Are athletes being challenged too much or not enough?

In order to get more out of athletes in games or competition, we need to set optimal challenges during practices and training sessions.

When we ask the question, “Is the level of challenge in our practices too much, not enough, or, just right?”, let’s consider the following:

  1. What is the athlete’s physical competence? (their skill level)
  2. Considering their skills, is the challenge appropriate?
  3. Does the challenge create confidence or stress?

A challenge requires great mental and physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s abilities. When a challenge meets, or just slightly exceeds, an athlete’s physical competence, optimal performance and expedited learning are possible. This is also a basic requirement for triggering performances in the flow state or “the zone.”

If the level of challenge is not sufficient, an athlete’s focus can become compromised due to complacency, which means you can count on seeing more mind-not-on-task errors. If the challenge is too significant, and an athlete starts to feel like they are being rushed or starts getting frustrated, it creates unnecessary stress, and sometimes fear or anxiety—at the sacrifice of self-confidence.

Let’s put on our “trampoline coaching hats.”

A young trampolinist is learning to do their first invert, a back-flip. His or her coach manages this challenge by working through a series of step-by-step skill progressions, only moving onto the next one when the athlete is ready. Once the trampolinist is confident and has shown proficiency with the basic skills; a hand-knee-drop, front-drop, backdrop, and backdrop-back-pull-over, they’re ready. It’s time to do the first flip, with a spotter, onto a foam throw-mat, and, it works!

The success of a trampolinist’s first back-flip is much higher if the step-by-step skill progressions are followed—which might be common sense—but let’s take a look at how things could have been different.

The risk of rushing progression and creating a challenge that’s “just too much.”

If one of our trampolinist’s basic skill progressions was skipped, and the coach rushed them with too much, too soon, would that help?—Of course not! Flipping end-over-end on a trampoline is scary, especially if you don’t feel prepared.

If the coach failed to gauge his or her athlete’s physical competence, rushed through the skill development framework, and failed to cater the challenge to the individual, it could create heightened levels of stress and fear. Additionally, if he or she were to rush the athlete and they failed, it adds frustration into the mix. Failures are good learning opportunities, but we need to create an appropriate framework for athletes to develop their skills and build confidence, in all sporting environments.

The risk of not progressing fast enough.

Much like you wouldn’t make the Harlem Globetrotters line up and practice their bounce passes for hours on end, you wouldn’t keep our trampolinist practicing rudimentary backdrops for weeks on end once they’ve learned the skill. Everyone would get bored in these scenarios, and you’d see a heck of a lot of complacency—if the athletes even show up to practice.

There’s a heightened risk of error when athletes feel under-challenged, and motivation is affected, too. If athletes aren’t stimulated by progression and forward movement, it’s a recipe for disaster because complacency gets thrown into the mix. Focus, awareness, decision-making, and motivation become compromised in the presence of complacency.

Setting adequate challenges and pushing the limits in the name of progress.

Athletes want to push their limits in the name of progression, learning, and growth. In order to keep things moving, the level of challenge should always meet, or just slightly exceed, an athlete’s physical competence. Gauging competence is the first step, then set the challenge accordingly. Try to avoid over-challenging players to minimize rushing, frustration, and the unwanted stress that comes with those two states. Creating a stimulating practice session with adequate challenges will also help you avoid complacency. Athlete self-confidence will improve, and you’ll see better performances and fewer injuries in practices, games, and competitions.

Author: Mike Shaw, Co-founder of Headstartpro

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