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Perfectionistic Behaviors and Athletes
A recent article by Melissa Dahl on the concept of perfectionism struck a chord with me because I think many athletes experience the struggle of trying to be perfect. And it makes sense why this would occur given all the statistics many of them must deal with in their sports. Athletes are judged by coaches and others on speed, weight, muscle mass, body mass index, height, vertical jump………and so much more. Numbers are posted. Benchmarks are given. There are daily work-outs that indicate to them if they have improved on a time or a number or against a fellow athlete or a competitor. This means most athletes are always striving for improvement or to have better statistics.
There is a great video on the NCAA site entitled Kally that offers a good example of athletes and numbers they must contend with in their daily lives. It also highlights some of the struggles that can occur in the pursuit of excellence and, sometimes, the struggles that go along with the striving to improve.
Perfectionism has been described as the need to be, or at least to appear, to be flawless. According to Wikipedia, it is a personality trait, meaning a fairly enduring quality. However, some researchers refer to it as a characteristic. The reason to take note of the definition is that at the present time there is not total agreement on the definition. Some also believe that perfectionism is not always bad, that there might be such a thing as healthy perfectionism. Others consider that a complete contradiction of terms and that the whole idea of perfectionism is negative and to say otherwise means you are referring to another characteristic. But, most writers and researchers seem to agree that striving too hard to be perfect makes people prone to anxiety and depression.
Is There Healthy Perfectionism?
The answer to this question will depend upon who you ask. But I like a recent qualitative study that was done by Hill, Witcher, Giotwals, and Leyland and published in the Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology Journal (November 2015). The researchers decided to not adopt a specific model or definition of perfection and instead simply sought to understand the opinions and thoughts of high-level performers, such as athletes and dancers, who identified themselves as perfectionists. They had some interesting findings after talking with these individuals. One theme noted by the researchers was that the performers said being perfectionistic influenced their lives in two different ways.
- Being a perfectionist helped them have more success in their respective areas of performance.
- It contributed to personal problems such as rigid thinking and obsessiveness.
These themes seem to highlight both positive and not so positive aspects of being a perfectionist. There appears to be a tipping point where the positive aspects of being perfect tip rapidly to the negative aspects of perfectionism.
Striving to reach a goal is part of being competitive. Not all athletes strive for perfection as they seek to improve. Maybe the distinguishing feature is if the athlete is still deriving pleasure with the pursuit instead of feeling more and more anxious or depressed if they are not hitting the mark. An interesting article by Stirling and Kerr in Athletic Insight, entitled Perfectionism and Mood States Among Recreational and Elite Athletes, noted that adaptive perfectionism might exist within athlete populations, especially for those who have more healthy pursuits of goals. Maybe the question is a personal one for each athlete. “Do I still enjoy the process of getting better in my sport?” For sake of argument, I will assume there can be healthy perfectionists…..but in the end, each of you will need to decide this for yourself.
So how do athletes know if they are sliding into the negative aspects of perfectionism? One marker I have seen is when athletes reach a benchmark, or hit the stat they were aiming to meet, they find little enjoyment or happiness in hitting it. Instead, the moment is short lived and the battle is on to raise the bar and there is much angst with the process.
One reason for the slippery slope is perfectionism involves self-evaluations and often being very self- critical. Another reason that contributes to the slippery slope into more negative aspects is when the athlete begins to associate their sports actions or performance with their personal self-worth. For example, an athlete has a poor performance and then begins mentally tearing themselves apart with words like, “I am a bad person. The team hates me because I let them down.” The athlete begins to blur the concept that their bad performance means that “I am not a good person.” And that is the slippery slope of perfection.
And you know what is really surprising? Research seems to indicate highly successful people are actually less likely to be perfectionistic! This is because it seems when people strive for the perfect answer or the perfect behavior they also are a risk for increased anxiety. With more anxiety, thinking clearly, or being able to make quick, focused decisions, declines. There is fear of making a mistake and sometimes procrastination because time is needed to decide on the best move. These self-evaluations and overthinking processes impede performances. (Read Choke by Sian Beilock). This leads me to wonder if the high achieving, healthy athletes are not so much striving for perfection as maybe seeking the thrill of the challenge, whether it be from within or about beating someone. I would consider this the intention behind the striving and this might make a difference. The question is “What is driving my behavior?”
Athlete, Perspective, and Coping
Etienne Benson writes in the article, Many Faces of Perfectionism, that it is important to remember that having high standards does not automatically mean someone is perfectionistic or that a person will have mental health problems. A self-described perfectionist must consider how certain behaviors are adaptive or maladaptive in his/her life. This also means one must consider the goals, the situation or context, and how the athlete reacts to achieving a goal or not. In other words, how the athlete views (perspective taking and intention) reaching a goal or not reaching a goal, is important. Does this turn into anxious, self-critical evaluations? Or, does the athlete decide to embrace the challenge and figure out steps to take in order to make changes in training physically or mentally. Or maybe even more important, can the athlete set new or different goals? The second point is important…….how the athlete copes with having high standards might be key in having adaptive perfectionism if such a thing exists!