Have you ever been driving your car, seen something on the road that you wanted to avoid, did your best to avoid that thing, yet hit it anyway? This occurrence is generally known as “target fixation,” and can occur anytime, anywhere, and with anything you’re doing. One particular incident of target fixation that comes to mind for myself is when I was riding my bike a few years ago. Unfortunately, this happened as an adult, and not excusably as a child. I was riding along and saw a curb that I knew I needed to hop onto. I kept staring and staring at this curb until it was right in front of my bike. I did not hop, but instead, pedaled full force into the curb, sending myself flying over the handlebars. Embarrassing. Most commonly though, I have engaged in target fixation when faced with a performance task.
As a performance concept, target fixation can be loosely defined as the focus of the mind on a specific potential outcome that leads us to physically induce that outcome without intention. This outcome could be negative or positive, and a large part of it is in your control.
It seems that target fixation most often occurs in negative circumstances. We see something that we want to avoid, and then crash into it head-on. The object you want to avoid absorbs your mental focus, and your body follows. Instead of your body listening to what you don’t want it to do, it’s like your body unrestrainedly propels itself to do the opposite. This is a common and unfortunate mental phenomenon. It can be especially prominent when there is a pressure for performance. Why is it that when we don’t want something to happen, it inevitably seems to happen? Destruction proceeds as our mind overlooks the part about not letting it happen. We go where our eyes, or mind, takes us.
For anybody with a goal, the object of the goal is to achieve something. With achievement in mind, we might start thinking about all of the things that could get in our way. Those thoughts begin to build a web of doubt that’s easy to get caught up in.
As a young athlete in rifle, I wanted to win. The goal was to shoot all tens, or as many tens as possible, opposed to nines, eights, and worse. While shooting in a high-pressure situation, I sometimes caught myself saying, “don’t shoot a nine, don’t shoot a nine,” followed by a nine. This would happen repeatedly, leading to anxiety, panic, and the derailing of my performance. My natural response was to continue to tell myself not to shoot those bad shots, as well as beat myself up because they happened, and the cycle would continue.
I came to the realization that a solution to avoiding target fixation was not to eliminate it, but to redirect it. Instead of focusing on not doing something incorrectly, the focus should be on doing something correctly. The target you fixate on should be the outcome you want to see happen. For myself in shooting, this became focusing on shooting tens, rather than not shooting nines. I would let the word “ten” bounce through my mind continuously, leading to more mental control over my performance and improved outcomes.
How can you change your focus to positively impact your goals? The possible outcomes for what you are doing might be endless, but if you fixate on the outcome you desire most, the chances are greater that you will hit that target.