Perfectionism in Sports Articles

How Does Perfectionism Cause Problems In Sports

Eli Straw
How Does Perfectionism Cause Problems In Sports

The word perfectionism is thrown around quite freely among those of us who strive for greatness. Almost as if it’s an admirable trait to consider oneself a perfectionist.

However, if you truly desire to be the best you can be, this idea of perfection must be dropped.

No matter what you’ve been led on to believe, perfectionism is not going to get you any closer to greatness. In fact, in search of perfection, you will likely find yourself battling with many unwanted challenges which keep you from performing well.

As an athlete, there are many negatives accompanying perfectionism. Which are the main reasons perfectionism causes problems in sports. These problems are what we will be discussing in this article.

But first, let’s take a look at what exactly it means to be a perfectionist. And attack the misconception that it’s actually good for you to consider yourself one.

What Does It Mean To Be A Perfectionist

Perfection. That is what a perfectionist desires. But what even is perfection? That’s a question many perfectionists have a difficult time answering. Even if they know what perfection means to them at this moment, it will quickly change if that target is reached.

Perfectionism is defined as the need to be and appear perfect. It’s not good enough to simply reach perfection in your own eyes, you also seek for others to view you as perfect.

But let’s get back to this idea of an ever changing definition of perfection.

You see, this is one of the leading characteristics of perfectionism. When you seek perfection, it’s not as though one day you’ll achieve it and be finished. Your aspirations and goals will always be changing.

Now, this is good if you have a healthy view of progress and personal growth. However, a perfectionist NEEDS perfection. Meaning, instead of seeing this progress as positive, it’s overshadowed by a constant phrase fixed in their mind: not good enough.

"When you seek perfection, it’s not as though one day you’ll achieve it and be finished. Your aspirations and goals will always be changing."

Isn’t It Good To Strive For Perfection?

Perfectionism is often broken down into two different categories: maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism.

Adaptive perfectionism refers to having high standards for yourself and others, while being very goal oriented. You derive satisfaction from achieving these goals. However, you do not criticize yourself for not reaching your goals.

To me, this sounds like a healthy mindset. One that is full of ambition, yet balanced with a proper understanding of progress and development.

On the other hand is maladaptive perfectionism, which is the form I described in the previous section. I believe coupling these two together under one overarching term leaves room for confusion.

Perfectionism, though often thought of as good (myself being a guilty party), is not a healthy mindset to adopt. I don’t believe true perfectionists are capable of being considered adaptive perfectionists due to one key reason, the same as stated previously: not good enough.

As a perfectionist, you will never feel good enough. You will never truly feel accomplished and will always have a voice within telling you, “You should have done more.”

Top Ways Perfectionism Negatively Impacts Athletes

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking it’s good to place exceedingly high demands upon myself. Striving for perfection, assuming I’ll at least fall somewhere in the category of good.

But the truth is, perfectionism distracts us, leads to many unwelcome mental game challenges, and is a major hindrance to actually performing our best.

As an athlete, perfectionism will cause major problems for you, due to the high expectations you place on yourself, the fear it instills, the anxiety you can’t help but adopt, and the inability perfectionism leaves you with to see yourself as successful.

"But the truth is, perfectionism distracts us, leads to many unwelcome mental game challenges, and is a major hindrance to actually performing our best."

Perfectionism Leads To High Expectations

It’s an interesting balance between high expectations and perfectionism. They both feed into one another. The more you feel like you need to be perfect, the greater the expectations you place on yourself.

Likewise, the more expectations you feel, the higher likelihood you feel the need to be perfect. And while it’s good to expect greatness from yourself, going into a game, this will only distract you from the present.

High expectations are rooted in fear and worry. Be honest, if you truly had confidence in your ability to attain an outcome, what need would there be to place such large expectations on yourself?

High expectations are not goals, either. These are demands you make for yourself.

Instead of being able to set the goal and then turn your focus onto the process, expectations take hold of your attention and your mind is now fixed on making sure that expectation comes true. Though, expectations are an outcome, something that occurs as a result of process focus.

By placing too high of expectations upon yourself, you drive fear, anxiety, and deter your focus. All causing problems for you as an athlete.

Perfectionism Causes You To Play Timidly

Perfectionists are often more afraid of not being perfect than they desire perfection. It’s a funny concept, but on that makes sense when you start to think about it.

You see, with perfectionism perfection is baseline. Meaning, it is the expected norm you are after. There is little celebration in your success, since that’s what you thought you should accomplish anyway.

So now when we are thinking on an emotional level, there is little positive emotion associated with the perceived perfection, but a tremendous amount of negative emotions linked to not reaching perfection.

This leads to fear of failure and fear of failure causes you to play timidly.

The more this fear grows, the more you will tiptoe around your performances. You know as well as I do that playing timidly is not going to get you the success you want. It will cause you to underperform, be slow, and not take necessary risks.

Confidence and fearlessness are required for you to perform your best. Not a wild reckless fearlessness, but one that acknowledges the possibility of failure, and realizes its necessity on the path to success.

With perfectionism, this type of confidence and courage are not possible. Leaving a huge problem for you to face.

"You see, with perfectionism perfection is baseline. Meaning, it is the expected norm you are after. There is little celebration in your success, since that’s what you thought you should accomplish anyway."

Anxiety Feeds Off Perfectionism

Perfectionism leads to you focusing on one point: the outcome.

Even though you may understand the process is what leads to results, if perfectionism has become your mindset, your attention will travel quickly into the future.

The more you worry about the future and how a game may turn out, what do you think will start to happen? You will grow anxious over that outcome.

Performance anxiety occurs when you are extremely worried about the result of a performance. It can be on a large scale, such as whether you win or lose, or on a smaller scale, such as a single play.

Dealing with performance anxiety is not fun to experience. Not only does it suck the joy out of performing, but it drastically lowers your performance level as well.

The physical symptoms of anxiety, including trembling, dizziness, blurred vision, and rapid heart beat will impact your ability to perform optimally. In addition, the mental symptoms will cloud your mind, making it all but impossible to flow within your performance.

Just as with fear, you worry about not being perfect. The idea of falling short of that ideal vision you desire seems too unbearable. So, you approach each performance anxious, seeking to control an outcome that is simply beyond your reach.

Anxiety is also present as you worry whether or not the success you will achieve will be good enough. Since there is no clear definition of perfection, and any definition you do lay out will continually change, you get caught in a never ending anxious cycle.

Perfectionism Blinds You To Your Own Success

Here is the most annoying, frustrating, and ironic fact about perfectionism. No matter what you accomplish you will never feel perfect!

That’s right. Right now I’m sure you have an idea of what perfection would mean to you. There is success in your mind that seems unimaginably amazing. If only you could achieve it, all your desires for perfection would be fulfilled.

But once you attain that success, something strange happens. You begin to think of what’s next. Yeah, at one point this accomplishment seemed like perfection to you, but now that you’ve gotten it, there seems to be more you could do.

And so, you tell yourself to slow down on the celebration. You're not quite perfect yet. Sadly, this is a cycle all with the perfectionist mindset must deal with, leaving you blind to the success you achieve along the way.

What happens the more you turn your back on success is your motivation, confidence, and grit all drop. As hard as you may think you need to be on yourself to keep excelling, if you never stop to appreciate what you accomplish along the way, what’s the point?

In terms of peak performance, you need to feed your mind positive reinforcement in the form of acknowledging what you achieve. Small successes are fuel for motivation and confidence, and are drained by the blindness created by perfectionism.

"Here is the most annoying, frustrating, and ironic fact about perfectionism. No matter what you accomplish you will never feel perfect!"

Final Thoughts

The idea that perfectionism is helpful needs to be eliminated from your mind.

You should not strive for perfection, rather work towards progress. When growth becomes your objective, you’ll be amazed at what all you end up accomplishing. Though, seeking perfection will have the opposite effect.

Perfectionism will leave you with incredibly high expectations, cause you to play timidly, lead to performance anxiety, and sadly make it close to impossible to ever feel successful. All of this causes problems for you as an athlete.

If you are struggling with perfectionism, you need a game plan to work through it, shifting your mindset to one that will propel you towards success. Mental game coaching can do just that.

Through our twelve week program, you’ll learn how to overcome perfectionism, and any other mental game challenge that is getting in your way of performing. To learn more about mental game coaching, click here.

I hope you enjoyed the article 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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