Great Is About Challenge

In the early 1990’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published Flow (in 2008 republished with a few updates).  It is a worthwhile read that highlights the psychology of optimal performance, creativity, and happiness.  The book has achieved world renown, but it seems like too often the wisdom taken from it is, “Flow is a really cool place to be.  Flow is blissful and wonderful, let’s focus on being there all the time.”  One certainly cannot argue with the idea, but it seems like too often a simple equation that is presented in the book is overlooked: Challenge + Skill = Flow.  When one’s skill set matches the challenge at hand, great performances and experiences can be achieved.

This equation has an important word in it and it is not “flow.”  It is “challenge.”  Too often in discussions of flow (or the “zone” or whatever else you want to call it), the focus ends up on the destination… a happy, high performance state.  It is this focus on the result, rather than the process  (sport psychers reading this, how many times have you heard the last few words in other contexts) that typically holds performers back from actually understanding success at the highest levels.  A true understanding of Flow is not focusing on the wonderful state it can be, but appreciating that embracing challenge is the essential piece of high performance and good living.  Perfect days on the playing field are rare, champions love winning ugly, battling hard, and being challenged.  Consequently enough, the more often challenge is embraced the more likely Flow will be achieved.  The key to success is to forget about flow and love struggle.

How challenge is faced, created, and perceived has direct influence on high performance.  This may be evident in some recent sports stories and journalism:

1.  Failure to Find Challenge = Below Potential Play

In “Federer: My Game Has Issues,” Greg Garber does a nice job surmising about the importance of challenge for Roger Federer’s inspiration on the court.  As it has appeared in “lower” tiered tournaments over the years, Garber commented on Federer’s performance in Key Biscayne:

Even from the beginning, Roger Federer didn’t seem particularly engaged in his match against Tomas Berdych.

What happens when you achieve all your dreams? How do you get up early every day and grind and grind and grind when you’ve already made millions?

This could easily be written as a story about lost motivation, but change the sentence above slightly and it questions where and how Federer finds challenges, “What happens when you no longer feel challenged?  How do you get up every day and grind and grind and grind when there are no challenges left?

Garber makes it clear that Federer gets up for the Grand Slams, a place where he is challenged by champions of the past and his current record of wins.  Federer may be an example of where one’s level is so high that daily competition is not engaging because it is not challenging… been there done that.  A reasonable explanation for seemingly out of character performances.  Can it be combated, “Yes.”  Is it easy to combat, “No.”  (He’s human like us… boredom can be found easily.)

2.  Great Play Is Lost In the Face of Unreasonable Challenge

PGA Tour players play worse when Tiger Woods is part of the field.  This is highlighted in a recent article by Jonah Leher in the Wall Street Journal – The Superstar Effect.  Many of the ideas of the article can be simply summed up in the following line:

Competing against a superstar could make people even more likely to choke.

PGA Tour golfers are phenomenal at what they do (remember the advertising campaign “These Guys are Good”), yet appear to wilt when Tiger Woods walks onto a course.  This seems to contradict everything about great athletes being great because as said earlier, they embrace challenge.  This is where an athlete’s perception of the situation is key.  Leher’s article and the research behind it suggests that Tiger Woods is not a challenge to his fellow competitors.  He is simply a whole other level of play.  When Csikszentmihalyi highlights the importance of challenge, he says that it must be a reasonable challenge, one at or near someone’s skill level.  Some data leads to the hypothesis that many professional golfers see Tiger Woods as being of a skill level all of his own.  Perhaps this is why anxiety is seen more in his supposed peers than the embracing of challenge when he steps between the ropes.

3. Finding Challenge Within Each Day = Greatness

The UConn Women’s basketball team, just simply keeps winning.  Like Federer they had every reason to get bored this past season.  Nonetheless, they kept on cooking, with stumbles being wins that were by less than 20 points.  How could this be… I’d suggest that they looked within for challenge each day.  When your opponents stop pressing you, it’s time to start pressing yourself.  No longer do you look at points or the win-loss column, but rather where could one have been better than ourselves on all ends of the floor.  Ready any of the articles out there, this is certainly how Geno Auriemma views each practice and each game.  It clearly trickled down to his team.

When you are the best you embrace challenge… to stay the best you find the little things within to challenge yourself each and every day.

This has been a rambly examination of Flow theory… yet hopefully one that puts the focus on the importance of loving challenge and finding it each and every day.  Enjoy the days of comfortable flow on the playing field, dig in and live for the days of uncomfortable struggle for they lead to great things.


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