The Challenge: Battle of the Seasons aired the season finale last week. This reality television show starring ordinary young adults has slowly evolved into a sport of sorts. Case in point, the grand finale resembles an objectively taxing and challenging series of mental and physical tasks in what amounts to a 2-day obstacle course.

Three teams have endured to a final that involves traveling to a desert in Africa wherein they must skydive from a plane, spend all day running numerous miles through thick sand and searing heat while solving puzzles and moving heavy tires and boxes of sand from point A to point B. This day-long marathon is followed with a night of forced sleep deprivation and spine-shivering cold, which is then followed with yet another full day of running (mainly uphill). And, remember, these are not athletes so much as they are early 20’s adults driven by the hopes of becoming a reality television celebrity.

In one sense, the goal of the challenge is to finish it; to survive it in as time-efficient a fashion as possible so as to win “the race” against the competing teams and capture the largest sum of prize money. I can tell you how the teams did in that respect right now.

1st place: Team San Diego (Frank, Sam, Ashley and Zack)

2nd place: Team Las Vegas (Trishelle and Dustin)

3rd place: Team Brooklyn (Chet, Devyn, JD, Sarah)

But I would posit that there is another goal worth grading the cast members on that is broader and more important than their official “time.” How did they handle the experience? Did they cooperate well as a team, treat each other with respect, and bring out the best in each other? Did they effectively manage the fear and anxiety inherent in such a physically and emotionally draining experience? Did they cope well with their failures and skillfully milk their successes? 

What follows are my grades for each team in this socio-emotional-psychological line of thought.

It’s worth noting that each team failed pretty miserably in this vein given that my bar was to expect that each team would maintain an upbeat, resilient mood, clear communication, and moderately proficient problem-solving skills. As it turned out, each team struggled in fundamental ways to motivate, cooperate, modulate and overcome, as evidenced by the fact that all three teams spent most of the time flagrantly denying moments in which they personally performed poorly at a particular task, and generally bickering, judging and complaining. I must admit that on more than one occasion I became confused as to whether these were competitors deserving of a nationally televised spotlight or toddlers in the backseat of a car during a long drive.

Team San Diego

Most striking was this team’s dysfunctional ability to come to together as a cohesive group and cooperate. The trigger for what degraded into perpetual unrest and counter-productive conflict was Sam’s inability to jog/run at a pace commiserate with the rest of the team. During all of the long jogs up and down the hills, Sam would fall into the rear. Now, there were a number of options to effectively handle this situation, (including recognizing the fact that Sam was trying her hardest, was not moving at such a slow pace as to jeporadize the outcome, and was admirably handling all the harassment coming her way) but sadly the team didn’t engage in anything remotely resembling a healthy response. Instead, Frank displayed some significant limitations with frustration tolerance by choosing to back-track to Sam so that she could better hear the obscenities and insults that he was continuously screaming. And, as if the verbal harassment wasn’t slowing everything down enough, he even bullied and abused Sam physically (at one point he pushed her down to the ground). Frank indeed led the charge on a blatantly ineffective way of motivating Sam, but Ashley’s stone-silent passivity and Zack’s sidekick act that resembled a more polite, restrained version of Frank’s verbal assault fueled the fire of dysfunctional teamwork as well.

Grade: D

Team Brooklyn

What held this team back from optimal performance was the poor coping skills displayed by Devyn and Chet. The process was kick-started by Devyn’s physical limitations. Let’s just say her running style was un-athletic. But unlike Sam, Devyn demonstrated some weaknesses with kinestetic intelligence in the sense that she moved with poor balance and wasted energy, an struggled to read  and test her body’s status quo (so as to stretch and pace herself in a way that could bring her body back to full steam). So perhaps it can be said that Devyn moved at a pace that was not only slow but was the result of things she was doing with her mind. However, this fact in and of itself did not hold the team back significantly. The real problem was that Devyn responded to her physical limitations by emotionally shutting down (basically tuning out the rest of the team and failed to elicit the support that she clearly needed) and becoming hopeless. The hopelessness was perhaps the most toxic element of her performance. She became so hopeless that she “gave up” as much as a person could “give up” – at one point she was so completely disengaged from the team during the mental and physical tasks that she literally slept while the rest of the team slogged through a Sudoku puzzle.

Her unhealthy response to the adversity was partially caused and compounded by Chet’s own emotion regulation deficits. It remains unclear how resilient a competitor Chet really is because he instead of helping his team succeed, he focused the majority of his inner resources on playing the self-appointed role of Devyn’s drill sergeant. He’d run alongside her and either shout empty platitudes or scoff with whiny insults - at one point, during a game that involved rolling eight large tires from point A to point B, he angrily instructed Devyn to grab a ninth tire. This moment not only showed his inability to effectively communicate with a teammate but also reflected a mindset that was so disoriented and panicked that he failed to process that he was insisting on Devilyn taking the time to do something that caused the task to become unnecessarily difficult (like Frank, Chet’s performance in the Reunion episode was marked by a complete inability to hold himself accountable to and thereby learn from such mistakes). The other two teammates performed well in the sense that they effectively handled the physical and cognitive challenges while allowing themselves to not get sucked into the psychologically harmful vortex fueled by Chet and Devyn. Of course, they could’ve intervened in a positive way so as to help Chet and Devyn be more effective but that’s a tall order and I won’t flag them for that.

Grade: C

Team Las Vegas

This team performed the best. This is mainly due to the fact that Dustin possesses the sharpest, most advanced skill set related to social-emotional functioning of the entire cast – and it’s not even close. This is the case not because Dustin is a strong performer (which he is) or because he’s perpetually calm and composed (which he is), but because he effectively responded to a teammate in Trishelle who struggled with managing her self-image, her mood, and her relationship to Dustin with an instability that rivaled Frank. There were numerous instances in which Trishelle failed to “carry her weight” during a particular task or challenge. In these moments she’d fail to notice the fact that her performance was slowing the team down, and instead of acknowledging this or calming herself down so as to perform more adaptively, she’d attack Dustin for “harassing” her (something he literally never did…not even a little…which is a real accomplishment because I felt like harassing her during the Challenge and I’m just watching it all unfold on the couch). And in other moments where both she and Dustin struggled to solve a puzzle, rather than propose something constructive or at least provide a thoughtful, supportive presence so that Dustin could be more likely to propose something constructive, she morphed into something comically unproductive. She turned into a bossy complainer who simultaneously insisted on taking over the “planning,” failed to actually come up with a plan, and then demeaned Dustin for not doing anything.  And despite her lack of self-awareness  and hostile style Dustin managed to let her obnoxiousness roll off his back with hardly an eye-roll, and maintained a response set in which he provided gentle encouragement and unconditional acceptance of her limitations. I would say Trishelle’s dysfunctional interpersonal style and coping response was more than offset by Dustin’s adaptive reaction, which not only elevated the underdog team to a surprising 2nd place finish in the Challenge but my highest grade.

Grade: B+

About the Author

Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., is a forensic and clinical psychologist.

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