THE irony is certainly not lost that this is the 1,275,362 attempt at producing an opening paragraph that was “good enough” to introduce this week’s topic. A topic whose very core I was channelling in an attempt to find an impactful enough way to discuss it. That topic is perfectionism.
Throughout your life how often have you come across the phrase, “practice makes perfect?” The suggestion by colleagues, bosses, coaches, teammates, mentors, and parents is that continued and consistent repetition of a skill leads to mastery, or dare I say perfection of it. The idea is that we should strive to complete a task or practise a skill to a perfect standard or strive for as closest to it as possible.
Once we achieve this, we then hope to apply it in a performance setting to then ultimately be successful – to win. Seems like a fairly straightforward formula, don’t you think? Be perfect and win.
But is there such thing as too much practice? Overly high standards? Unrealistic expectations? Is this notion of perfectionism and perfectionistic tendencies in sport helpful or harmful?
Let’s take a closer look at what we in the world of performance psychology mean by perfectionism.
Flett and Hewitt provide a simple enough definition: perfectionism is defined as a personality disposition characterised by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance (2002). Some might think this doesn’t seem too harmful; indeed, it’s the very essence of what makes great athletes well…great, right?
We can look to the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Roger Federer, and Lionel Messi, whose perfectionistic tendencies would have certainly played a role in their success.
We must keep in mind, however, that perfectionism in sport is a dual model, meaning it can be both adaptive (good) and maladaptive (bad). This obsessive pursuit of flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards can also be, and is most often coupled with overly critical self- and performance appraisals, fear of making mistakes, fear of failure, fluctuating levels of confidence, low levels of resilience, difficulty shifting between practice and performance mindset and intense fixation on inadequacies. It is very difficult to determine what outcomes (positive or negative) perfectionism will exhibit in any given athlete, but research shows that it is almost always negative and certainly a large contributor to athlete burnout…certainly a topic for another article.
So where does perfectionism come from, or rather, what are our sources of perfectionistic tendencies?
There are three main areas: Self-oriented perfectionism, which is an athlete striving and demanding absolute perfectionism from self. The second area is other-oriented perfectionism, whereby an athlete demands perfection from those around them, such as teammates, coaches etc. And lastly, socially prescribed perfectionism, which is a belief that an athlete has that the people around them demand that they are perfect.
Are we able to identify signs of perfectionism in our athletes? The short answer is yes, but we must tread carefully when “identifying” and “managing” a perfectionist athlete.
My advice will always be to seek the intervention of a qualified professional, as this subject area can be deep and far-reaching within the psychological wellbeing of the athlete.
Here are a few signs and habits, however, for you to reflect on. It’s important to note that these habits might not be limited solely to practice by the athlete but indeed can be practised by their coaches and parents, who intentionally or unintentionally foster the development of perfectionism in them:
–Works hard but focuses solely on winning
–Finds difficulty in overcoming a poor performance
–Worries about what others think of their performance
–Sets high and unrealistic expectations of self and their performance
–Can demonstrate extreme negative thinking
–Finds difficulty in extracting the positives; dwells on the negatives and magnifies mistakes
–Extreme fluctuations of self-confidence and self-doubt
–Highly self-critical and consistently compares self to others
–Disengagement from friends and family
Feel free to submit any questions you might have about this topic or sport psychology to email@example.com