For anyone who wants to become elite, how you deal with challenges and obstacles is crucial. Challenges are important for many reasons, but I’ll just point to two here:
1) To overcome challenges, you must engage in self-assessment. When you get benched for a game, it’s hard to ignore what happened (although certainly possible). You go home that night and look yourself in the mirror and ask, “Why did I get benched? What am I doing wrong? How can I earn more playing time?”
The act of asking ourselves the tough questions and answering them honestly is painful and difficult. As a result, we often avoid doing it. But challenges do the work for us by triggering these moments of honest self-evaluation. And it’s only once we openly assess our performance that we can get back on the right track.
2) Overcoming challenges requires increased dedication. Once players get benched, they’ll typically respond in either one of two ways. They'll either blame the coach and give in or become determined to work even harder to earn back their playing time. To overcome the challenge, you have to choose the second option. In this way, the challenge can trigger greater persistence and effort.
Research has demonstrated the importance of challenges. Specifically, a recent study showed that regardless of sport, a common feature of elite level performers are challenged-filled developmental pathways.
This may seem obvious right? That the best in the world all overcame significant challenges. But I think we treat young athletes as if the exact opposite were true. We act as if the goal is to make their lives as easy as possible. We try to get rid of all the obstacles in their path.
We try to smooth the road before they walk it.
This can be seen clearly in players who exhibit talent at a young age. They dominate the players their age and once that happens people start to smooth their road. They get the star treatment from their team coaches, parents, and private trainers. It becomes about appeasing the talented player rather than bringing out the best in them.
What coaches, parents and trainers have to realize is that if we want to develop talent, it’s not about eliminating obstacles for them to reach the top. It’s about teaching them how to deal with those obstacles when they inevitably occur. And, I’d argue, making sure that they face challenges early on so they can learn from experience how to handle them.
So how do we create challenges for talented players?
Here are a few ideas:
- Play up an age group
- Play pickup against older players
- Play out of position
- Increase their training load
Ideally, we would be able to monitor the level of challenge by putting players in a position where the possibility of failure is real but not overwhelming. And from there, we support them and provide them with the psychological tools to respond in a positive way when those difficulties occur.
At some point in their career, every player will face challenges. If we haven’t prepared them for how to deal with the challenge, how are they going to react?
1. MacNamara,Á, Button, A., and Collins, D. (2010a). The role of psychological characteristics in facilitating the pathway to elite performance. Part 1: identifying mental skills and behaviours. Sport Psychol. 24, 52–73.