Perfectionism in Sports

Learn what perfectionism in sports is

Is it good or bad to want to play your best?

Out of all the mental game challenges you can experience as an athlete, perfectionism can be the hardest to recognize as a challenge and block to peak performance. For the simple reason that most athletes want to be perfect.

It seems like a good goal to strive for. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play perfectly? Not too bad of a thing to aim for…right?

Well, to answer the first question I asked, it is great to want to play your best. But that’s not what perfectionism means.

Perfectionism is defined by the need to be and appear perfect. This means making absolutely no mistakes – often leading to a fear surrounding the possibility of making mistakes.

Wanting to play your best, on the other hand, involves a healthy desire to improve, but recognizing mistakes as a natural (and important) part of the game.

I worked with a baseball player who dealt with a lot of perfectionism.

Now, baseball is a sport where I’ve seen a lot of athletes have perfectionism (and softball as well), but what’s so interesting about this is the fact that they recognize that more often than not they’re going to get out at the plate.

Yet…they still expect themselves to be perfect every time they go up to bat.

The baseball player in this example played short-stop and was a solid hitter. His challenge, though, was expecting himself to play perfectly. In the field, this meant making no errors, and at the plate it meant getting a hit (or at least having a good at bat).

The thing about perfectionism is that it’s not always grounded in reality. Case in point, a baseball player expecting perfection at the plate.

He knows consciously it’s impossible to get a hit every single time…especially since hitting over .300 is considered really good (that’s a hit 3 out of every 10 at bats). Yet, his subconscious belief was still that he demanded perfection from himself.

So why was that belief still there?

Well, one reason was because of his ambition. This is one of the main reasons I see athletes allow themselves to adopt perfectionist ways of thinking. By aiming to be perfect, surely they’ll fall somewhere in the realm of great. At least that’s the theory.

The baseball player demanded perfection from himself during games, which translated into an extreme dedication to training.

However, as great as this work ethic sounds, it actually had a dark side. Since he was not working simply to improve each day, he was training to be perfect, he often got upset at himself during practice if he made a mistake.

Instead of simply using the mistake as a learning experience, he took it as a failure – and even worse, a threat to him playing perfectly next game.

While his need to play perfectly did translate into a strong work ethic and dedication to his sport, this was counteracted by the frustration it led to and the stress and tension caused by the fear of not playing perfectly.

And that begins to highlight just how hurtful perfectionism can be. And how the need to be perfect can be the very thing keeping you from playing your best.

How Perfectionism Limits Your Game

Just as with the baseball player, do you feel like the need to play perfectly is beneficial because it pushes you to train harder?

Do you think striving for perfection will surely allow you to stumble to greatness? Maybe it will. But more likely than not, it will hold you back.

The main reason being the tension caused by perfectionism going into games, along with how difficult it is to manage mistakes and respond to them in a positive way as a perfectionist.

The Tension Caused by Perfectionism

To play your best, you need to let go and accept the possibility of mistakes. And not only the possibility, but probability as well.

Mistakes, some big and some small, are likely to happen every game. And as we’re going to talk about in the next section, you need to be able to learn from them and move on quickly in order to play your best.

Something that’s extremely difficult with perfectionism.

But even before you make a mistake, the thought of them can cause tension.

If your goal going into a game is to play perfectly, it can be easy to have your main focus be on avoiding mistakes. Since mistakes indicate a lack of perfection, they need to be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, the cost is playing well.

I know it may seem strange that the goal of not making any mistakes will actually increase your chances of making mistakes, but the truth is, when you demand perfection from yourself, you play more tight and tense.

There is a lot of stress present, hoping not to mess up and finding yourself falling short of perfection. This level of stress causes tension, which holds you back during games.

Perfectionism and anxiety go hand in hand.

Because when you demand perfection from yourself, the future will be on your mind a lot. Going into a game and during a game, you will think about what’s going to happen, and often think about how you can’t make any mistakes.

One football player I worked with kept himself from playing freely due to the tension he felt as a result of perfectionism.

He was a wide receiver and ran routes with less intent, and often hoped for the ball not to be thrown to him.

Yes, he wanted to play perfectly, but in doing so he was more focused on avoiding mistakes than making nice catches and increasing his chances of scoring a touchdown.

Another athlete I worked with, a dancer, limited her skills during performances due to perfectionism.

She worked incredibly hard in training, fine-tuning her moves. She knew them all well and could perform them as close to perfect as possible when no one was watching.

But when the lights shone on the stage and all those eyes were locked on her, she became tense – hoping not to mess up.

She demanded perfection during performances, yet held herself back from performing the moves she knew with full confidence out of fear of not being perfect.

Perfectionism & Responding to Mistakes

In addition to causing you to play tense, perfectionism also wreaks havoc on your game when it comes to bouncing back from mistakes.

Now, you and I both know mistakes are going to happen. They are natural and can be a great way to learn and improve. However, if you demand perfection from yourself, what do mistakes mean? They mean you weren’t perfect.

There was a young softball player who experienced the difficulties of perfectionism in relation to mistakes first hand.

She expected herself to play perfectly each and every day. This meant having perfect at bats, playing perfect defense, and pitching perfectly. She could not stand making mistakes.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is close to impossible in softball. When the sport considers getting a hit less than forty percent of the time good, that shows you just how far perfection is from being realistic.

Perfectionism made it difficult for her to let go of mistakes and move on.

When you make a mistake during a game, the mistake is no longer your concern. It happened and is in the past. Your main focus needs to be to put yourself in the best position to make the next play.

With perfectionism, however, you get stuck fixating on and going over the mistake you made. As if thinking about it will somehow change the fact that you messed up.

Not being able to let go of a mistake and refocus due to perfectionism is where we see one mistake quickly turn into many more.

Have you ever experienced this snowball effect? You have one bad at bat and all of a sudden you’re 0-5 on the day? Or you have a bad first race and see the rest of your races continue to go downhill?

This is common among perfectionist athletes.

Since one mistake means you weren’t perfect, it’s easy to get down on yourself, feel like a failure, have your confidence drained, and lose motivation to refocus and play your best for the remainder of the game.

Now, another aspect of making mistakes is learning from your mistakes. I’m sure you’ve had coaches tell you that mistakes are a great teacher. But how well have you been listening to them?

No, not your coaches, but mistakes. Do you allow mistakes to help you improve? Or do you run away from mistakes like the plague and are terrified of making them out of fear of not being perfect?

During a game, if you don’t beat yourself up after a mistake, you could learn something valuable that will help you make an adjustment moving forward.

Let’s think about the softball player I mentioned earlier. By learning how to manage mistakes better, she gained the ability to make adjustments between at bats.

If she was too out front on her previous at bat, instead of beating herself up, she simply focused on timing up the pitcher better and waiting back next time she was up.

In addition to learning mid game, you also want to use mistakes to help you learn after games.

Just think, if every single game you took away something you could use the following week to improve, how much better would you be by the end of the season? How much better would you be in a year or so?

However, when you demand perfection from yourself, you aren’t concerned with getting better in the future…you are worried about being perfect today!

That right there is the main difference between using mistakes to learn and grow, and having mistakes hold you back and become something you fear.

Perfectionist athletes need to be perfect today.

So, mistakes become something they should fear, since mistakes indicate they weren’t perfect. Then what can happen is the fear of failure develops.

So the very desire to be perfect may be the thing keeping you from playing as well as you can.

Think about it like this: do you want to be as good as you’ll ever be, today? Or, do you want to keep improving, getting better and better with each day and week?

I imagine you want the second option.

But with perfectionism, you’re choosing the first. If you demand perfection from yourself, that’s it. You have reached the top of the mountain and are as good as you can get.

But since your true goal is to keep improving as a player, you need to let go of this demand to be perfect.

Letting Go of Perfectionism

Letting go of perfectionism involves three parts. The first part happens before practice or a game, the second part happens during practice or a game, and the third part happens after practice or a game.

It’s important to break the strategy up into these three different parts, since perfectionism impacts you on three different levels.

Demanding perfection from yourself will lead to you playing more timidly going into games, since you don’t want to make any mistakes.

The same can be true for practice, especially if you’re fighting for a starting position right now and feel like you need to play perfectly in practice in order to win it.

During a game, if you make a mistake, it will be tough to move on quickly if your mind is focused on perfection.

And then after games, if you beat yourself up and are overly critical of the way you performed, this will limit your confidence and growth moving forward.

So, the strategy is going to be broken up into three different parts – each one focused on reducing the impact of one of the three levels of perfectionism.

Altering Your Focus Going Into Practices/Games

If you demand perfection from yourself, how do you know if you hit your target? In other words, how do you know if you were perfect that day?

You may say, making no mistakes, or playing really well. Not only are those vague ideas, but they also are focused on the outcome.

To know if you were perfect, you need to have already played and be looking back on your performance. That’s the only way of knowing if you were perfect.

Now, going into a game, do you think it’s best for you to be thinking about something that involves your performance being over? Probably not.

That kind of focus isn’t allowing you to give as much attention to what you’re doing (not to mention the anxiety that can be caused by thinking too much about the outcome).

With perfectionism, you are thinking about the outcome, since that is the only way to determine whether or not you played perfectly.

Instead of focusing on the outcome and having your expectations for how you play be based on them, you want to turn your attention onto the process. The process of your game involves all the small pieces that lead to the outcome.

The truth is, the result of a play or a game will happen whether you think about them, care about them, worry about them or not. The outcome will always happen – even if it may not be the outcome you want.

Knowing the outcome will always happen, there’s really no reason for you to worry about it. Instead, you simply need to let it be.

I know this is incredibly difficult to do, especially if you’re afraid of making mistakes, or you feel like you need to play perfectly in practice in order to start the next game. But I’m not saying you still can’t want an outcome – you just don’t need to focus on it anymore.

Let’s think about the idea of playing perfectly. Now, up until this point in the article, I’ve uncovered all the reasons why perfectionism holds you back and is a negative way of thinking.

But haven’t you known teammates who’ve talked about wanting to go out there and win and play perfectly, and then they actually played well? What’s the deal there?

I’ll tell you what the deal is…whether they’re aware of it or not, their desire to play perfectly acted as a trigger to turn their attention onto the process.

That’s the main reason I’ve found some athletes are able to go into games focused on winning and focused on playing perfectly – their attention doesn’t remain fixed on the outcome.

They’re not worried about it, they simply want it to happen. But as they go through the competition, their in-the-moment attention is fixed on the process.

So how can you use this same principle for yourself, if you do worry about the outcome and playing perfectly? Well, what you can do is think, “If I want to play perfectly, what are all the steps that are involved in me doing so?”

If you were going on a trip and it was a really fun trip, one where you couldn’t wait to get there, would you worry about how you were going to get there, or would you turn on your GPS and focus on all the different roads you need to take and turns you need to make?

With your game, you are your own GPS. You need to outline the road that will take you to your destination. No matter how badly you want to get to where you’re going, if you take a bunch of wrong turns, you’re going to have a tough time getting there.

Focusing more on the process will help take your attention off the outcome and your need to be perfect.

Instead of having a vague idea of what it means to play perfectly, you will have a clear target of what you need to focus on that day. If you stick to your targets and focus on the process, then it was a good day.

The reason you can feel confident in describing your performance as good if you stuck to the process is because we know that over the long-term, if you give more attention to the process, it gives you a better chance of getting the outcome you want.

To make it easier on yourself to focus on the process, you can set performance objectives going into practices and games. These are targets you set that are part of the process and 100% within your control.

Here’s an article that goes into more detail on setting performance objectives.

Accepting Mistakes

Along with turning your attention onto the process with the use of performance objectives, you also want to shift the way you see mistakes.

As a perfectionist athlete, mistakes mean you weren’t good enough. Therefore, they become something to fear.

You need to play perfectly, and mistakes mean you were not perfect. This is where you find yourself playing more stiff and timidly due to fear.

Whether you’re a perfectionist or not, playing timidly and with fear will do nothing but hold you back.

To play your best, there needs to be a level of fearlessness present – at least when it comes to making mistakes.

You must open yourself up to the possibility of messing up in order to allow yourself the chance to succeed.

Something that will only happen once you’ve accepted mistakes.

But how can you accept mistakes if right now they’re an indicator that you aren’t good enough.

Well, it’s going to begin with practice. During practice and training, mistakes (while still not something you may want to make) are not as impactful. Since it’s just practice, we know mistakes are a little easier to move on from and aren’t as frustrating.

This makes practice the perfect time to begin conditioning yourself to view mistakes differently.

Instead of thinking about how to avoid mistakes and how much you can’t mess up, work on telling yourself that you accept mistakes, and then shift your attention onto improving.

An improving mindset accepts mistakes as opportunities to learn. When you shift to this way of thinking, you no longer fear messing up, but accept it as a necessary part of growing as a player.

Once you get comfortable with this new way of looking at mistakes in practices, it’s time to apply it to games.

Work on reminding yourself going into the game that you accept mistakes. You know they may happen, and you accept that they’re a natural part of the game and nothing for you to fear.

Another important part of accepting mistakes is changing the way you respond to mistakes in the moment and after games.

Evaluating Instead of Judging Your Game

A key characteristic of a perfectionist athlete is always looking for things that went wrong. It seems odd, since perfectionists want to be perfect. But the truth is, perfectionism leaves you feeling like you’re never perfect.

Which means you are always nit-picking your game and looking for mistakes, no matter how big or small.

Thinking in this way drastically reduces your confidence over time, since you are not allowing yourself to build the memory of success needed to increase trust in your game.

Instead, you repetitively see yourself as not good enough and having fallen short of perfection. In addition, it reinforces the fear surrounding mistakes, since you are likely getting down on yourself after games because of the mistakes you point out.

Knowing the tendency for you as a perfectionist to first look at what you did wrong, it’s important you give yourself the opportunity each day to find some good things about your game.

This is where a good evaluation system comes into play. Instead of judging yourself, you will be evaluating yourself with two goals in mind: increase confidence and improve.

Neither one of those goals involve beating yourself up.

The evaluation system I suggest you begin with is a very simple one, made up of two questions:

  • What did I do well today?
  • What can I learn and use to improve?

Now, it’s very important you ask and answer the questions in that specific order.

Since we know it’s easier to point out everything you did wrong, you need to give yourself the opportunity first to look at what you did well. Then you can look at your mistakes.

But not in the same way you’ve been looking at them. No, now instead of judging yourself, you are simply looking for what you can learn and taking what you can learn to improve your game moving forward.

The reason it’s so important to first think about what you did well is because confidence thrives on experience.

The more you see yourself play well, the more confidence you’re going to have to play well again in the future.

By first thinking about what you did well, you are giving yourself the opportunity each day to feel successful.

In addition to building belief and trust, when you first look at what you did well, you are in a much better mindset to then examine your mistakes.

By thinking about what you did well, you will be in a better position to examine your mistakes objectively and actually take something positive from them to learn and improve as a player.

Final Thoughts

Perfectionism is defined by the need to be and appear perfect.

Perfectionism holds you back on two different levels: causing you to play tight going into games, because you are focused on not making any mistakes.

Perfectionism makes moving on from mistakes difficult because a mistake means you weren’t perfect.

To let go of perfectionism, you want to alter your focus going into games – focusing on the process instead of the outcome. You want to work on accepting mistakes and using them to learn.

And after practices and games, it’s important to evaluate instead of judging your performance.

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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