Perfectionism in Sports Articles

10 Ways To Overcome Perfectionism in Sports

Eli Straw
10 Ways To Overcome Perfectionism in Sports

Perfectionism in sports holds you back as an athlete because of the impact it has on your focus and confidence.

The desire to be perfect comes from a good place and is something that’s easy to adopt. Every athlete I’ve worked with has the ambition to be the best they can be. The challenge is making sure that desire does not turn into a need to be perfect.

When you begin to need to be perfect, any sign that you weren’t perfect can send you for a loop. During a game what can happen is you quickly lose focus, as all you can think about is that one mistake you just made. This increases your chances of developing sports performance anxiety and fear of failure.

The more you deal with perfectionism, the more difficult it will be to play with confidence. Therefore, it’s important for you as an athlete to learn how you can overcome perfectionism in sports.

In this article, you will learn ten practical ways you can work to let go of perfectionism.

#1: Be Welcoming of Mistakes

A defining trait of perfectionism is the fear of making a mistake. I mean, if you make a mistake, what does that signify? Obviously, it shows that you weren’t perfect. But here’s the problem…you can’t avoid mistakes. Not if you want to improve, that is.

In sports, just as with anything, mistakes are bound to happen. And that’s okay because you know what mistakes show you? Areas you can improve.

When you’re struggling with perfectionism, you miss out on so many incredible opportunities to better your game, simply due to your fear of making mistakes.

So, one of the best ways you can work to overcome perfectionism in sports is to begin welcoming mistakes. And the best way to make that switch in your thinking is to recognize that mistakes are opportunities to learn.

They are teachers, not evil things that you need to fear. Welcome mistakes with open arms, learn from them, and drop the fear that they mean you aren’t a good player.

In addition to learning from mistakes, welcoming mistakes also helps you move on from them quicker. This allows you to refocus during a game, rather than having one mistake snowball into many more.

"When you’re struggling with perfectionism, you miss out on so many incredible opportunities to better your game, simply due to your fear of making mistakes."

#2: Work to be Consistent

Perfectionism means you want to be perfect each and every time you step on the field or court. To you, that may be the only way you can be a consistent player. But the truth is, you can’t be perfect every time. There’s just no way.

And by trying to do so, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Instead, to work on letting go of perfectionism, you need to change your mindset to one that strives for a different kind of consistency…consistency in approach.

As an athlete, consistency for yourself needs to be judged on how you approach each game mentally. It also needs to be judged by how you approach each game physically, meaning how much preparation you’ve done.

Coaches must view consistency based on the outcome. But that’s their job. Your job is to produce the outcomes. Something that becomes increasingly more difficult to do if you’re too focused on the outcome.

To stop being a perfectionist, begin aiming for consistency in approach. A great way to do this is by setting yourself a pregame routine. Decide what is the best mindset for you to have during a game. Then, tailor your pregame routine to get you into that mindset on a consistent basis.

#3: Change How You Speak to Yourself

It’s not always the specific phrase you say, but as a perfectionist, a lot of times your thoughts will be targeted towards the idea of not being good enough.

Yesterday I was talking to a basketball player I work with and he mentioned how he expects himself to play a certain way. His exact words were, “I played well but I don’t care about that. I’m supposed to play well. It’s nothing to feel good about.”

This means the only way for him to feel good about how he plays is if he had an exceptional game…good isn’t good enough.

This highlights how important the way you speak to yourself is. It controls your focus and determines how you feel about yourself and your game.

To work on overcoming perfectionism in sports, you have to pay attention to how you’re speaking to yourself and change it to be more positive and productive.

Instead of having your self-talk constantly telling you how you’re not good enough and how you aren’t perfect, try altering it to be more directed towards growth. Emphasizing the progress you’ve made and the work you’re putting in to keep getting better.

"To work on overcoming perfectionism in sports, you have to pay attention to how you’re speaking to yourself and change it to be more positive and productive."

#4: Focus on What You Did Well

After a practice or a game, what’s the first thing you look for? If you’re trying to overcome perfectionism, I’m going to guess the first thing you do is look for what you did wrong. In other words, you seek out reasons you weren’t perfect.

It’s odd if you really think about it. Why would you look for reasons you weren’t perfect instead of trying to see reasons you were perfect? Well, because as strange as it is, perfectionism doesn’t actually allow you to believe it’s possible to be perfect.

So, your eyes continue to search for everything you did wrong after a practice or game.

To counteract this, you want to first focus on what you did well. Now be warned, this isn’t easy to do and your mind will keep pulling you towards the negatives.

There is a natural reason for this, and it’s because it feels like the best option to improve.

You want to be perfect, and mistakes mean you aren’t perfect, so, if you can identify the mistakes you made then you feel as though you can improve them.

While the intention is there, this way of going about examining your performances only leaves you feeling frustrated and eats away at your confidence.

Instead, practice focusing on what you did well. That will set you up nicely for the next way you can work on overcoming perfectionism in sports…learning how to evaluate instead of judging.

#5: Evaluate but Don’t Judge

Your performances are judged by stats, other people, and the score. But they shouldn’t be judged by you, not if you’re aim is to overcome perfectionism, at least.

Why do you think you judge your performances?

Well, probably to determine if you played good enough. Makes sense. But what you really should be doing is evaluating yourself for future improvement. It may seem like the same thing, but there’s a huge difference in the way you approach doing so.

When you judge, it is very black and white. You either had a good game or a bad game. Now, as a perfectionist, the bad games will outweigh the good because of your eye for mistakes.

Saying you had a good or bad game is fine, but it doesn’t help too much with getting to the specific areas of your play that were good and the areas that can be improved.

Instead, you want to begin evaluating your performances. This makes it a more objective practice.

The way I do this with the athletes I work with is by providing them with a journal. In the journal, there are specific questions they must answer.

You can take this same approach by answering two questions yourself:

  • What did I do well?
  • Where can I improve?

When you answer these questions, make two lists and get specific. That way, you can use what you did well to improve confidence and use where you can improve as useful information to apply to practices moving forward.

"Your performances are judged by stats, other people, and the score. But they shouldn’t be judged by you, not if you’re aim is to overcome perfectionism, at least."

#6: Define Success for Games

How do you know if you played well if you do not predetermine what it means for you to play well?

The other day I had a call with a softball player. She’s a pitcher, and when I asked her what she expects of herself each game her answer was to be perfect. When I then asked her what it means for her to be perfect, she said getting everyone out and not walking any batters.

Now, we both agreed that was setting her up for failure.

Though, what’s almost worse than having unreasonable expectations is having no set definition of success. As a perfectionist, what this does is provide you with the opportunity to always find something wrong. The reason being you have nothing specific to base your play on.

A way to counteract this is by setting specific targets for each game.

Hold on a second, now…I’m not talking about outcome targets. This can be a difficult concept to trust, but proves time and again to drastically reduce perfectionism.

Let’s go back to the example of the softball pitcher. I asked her what would be a target she could focus on that would help her get the outcome she wanted. She said focusing on the mit and keeping her arm straight as she delivered the pitch.

That right there is her new definition of success.

You want to define success based on process aspects of your game that are completely in your control. That way, you are setting yourself up for success rather than failure.

And the best part is, your process targets should be set in a way that they give you an even better chance of getting the outcome you want…without having to focus on the outcome.

#7: Focus on What You Enjoy

Constantly seeing yourself as not good enough is tiring. It sucks the life out of you and the joy out of the game.

Perfectionism is one of the main causes I see in athletes who come to me because they have lost their love for the game. To regain this love, we work on getting them to focus more on what they enjoy.

Playing a sport because you love what you’re doing means you are driven more by intrinsic than extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is when your drive comes from outcomes-you play to win or get a certain stat line. This type of motivation can be dangerous to perfectionists because you are already overly focused on results.

Developing more intrinsic motivation will help center your focus more on what you’re doing and getting joy out of the act of playing.

Now, what if you’re a competitor? What if all you want to do is dominate the competition?

Well, I’ll ask you one very simple question: are you dominating the competition right now?

Is being a perfectionist helping you play your best? If the answer is no, then it’s time to turn your focus away from the outcome and onto what you enjoy about your game.

If you play more with joy, I guarantee the results will be more of what you want.

To focus more on what you enjoy about your game, make a list. Identify what you love the most about your sport. Sometimes to help with this, it’s good to think back to when you were enjoying yourself the most and outline what was going on.

What were you thinking about and what drove you to play?

Once you’ve identified what you enjoy about your sport, that’s what you must focus on each and every day.

#8: Don’t Wish You Were Already There

It’s easy to get caught up in your goal. There’s a reason you’ve set a target for yourself; you know it will feel good and you’ll feel successful once it’s reached.

However, it takes time to reach a goal. It requires work, effort, persistence, and consistency. This is true if your goal is outcome related or based on a certain level of play.

Either way, it’s dangerous to wish you were already at the level where you want to be without putting in the necessary time and effort required. This is where perfectionism blossoms.

Instead of wishing you were already there, fall in love with the process. Focus on small growth each and every day. Hold on to your goal as a motivator, but then ask yourself, what can I do today that will help push me closer to my goal?

"It’s dangerous to wish you were already at the level where you want to be without putting in the necessary time and effort required. This is where perfectionism blossoms."

#9: Set Practice Objectives

What is your goal for practice?

When you’re a perfectionist, a lot of times this goal takes the form of not making any mistakes or showing to the coaches how great of a player you are.

Neither of these is truly helping you do what you need to in practice…improve.

Mistakes should be welcomed in practice, it’s what we talked about in the very first section of this article. They are a way to learn and an opportunity to grow.

Instead of aiming to be perfect during practice, you want to set clear objectives for you to work on. Practice objectives tie into a good performance evaluation system.

After games and practices, you should be objectively evaluating your play. Then, what you do is take the information gathered and apply it to practice.

Don’t just say you’re going to work on improving blank, say, I’m going to work on this specific aspect because I know it will help me improve with blank.

Practice objectives train your mind to be focused on growth rather than being perfect right now.

#10: Let Go of the Outcome

Finally, for the last tip you can use to overcome perfectionism in sports, you must let go of the outcome.

But wait a second, who plays sports not wanting to win? Who plays sports not wanting to be their best?

Very few people, if any.

I’m not saying for you to not want to win or for you to not want to be your best. I’m saying to let go of the outcome, there’s a difference.

Letting go of the outcome means letting go of worrying about what’s going to happen. In all reality, it frees you up to focus on what you need to focus on to actually get the outcome you want.

Letting go of worrying about what’s going to happen is the best way for you to influence what will happen in a positive way.

What letting go of the outcome also does is reduce your focus on being perfect. Instead of going into a game needing to do every little thing perfectly because you are so consumed with the end result, you will be giving more attention to the small aspects along the way.

Letting go of the outcome and focusing on the process is not easy, but it is the best thing you can do to not only overcome perfectionism but to play your best on a consistent basis.

"Letting go of the outcome means letting go of worrying about what’s going to happen. In all reality, it frees you up to focus on what you need to focus on to actually get the outcome you want."

Final Thoughts

It’s natural to want to play your best. In fact, I hope that’s the goal of all athletes. But what happens when this desire to perform well turns into a need to be perfect?

Perfectionism will hold you back from being the player you’re capable of being. It will cause you to perform timidly, experience high levels of anxiety, and develop fear due to the consequences mistakes have on you and your game.

This is why it’s important for you to learn how to overcome perfectionism in sports.

The ten ways listed in this article will help you to let go of perfectionism if you put them into action. Now, I don’t recommend trying to apply all ten at once. Choose one or two to begin with. Even one, applied diligently, will have a strong effect on your mindset.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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