It is not uncommon to hear a parent say, “if only I could get my kid as interested in school work as she (or he) is in computer games.” Or, “what is so interesting about playing a game on a iPod or an iPad?”
Experts in sport and exercise psychology are quick to provide the answer —“optimal challenge.”
Optimal challenge refers to challenging a person to achieve something that is neither too hard nor too easy. If a task is too easy, a person becomes bored and quits trying. If the task is too hard the person gives up because of frustration.
People who program computer games understand the concept of optimal challenge. They offer challenges at different levels so that there is potential for optimal challenge for all (multilevel challenges). When the first level is mastered, the game player moves on to the next level.
The level of difficulty increases as the player gains skill. If challenge is optimal kids will give effort almost endlessly. But if the challenge is not optimal, they often quit giving effort. As parents and teachers know, effort is one of the most essential elements in being successful.
Computer programmers have the advantage of providing games that are played by individuals, each with his or her own device. Providing optimal challenge is much easier when dealing with one individual at a time than when working with a group — such as a team in baseball, an entire class in school, or even a family with several members.
Groups, by their very nature include people of varying abilities making it difficult to select activities that are optimally challenging for all. Some suggestions for providing optimal challenge and for getting effort from kids in achievement situations such as sports and games are offered below.
• Individualize when possible. Individualize tasks to match personal abilities with appropriate or optimal challenges.
• Use small groups. If individual challenges are not possible, use small groups with similar abilities, this helps match abilities with appropriate challenges.
• Adjust the challenge when improvement is made. As effort and practice leads to improvement, increase the challenge.
• The best challenge is one that requires a person to work to achieve it. An optimal challenge is above the person’s current ability, but not so difficult that it seems impossible. Persistence and practice is required to meet the challenge. Achieving something as a result of effort is fun.
It is not easy to create tasks that require optimal challenge. It is challenging. But if parents, teachers, and coaches work at it, they can create challenges that encourage kids to persist and give effort that leads to achievement.
If you doubt this, try to get a kid to stop playing a game when he or she is about to reach an “all time record score” in a computer game.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Dr. Charles B. “Chuck” Corbin is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, author of more than 90 books on fitness and activity, and was the first chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition Science Board. For more information on the National Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, go to www.health.gov/paguidelines.