Updated: Jun 23
Whether it is sports, a new hobby or a project at work challenging yourself not only makes the activity more fun but it helps you to GROW and that is the essence of the Parallel Dreams Coaching Method: Learn, Enjoy, Flow and Grow.
Finding a suitable challenge
My own background is the sport of skiing, which provides an excellent environment for ‘challenging’ oneself as do many outdoor activities like climbing, cycling, running, stand up paddle boarding (SUP: pictured above) etc. But whatever the activity finding the right level and kind of challenge is important i.e., a challenge that balances with your skills. So, how do you go about matching your level of skill with an appropriate challenge? And why is this important not only for sports but for other areas of your life as well? In this blog post I will look at how you can challenge yourself at an appropriate level and how this can, in turn, create purpose as you strive towards personal goals ultimately leading to more growth and meaning in your life.
What is the CS Balance?
The Challenge-skills balance or CS Balance is one of the nine elements of Flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999) and arguably one of the most critical. Too much of a challenge relative to your skill level and you risk anxiety which could result in something going wrong, injury, or denting your confidence levels. However, too little challenge and the likely outcome is boredom which, if continued, could lead to disinterest and giving up the activity! The important point is that the challenge is relative to your skill level and this is very ‘individual’. A high challenge to an athlete who engages in extreme sport is likely to induce terror for a recreational participant, while an intermediate learner's goals might be too much for a novice. Ideally, the level of challenge should stretch your skills so that effort and concentration are required. This is emphasised by Csiksentmihalyi, Latter and Duranso (2017) who say, “you need to find a challenge that is within reach but still requires effort to achieve” (p.21).
High levels of challenge and skill help to stretch your performance and assist with learning new skills. In the sports environment these challenges can be mental, physical, technical and tactical or any combination of the aforementioned. So both the level of challenge and skill need to be extending and stretching the person to new levels (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). In fact the challenge should just slightly outweigh the level of skill in order to stretch the performance. How do you find the appropriate level of challenge to match your skills? It would be wrong to conclude from the discussion so far that you must always be stretching your performance to its limits. Enjoyment also comes from being in ones ‘comfort zone’ where your skill exceeds the level of challenge. As a ski instructor my goal is to help students experience periods of skiing (during the lesson) where they are in their comfort zone so that they can practice and consolidate what has already been learned, relax, pace themselves and build confidence. However, lessons should also include periods where the learner is pushed into the ‘stretch zone’ as this makes the practice more purposeful. This concept of ‘zones’ is something that I will explore in greater detail in a future blog but suffice to say it is a good way to approach whatever activity you are engaged in.
Challenge for you and your family
One of the reasons I love the sport of skiing so much is because it provides a fantastic challenge for the whole family and in my experience families who ski together remain holidaying together for longer. As children reach their teenage years, often the thought of going on holiday with Mum and Dad is not very appealing. But skiing and snow sports are different as this unique type of holiday allows everyone in the family a certain amount of freedom and the opportunity for each member of the family to be challenged at their own level. The result is that skiing helps to bond and unite the family and this can go way beyond just the holiday itself.
Age is no barrier
The CS Balance also applies no matter what age you are. Skiing, like other sports, can continue to provide excellent levels of challenge until late in life and indeed finding activities that challenge and interest you is one of the best ways of keeping young. My own father in law is an inspiration to many and last January celebrated his 90th birthday with a week of skiing in the alps (see video below).
Engagement, purpose and meaning
So matching challenges with skills not only helps you to learn new skills but it helps you to engage fully with the task at hand. Engagement is one of the elements of Martin Seligman’s (2011) construct PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments). This theory suggests that having all of these elements in your life leads to greater and deeper happiness (eudaimonia). This also fits very well with the first stage of my own personal philosophy of Learn it, Love it, Live it (Tate, 2016). Engagement helps to create purpose which on a personal level helps drive you towards your goals. As Emily Esfahani Smith (2017) puts it, “It is the forward pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives” (p.78). Purpose is also one of the four psychological assets that Angela Duckworth (2016) refers to in her best selling book Grit and there is a real link between purpose and falling in love with what you do.
Emily Esfahani Smith (2017) talks about the four pillars of meaning (belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence). Each one of these pillars is accessible to everyone and can be built up over time. And while this may seem a rather ‘deep’ thought process and somewhat beyond the matching of challenges and skills, in a sport like skiing, I would beg to differ as I reflect on the many students I have taught who have made skiing an integral part of their lives, the families I have taught who continue to take ski holidays together and my 90 year old father in law who continues to derive enjoyment, purpose and meaning from this great sport.
• Too much of a challenge for the level of skill can lead to anxiety.
• Too little challenge can lead to boredom and potential disinterest in the activity.
• The level of challenge should stretch your skills so that effort and concentration are required.
• High levels of challenge and skill assist with learning and the challenge should just slightly outweigh the level of skill in order to stretch the performance.
• Using the concept of ‘zones’ is a good way to approach developing skills: The Comfort Zone (to consolidate and relax), The Stretch Zone (to promote learning) - more to come on 'Learning Zones' in a future blog post.
• You’re never too old to challenge yourself. Age is no barrier.
• Challenges promote engagement and learning.
• Purpose helps drive you towards your goals.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Latter, P., & Duranso, W. C. (2017). Running Flow, Mental immersion techniques for better running. Human Kinetics.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner. Esfahani Smith, E. (2017). The Power of Meaning, The True Route to Happiness. London, Sydney, Auckland, Johannesburg: Rider.
Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in Sports; The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Human Kinetics.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish, A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being and How to Achieve Them. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press.
Tate, D. (2016, August). Learn it, Love it, Live it; A Philosophy for Life. Parallel Dreams Publishing.
Tate, D. (2017, June). Lesson 1 - Focus Your Attention. Parallel Dreams Publishing.
Tate, D. (2017, July). Lesson 2 - Purposeful Practice. Parallel Dreams Publishing.
About the Author
Derek Tate is an author, coach and teacher and runs Derek Tate Coaching. His mission is to help others to flourish and get more out of life through better mental, emotional, and physical health. He offers mental skills coaching, alpine ski coaching, online courses and workshops and writes self help/psychology books.
This blog post has been adapted and updated from an article I wrote in September 2017.