Soft Skills: Awareness and Focus

The words awareness and focus are often used interchangeably, especially when applied to combatives such as defensive tactics or shooting (combative or competitive). However, professional martial artists and shooters know that when it comes to attaining measurable goals and working toward those goals, words have meaning and those meanings matter.

Differentiating between the two words, awareness and focus provide clarity of meaning which affords better insight toward staying safe in a potentially threatening environment.

shooting a pistol at indoor firing range


According to a Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, the word awareness is defined as the quality or state of being aware: knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.

Your awareness can be used to identify a threat by enabling you to read your environment, including events, objects, and the people around you. Applying your awareness allows you to glean relevant information to determine if there may be something potentially harmful to you or those with you. 

Regardless of your background, gender, political affiliation, or personal belief, you were equipped at birth with certain onboard organic tools to help you read your immediate environment to detect or identify a potential, emerging, or active threat. This equipment includes your five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, and what some people call your sixth sense—intuitive hit or gut feeling. You can rely on any or all of these innate tools to proactively help get you out of a nasty situation.

Awareness can be attained visually, and our interpretation of those images is input into our consciousness. For example, you can observe people and events around you using your eyes, such as body language, cues, nonverbal signals, and vignettes or scenarios unfolding, such as a couple arguing or a mom scolding her kids. 

city street with yellow light

 Visual awareness is best described as being peripherally or indirectly aware of something. For example, if you look directly at a traffic light as it’s turning from green to yellow to red, your eyeballs are placed directly on that light, but if your mind is not engaged, then you will miss it altogether. The reason why you sometimes need to look at your watch twice to check the time is nothing more than a failure to engage your mind when applying your awareness.

You can use your ears to listen for screeching tires, explosions, gunfire, or people screaming. You can use your nose to detect smoke, gas, or other potentially dangerous odors. You can feel the change in temperature with your skin, such as standing next to fire or pressure from a blast percussion. You can taste ash, pepper spray, and other airborne particles. 

Your sixth sense, an intuitive hit or gut feeling, is your earliest onboard warning system. It is pure perception and precedes your five senses. Often it is referred to as simply a matter of just ‘knowing by knowing.’ In other words, you just know. Everyone has experienced this at one time or another in their lives, but most choose to ignore it or reject its validity entirely. 

Regardless of how you pick up that initial blip on your awareness radar screen combined with mental engagement, awareness is the currency that buys you time and opportunity to solve the tactical problem utilizing the resources you have at hand.

person helping with a car wreck late at night


According to Merriam-Webster dictionary definition, the word focus is defined as a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding,

Much like awareness, your focus has a visual, mechanical, and mental aspect. When driving a car, for example, you are aware of the position and relative speeds of the other vehicles around you. However, when somebody makes a sudden move, starts to swerve around, or cuts in front of you, your focus switches from a flood light to a laser beam on that potential threat event. It’s not that you cease to be aware of your other surroundings, but you have sharpened your visual focus on that one car as it has justifiably captured your attention and raised your interest level.

cars blurred on a night street

Focus can also be expressed mechanically. You are aware of the gas pedal, the brake, the steering wheel, and the speed and position of your vehicle. However, when you move defensively to avoid an accident, you shift your mechanical focus to apply your brakes with appropriate sharp timing.

Mental focus is something that is used in high-profile sports. When it comes to professional sports, aside from a very demanding level of athleticism and coordination, the higher the level of performance required, the greater the level of mental focus needed. Pro golfers, race car drivers, and professional competition shooters often hear that ‘it’s all a mental game.’ In other words, you cannot expect to perform at the highest levels if your head is not in the game (you are mentally focused).

In passing a firearms qualification on a string of fire, you get through everything mechanically correct and run a great time until you get to the last target, and you think, “Oh, I’ve got this!” and mentally relax. You will have missed the mark because you let up on that mental gas pedal.

person shooting at an indoor range

Awareness and focus, although sometimes used interchangeably, have different meanings. The two used separately work to help you stay on track by being mentally connected to your environment and performing important tasks to the best of your ability. Using them together affords you an opportunity to combine your physical and mental faculties best when it comes to staying safe in a challenging world.

Steve Tarani is a former fulltime CIA protective programs employee, small arms and defensive tactics subject matter expert who served on POTUS 45 pre-election executive protection detail. He is the lead instructor for NRA’s non-ballistic weapons training program offered nationally. Tarani is also a DoD and FLETC-certified federal firearms instructor who has been on staff at Gunsite Academy (AZ) as a Rangemaster for over twenty years. Formerly sworn, he is also a former federal contractor and service provider for the US Defense Intelligence Community, US Naval Special Operations Command and other government agencies. Tarani additionally serves on the National Sheriffs’ Association Committee for School Safety and Security.

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