In evolution, there is a concept known as optimal challenge.
Optimal challenge is the idea that a certain amount of environmental difficulty is required to force the process of natural selection. Simply put, animals need challenges in order to evolve. Without challenge, there is no impetus for change.
But the right level of challenge is important (hence the word optimal). Too much challenge and the species dies out, not enough and they won’t adapt.
Let’s look at the evolutionary dance of lions and antelope to understand the concept a little bit better. (Hang with me here, I’ll bring this back around to basketball).
If lions suddenly become twice as strong, twice as smart, and twice as fast overnight, antelopes would be screwed. The lions would catch and eat all the antelope, decimating the population. But that’s not what happened in evolution, change happened incrementally. Lions made small advances and antelopes responded.
- Lions grew tan fur to conceal themselves against the dry grasses of the savannah. Antelopes responded with sharper eyesight to spot them.
- Lions grew sharper claws. Antelopes responded with tougher hides.
- Lions developed stronger tails to help them change direction. Antelopes responded with quick-twitch muscles in their quads to allow them to sprint faster.
The cat and mouse game of evolution was driven by the challenges that the lions presented to the antelopes. As a result of the challenges, antelopes became stronger and more resilient.
If we compare the antelope of millennia past to present day antelope, we see that the antelopes of today’s savannah have better eyesight, tougher hides and faster sprint speed. This is the value of challenge.
In basketball, optimal challenge should have 2 qualities.
First, it should be of moderate difficulty.
Second, it should occur daily.
Thus, optimal challenge in your growth as a basketball player can be defined as moderate, daily challenges.
Moderate, daily challenges stimulate growth whereas giant, infrequent challenges are simply overwhelming. In fact, without the moderate, daily challenges, you won’t be prepared to face the inevitable larger challenges that are thrown at you.
- If you never shoot free throws (with consequences for missing shots) during your workouts, you’ll wilt when you’re at the line in the 4th quarter and 1,000 fans are screaming themselves hoarse.
- If you never run sprints to get in physical shape, you’ll collapse when forced to play 35 minutes against a team that presses full court.
- If you never play against better competition in the offseason, you’ll be overwhelmed when you come back to your team and have to compete against the starters.
Just like incremental challenges make antelopes stronger and stimulate growth, moderate, daily challenges help you become a better player and prepare you for the big moments.
The key difference is that antelopes will face the challenge whether they want to or not. Lions are always evolving new ways to catch antelopes. They're getting stronger, faster, and smarter and that automatically imposes challenges on the antelopes.
We, on the other hand, have to create our own challenges. When we're in an empty gym getting shots up, there's no challenge being given to us. We don't have the metaphorical lion forcing us to adapt and improve. We have to generate our own challenges, which requires tremendous discipline and dedication.
The same process occurs with your moral character. If you don’t challenge yourself daily to become a more honest, courageous, humble, respectful, compassionate person, how will you respond during times of moral crisis?
In the news, we see stories of tremendous integrity and courage from ordinary people:
- The guy who accidentally gets mailed $10,000 in cash and returns it to it’s owner.
- The woman who jumps into the freezing water to save a drowning stranger.
- The family who risked their lives to protect jewish fugitives in Nazi Germany.
What we don’t see in the news is how they lived their life up to that point. The emphasis they put on being an other-centered person.
- How they always hold the door open for strangers.
- How they pick up pieces of trash on the street when they see it.
- How they always clean out the locker room before leaving opposing gyms.
- How they remember the names of the janitors in their building.
- How they smile and say hello to the barista even when they're having a crappy day.
- How they call out their teammates when they make a sexist comment.
The moderate, daily challenges of being a compassionate, honest, humble, person in everyday life made these ordinary people stronger and infused their character with a backbone of morality. When the crisis occurred, they could draw on that internal strength and leap into the freezing water or return the $10,000 or protect the jewish fugitives.
Without the discipline to challenge themselves every day, these heroes would’ve been overwhelmed by the moment and unable to respond in a morally-sound fashion. They weren’t born heroes with fairytale-worthy morals, they developed them through moderate, daily challenges.