Photo credit: Graham Mattock, Mattock Imagery
“When faced without a challenge, make one.” Peter Diamandis
What is a challenge?
A challenge is something you don’t know that you can do.
Why are we drawn to challenges?
The drive to take on new challenges is built into our DNA. We’re biologically programmed to continuously push the limits of what we’re capable of—to test our abilities, sharpen our skills and fuel the motivation to reach our goals. And when we succeed, it creates a positive feedback loop that spills over into other areas of our lives.
What makes something a challenge?
A challenge is something that is just above your current skill level. The literature on Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi puts that figure at 4% above what you’re capable of and Daniel Coyle, author of the Talent Code, identifies the sweet spot for learning as when you’re succeeding in 50-80% of your attempts. If you’re pushing yourself too hard and failing more than this, the process becomes counter-productive and demotivating. This is commonly when injuries happen.
Sharpening the sword
One of the main reasons for tackling hard things, and one that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, is that it increases your abilities. The most successful athletes know that in practice, repetition is not enough, which is why they use this time to focus on their weaknesses. They push themselves harder than everyone else, continuously making themselves uncomfortable. They challenge themselves to take on superior opponents, to stretch themselves and up their game.
What is the process for growth?
“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” Josh Waitzkin
When you practice a skill that you find challenging, you form new synaptic connections in the brain. Each time you repeat that activity, your brain becomes increasingly efficient so that it doesn’t have to work as hard. This is similar to the plateau you experience in the gym if you continually repeat the same workouts over and over. Your gains level off because you no longer have to expend as much effort to achieve the same results. At this point, you need to increase the intensity of your training and put yourself outside your comfort zone again. The key to growth is continuous challenge.
Taking on challenges makes everything else easier
I recently got seriously into ice baths. I started off like everyone else, stepping timidly into the ice, holding my breath and almost immediately jumping straight back out. Then something surprising happened. After a few weeks, the ice bath raised my challenge hackles and I felt compelled to stay in for longer and longer, even though it was incredibly uncomfortable. I learned to relax, breathe, and fight the urge to hop straight into the hot tub. The harder it was, the greater my resolve. I stayed in for 23 minutes, then 31, and my final record was 44 minutes before I had to be helped out of the ice in case my legs crumpled underneath me Bambi-style.
The funny thing was, that other areas of my life seemed easier after the ice bath. If I could sit in the ice for 30 minutes chatting away as highly-trained, muscle-bound rugby players jumped in and out, yelping in pain, everything else seemed much more manageable. Sitting with the discomfort increased my confidence in other, seemingly unrelated areas. I felt braver, more courageous, and that feeling was addictive. It fuelled my drive to seek out new challenges to take on.
Challenging yourself in yoga
Many of you have told me how much you enjoy taking on and mastering new yoga poses. Yoga may seem easy and physically undemanding from the outside but when you’re in a class, it’s usually pretty humbling.
As an athlete, an unnatural level of flexibility is not necessarily going to bring you closer to your goals, but you can never be too skilled at balancing. Good balance is crucial in all sports as an end in itself and also because training balance enhances body control, coordination, focus, discipline and patience.
If you’d like to continue to challenge your balancing skills and tackle the most difficult of the Yoga 15 series, you can download Yoga For Balance here: yogabalancechallenge. It is technically demanding as well as pushing you to build strength and increase your flexibility. By gradually increasing the level of difficulty throughout the series as you learn new poses, you will continue to improve and grow your yoga skills.