When striving for excellence becomes crippling perfectionism.
Research in the past decade is evolving rapidly regarding the influence of perfectionism in sports. In the past, it was a commonly held belief that perfectionism appeared to have a debilitating effect on an athlete, which undermines their sense of fulfillment in their achievements.
In the field of Sports Psychology, the definition of ‘perfectionism’ has been difficult to nail down. The athletes’ quest for excellence requires sustained motivation, setting high achievement goals, and maintaining high standards to meet winning expectations. Perfectionistic athletes stress rigid training regimens, have a very low tolerance for failures of any kind, have a strong desire to demonstrate mastery for the approval of others, and are extremely self-critical, all under the guise of trying to be their best, to prove their worth to coaches, parents, fans, and peers. This type of perfectionistic achievement striving, may appear to be a positive and beneficial personality characteristic that enables athletes to achieve and maintain performance excellence.
The cost of success – when perfectionism hurts.
There is growing evidence that suggests this energizing, heightened achievement striving can trigger a variety of debilitating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, which undermine the athletes’ psychological well-being, and quality of life. When an athlete shows the inability to relax, is excessively worrying, which leads to continued bouts of anxiety, resulting in an accumulation of emotional and physical stress. Sleep problems, difficulty concentrating on anything but the sport, irritability, and interpersonal challenges are likely to emerge. Athletes who possess this negative perfectionism experience consistent fear of failure, feelings of guilt when minor deviations in training regimes occur, they exhibit an extreme need to control performance outcomes, they practice obsessively, feel chronically unsatisfied with their accomplishments, and are in emotional turmoil because no matter how well the performance went, it could be better in their mind. They live with a constant state of failure. Athletes who have lived in this perfectionistic vicious cycle report feelings of exhaustion, focusing on the negative, and suffer from numerous repetitive minor injuries. Despite achieving at high levels, they are profoundly dissatisfied and unable to gain pleasure from their accomplishments. This has been termed, the ‘self-critical’ perfectionist. The key components to this type of debilitating perfectionism is the inability to derive a sense of satisfaction from any success, a constant sense of failure and inadequacy, and an excessive focus to avoid mistakes. While the athletic performance outcomes may look great, the cost of how they got there can cause them to become psychologically impaired, as they hold on to their irrational importance of success and failure. Their self-worth is tied to perfection.
If not perfection, then what?
The pursuit of high standards and excellence in sports can be rewarding when healthy psychological patterns are encouraged, and practiced. The psychological keys to healthy striving encompasses the athletes’ ability to gain pleasure from meeting personally challenging goals, to set high standards while maintaining flexibility, where self expectations are realistic, a mind-set of “self-growth,” where success is measured through challenge and effort, and failures are seen as guideposts to grow from. Healthy achievement striving includes a positive sense of self-worth in life, that is not contingent on sports performance outcomes. Self-acceptance and self-encouragement energizes the athlete to continue to strive in sport and life! Parents, coaches, teachers, counselors, and peers can support positive motivation to strive for excellence, by pointing out incremental successes, and promoting a balanced life of rest, play, family time, social time, and pursuing additional interests that may not be sports related. Creating a life and belief system that reminds the athlete that they are more than their sports performance, will enhance their life, and improve their ongoing motivation.
If you or someone you know is concerned about an athlete who can’t seem to relax, has lost the joy in their sport or in life, or is chronically unsatisfied no matter what they do, they may need to get some professional help in getting out of an evolving slump or downward spiral. Give us a call, and we can discuss the situation to see what might be helpful.
Dr. Sara Gilman, Psy D, LMFT
Coherence Associates Inc.