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Perfectionism in atheletes: The impact and how to manage it

Perfectionism in atheletes: The impact, and how to manage it

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Perfectionists. We’ve all met one.

From extremely high personal standards to overly critical self-evaluations, they desire an unblemished performance every time they compete. However, when mistakes are made, and results are not ideal, frustration starts to increase. A perfectionist wants to control the situation – but they may instead let the situation control them.

When left uncontrolled, perfectionism can negatively affect athletes and their performance. However, it’s not all bad – in fact, perfectionism can actually be quite helpful. When properly managed, perfectionism can boost performance and help athletes thrive in competition.

So, how can athletes find the right balance with perfectionism?

What does the research say about perfectionism?

Researchers have separated perfectionism into two main dimensions: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns.

Perfectionistic strivings

These are characterised by the tendency to set high goals for oneself and place substantial value on organisation. This dimension is associated with effective coping strategies when under pressure, enhanced performance, and higher intrinsic motivation. It tends to be seen as healthy perfectionism.

Perfectionistic concerns

These are characterised by overly critical evaluations. Athletes belonging to this dimension may experience high anxiety and burnout levels as well as difficulty concentrating. This type of perfectionism is related to negative judgements of performance and tends to be seen as unhealthy perfectionism.

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How does perfectionism impact athletes?

Although perfectionism can affect athletes in many ways, this interesting study has identified that athletes with perfectionistic concerns share these four common characteristics that can impact performance…

1. Pre-competition emotions

As the name suggests, these are the emotions that occur right before a competition. Athletes experiencing perfectionistic concerns may feel emotions such as anxiety and dejection just before an event, which can harm their preparation.

2. Cognitive appraisals

There are two main types of appraisals: threat and challenge.

Threat appraisals happen when the athlete believes they do not have the resources to cope with the situation. This can be, for example, an athlete thinking they are not skilled enough to compete against a difficult team. Situations like these can cause negative emotions to manifest. Perfectionistic concerns are associated with higher appraisals of threat and lower levels of challenge.

On the other hand, challenge appraisals happen when the athlete believes they have enough resources to deal with the demands of the situation. For example, this may be an athlete who knows they are faster than their opponent and therefore they tries harder to catch up to them. Situations like these cause confidence and positive emotions to manifest. Perfectionistic strivings are associated with higher challenge appraisal and lower levels of threat.

3. Performance satisfaction

This is how complacent an athlete is with their performance, especially after a competition. Perfectionism causes an athlete to set unrealistically high expectations and goals, which may make them less satisfied with their performance.

Overly evaluative processes are more common in athletes with higher perfectionistic concerns. This decreases the likelihood of satisfaction and makes the experience more temporary. As a result, athletes are deprived of positive experiences in sports, making them more susceptible to issues with motivation.

4. Perfectionistic cognitions

These are recurring thoughts and images about the need to be flawless. Perfectionist athletes may have thoughts such as “why aren’t I perfect?” and “I can’t make any mistakes”. These feelings often arise when an athlete sets themselves unreachable goals based on perfectionist ideals, which can never match their actual performance.

Perfectionistic cognitions are context-dependent. However, the more perfectionist cognitions an athlete experiences, the more problems will follow, including negative pre-competitions emotions.

How to manage perfectionism in sports

Psychological skills training can help athletes manage their perfectionism and not let it negatively affect their performance. A fascinating study found that when athletes with unhealthy perfectionism took part in psychological skills training, the negative effects were drastically reduced and their performance improved.

The four skills this type of training uses most are:

  1. Relaxation
  2. Imagery
  3. Self-talk
  4. Goal setting

Teaching your athletes how to use these coping mechanisms helps them to not be shackled down to the negative effects of perfectionism. These skills give athletes the ability to control their perfectionism, so it becomes a motivational tool rather than an obstacle to their performance.

As a coach, here are some things you can do to help your athletes manage perfectionism:

  • Set more attainable and realistic goals to increase performance satisfaction.
  • Teach them positive self-talk phrases such as “you can do it” and “you’ve got this” to reduce the self-critical aspect of their evaluation.
  • Practice mental imagery before a competition to reduce negative pre-competition emotions. This could be imagining themselves on a beach to help calm and relax their bodies.
  • Reframe the situation from threat states into challenge states. Instead of thinking “this group is too fast for me” try thinking “a faster group means I have a better chance of setting a PB.”

Final thoughts

Sports demand high self-expectations. Many athletes would describe themselves as perfectionists – however, if this trait isn’t properly managed, it can harm their chances at success. If athletes are trained to not let perfectionistic characteristics disrupt their performance, they will flourish when it really matters.

It’s time for your athletes to control perfectionism, not let perfectionism control them.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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