010) confirms our ability to ignore the unexpected.

Before you continue reading, follow the link to see what we are talking about.

You’ll be asked to concentrate on a group of continuously moving students bouncing a basketball, counting how many times the players dressed in white pass the ball.

[We will return to what happened in this classic study in the next section, so I suggest you try it now.]

The findings of this and other research shed light on a strange phenomenon that is particularly relevant to sports – we typically miss what we don’t expect to see.

Just think of the ‘no look pass’ in basketball. When LeBron James looked in one direction, misdirecting opponents’ attention, while passing in another during a game against the LA Lakers in 2018, he left fans and commentators in awe.

You are probably missing the obvious

Okay, spoiler alert! 

If by now you’ve watched the video, you may or may not have missed the gorilla.

We are so focused on the passes made by each player dressed in white that we don’t notice what’s right in front of us. Or if we see the guy dressed in a hairy suit, we may have missed the other changes – the curtain colors or the player wandering off.

Yet, this strange phenomenon, known as ‘inattentional blindness,’ makes sense for our ancestors when every day was a risk to life. They had to focus on only what was essential to them during that moment in time – the lion creeping through the long grass, the snake preparing to strike, or the herd of stampeding buffalo.


Experts are less likely to miss the obvious

Whether you saw the gorilla or not doesn’t matter – it’s highlighting something we need to be aware of in sports.

Our perception isn’t always reliable.

In competition, “there is often a primary task that demands attention (e.g., controlling the ball or concentrating on a predetermined tactical sequence), which can lead to an unexpectedly free player not being noticed,” says Chair of Sport Psychology, Professor Julia Schüler and colleagues at the University of Konstanz, Germany.

Missing elements of the game that appear unexpectedly is particularly common in sports when our attention fixates on another task.

And research has made some interesting findings.

When researchers tested basketball players, they found that experts are less likely to miss the unexpected than novices. The more experienced we are, the more we can ‘chunk’ (or group) information to make processing easier.

Surprisingly, inattentional blindness even happens when players are asked to put themselves in a specific player’s position when watching a game’s recording. The observer takes on the player’s role and still overlooks an unmarked opponent despite being obvious.

What factors influence whether we see the unexpected in a game?

We aren’t always ready to see the athlete make an unusual move or the team player standing out in the open, ready to take a pass. And yet, it’s vital.

As Daniel Memmert, Professor and Executive Head of the Institute of Exercise Training and Sport Informatics at the German Sport University Cologne, recognized during his research on attention in sports:

“A greater ability to attend to elements of the game or to encode the scene into more meaningful patterns might explain how basketball players Steve Nash or Jason Kidd make “no-look” passes or how a quarterback in American football can throw the ball to an empty location knowing that the receiver will be there to catch it.”

So, what factors influence whether we see the unexpected in sports?


  • Experts are better at spotting the less obvious – but only in their sport.
  • The more obvious it is, the more likely we’ll notice it – think waving teammate.


  • When instructions are too explicit, we are only aware of what interacts with the rules.
  • Younger players are more susceptible to ‘inattentional blindness.’
  • When engaged too much or too little, we’re more likely to overlook critical aspects of the game.

Understanding inattention to improve our ‘game’

Knowing our opponent is susceptible to inattentional blindness and potentially ignoring the unusual gives our players and athletes an advantage.

And it’s not just about our awareness.

If our athletes can be unpredictable or less obvious, others may miss (or react slowly) to our play – particularly if they are new to the sport, tied, or dialed into what they are doing.

When our young athletes have a toolkit of unusual and surprising moves, tactics, and strategies, they can move on quickly, often unchecked. However, each surprise may only work once.

Being unexpected may take careful thought and planning, along with intuitive play. It’s helpful to think about how we can make use of or overcome limitations in our awareness. 

  • The unmarked teammate must be aware they are unexpectedly free – overlooked by the other team. Even if looked at, they may not be consciously perceived. When they need to be seen by their own team, a simple gesture, a nod, or a hand signal can be sufficient to increase awareness.
  • Clear but not overboard instructions may be sufficient. The chance of missing the unexpected increases when the coach or captain lays out a detailed game plan and tells the team it must be rigidly followed. It might be better to dial back the tactical instructions and task players with finding creative solutions while keeping a look out for the unexpected.
  • Training players’ cognitive abilities to notice what others don’t see. Watching playbacks of games and sporting events can help. Rather than focus on the central players or athletes, the athlete must keep an eye on the outliers – what opportunities were missed? What was left unseen?

So, are we saying we must tone down our focus on sports?

No, maintaining a strong focus on our skills and gameplay is vital to continued high performance.

Yet, so too is awareness of what may at first seem less crucial or urgent in the environment.

Awareness and focus must be monitored.

So, how do we get the balance right?

  • Recognize that if a player is new to the sport or a particular aspect of it, they are more susceptible to ignoring or missing what is novel.
  • Make signals more obvious, particularly when play is ‘busy.’
  • Share aims, objectives, and potential gameplay, but don’t set endless tactical instructions.
  • Be aware that younger players are more susceptible to ‘inattentional blindness.’
  • Reflect on past games and events. Was the player so hyped up they couldn’t see all that was happening? Or were they so disengaged that they did not connect with what was going on?

Bake in creativity

Creativity, novelty, and unpredictability engage players’ motivation, heighten their focus, and cause their opponents to miss the moment.

‘Think different,’ as the Apple slogan says.

Researchers Philip Furley and Daniel Memmert from the Institute of Cognitive and Team Racket Sport Research in Cologne, Germany, found that creativity in sports is vital for several reasons, including:

  • Problem-solving: coming up with innovative solutions to challenging situations during the game or competition.
  • Tactical flexibility: thinking ‘outside the box’ and introducing unusual and unexpected play that surprises and confuses the opponent.
  • Adaptability: being more able to handle dynamic, changing circumstances – adjusting gameplay based on the current situation, particularly in a high-pressure environment.
  • Innovation: developing new techniques, training methods, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in their sport.

While creativity does not guarantee success, it can introduce unexpected play and performances on the opponent’s inattentional blindness and create a more open mindset to ‘seeing’ the unexpected during a game, match, or competition.

Wrapping up

Players and athletes benefit from expanding their attentional focus and reducing the chances of missing out on the obvious yet unexpected.

Maintaining awareness of ‘inattentional blindness’ is vital. After all, when you know about the gorilla in the counting basketball challenges, it’s hard to miss it.

Gaining expertise in diverse tactics, approaches, techniques, and novel approaches also helps. Surprisingly, it means we are more ready for the unexpected.

Overall, it’s a tricky balance. The young athletes must focus on what they are doing to ‘get the job done’ while maintaining awareness of the opportunities around them, creatively taking advantage of their opportunities, and recognizing the unseen potential of opponents.


Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s hand book. New York: Psychology Press.


Furley, P., & Memmert, D. (2015). Creativity and working memory capacity in sports: working memory capacity is not a limiting factor in creative decision making amongst skilled performers. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 115–115.


Players who perfected the no-look pass in basketball. Collectors Tools. (2023). https://collectorstools.com/players-who-perfected-the-no-look-pass-in-basketball/


Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events. Perception, 28(9), 1059–1074.


Schüler, J. (Ed.). (2023). Sport and Exercise Psychology : Theory and Application / Julia Schüler [and three others], editors. (1st ed. 2023.). Springer Nature Switzerland AG.


Simons D. J. (2010). Monkeying around with the gorillas in our midst: familiarity with an inattentional-blindness task does not improve the detection of unexpected events. i-Perception, 1(1), 3–6.