The Power of the Self-Challenge

Looking for ways to motivate your players? You can benefit from an underutilized coaching tool that motivates your entire team and is rooted in psychology. It’s called the self-challenge.

Multiple SportsThe use of a self-challenge in practices and games will build confidence and create the drive to continually improve. A self-challenge is exactly what it sounds like; it is an individual challenge for players to out-do their previous best performance. For example, if a basketball player makes six out of ten free throws during a drill, their self-challenge is to make more than six out of ten free throws the next time they are at the line.

There is a lot of psychology behind the self-challenge, beginning with the setting of goals. This step is beneficial to players for multiple reasons*:

  • Goals direct attention and effort towards goal-relevant tasks and away from goal-irrelevant tasks;
  • Goals energize players and motivate them to achieve their best;
  • Goals impact persistence to stay committed;
  • Goals drive players to obtain task-relevant knowledge and skills required for goal attainment, resulting in a reinforcing mechanism that encourages further goal pursuit;
  • Goals create dissonance between a player’s current skill level and desired skill level, motivating them to reduce that dissonance.

How Does the Self-Challenge Work?

The self-challenge sets a goal. The presence of that goal motivates and focuses players to accomplish it. As players pursue their goal they build skills and begin to develop a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that training and practice can lead to improved skills or the acquisition of new skills.

As players set their goals, work towards accomplishing those goals and then accomplish them, they incrementally improve their skills. The improvement reinforces the growth mindset because players see the results of their efforts. The self-challenge creates a positive feedback loop where players seek to improve, then improve, and as results of their improvement, are motivated to top their new self-challenge. 

How to Make a Self-Challenge

The power of the self-challenge lies in the fact that the goal being set is a realistic one. Therefore, it’s oftentimes best to base the self-challenge on past performance. Using a player’s previous best provides enough of a challenge to keep them engaged in their pursuit, but also does not set the bar too training

Going back to the basketball free throw example, if a coach decided to set a goal for the entire team to make five out of ten free throws, some players will easily achieve that goal, some will be very excited when they reach or exceed that goal, some will fall just short and others will struggle to accomplish it. The disparity between players creates difficulty for coaches when setting goals for an entire team. The players who struggle are likely to lose motivation, resulting in little to no development. The players that easily achieve the goal are not challenged and can become disengaged. 

The self-challenge solves this issue by having players compete to beat their personal best and focus on outdoing themselves, not accomplishing an arbitrary goal set by the coach.  

The self-challenge builds players’ confidence and also teaches how to handle adversity when they struggle to beat their personal best. The responsibility is solely the player’s to become better, a lesson that will serve them well beyond their youth sports playing days.

Niel Curley has coached multiple youth sports ranging from ages six to high school aged athletes and has served as the league director for youth sports leagues.  He is currently a member of the team at, and provides coaching insights relevant to all youth coaches including a comprehensive list of free volleyball drills.

* E. Locke, G. Latham. Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation. American Psychologist, 57 (2002), pp. 705–717.

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