At CTS, we coach a wide variety of athletes with an even wider range of personalities. Some athletes derive value from the feelings and sensations of being fit. Others can only perceive the value of training by analyzing every bit of data they generate.
Endurance sports are a good place for the more obsessive among us to find comfort, but that comfort can quickly turn to distress. Sport accommodate perfectionists because there are a lot of variables that can be controlled and a ton of data that can be monitored and analyzed, but the pursuit of perfection can be a double-edged sword. Here’s what you need to know about your perfectionist tendencies.
Two Types of Perfectionism
Even people who pursue perfection are affected by it differently. Sports psychologists identify a number of aspects pertaining to perfectionistic behaviors. Two that may be of particular importance to athletes are: perfectionistic striving and perfectionistic concern.
Both behaviors are characterized by a desire for flawlessness, very high standards for performance, and critical self-evaluations of behavior (Flett & Hewitt, 2002). However, since perfection is not attainable in the long term, these behaviors set up a conflict between expectations and reality, and how we deal with that conflict can either have a positive or negative affect on our subsequent feelings and performance.
Perfectionism and Disordered Training
Perfectionist striving is a self-oriented drive to attain accomplishment. Athletes high in perfectionist striving behaviors are motivated by the positive outcomes attained by doing everything they can to perform at their best, by leaving no stone unturned. In contrast, athletes high in perfectionistic concerns are motivated by a desire to avoid mistakes, a fear of failure, and fear of being viewed negatively by others because they are not perfect.
All of us have a mixture of these two aspects of perfectionism, but a 2016 study by Madigan and Stoeber (Journal of Sports Sciences) suggests a correlation between perfectionistic concern and increased risk for overtraining.
This is interesting because perfectionist athletes tend to train more than non-perfectionists (there’s always more to do, more that can be done, etc.), but their study suggests that perfectionistic concern correlates with increased risk for overtraining whereas perfectionistic striving does not.[blog_promo promo_categories=”coaching” ids=”” /]
In other words, when training load is very high but you are responding to adversity and stress positively, you may be more capable of tolerating and adapting to that high training load. In contrast, when your response to adversity and stress is snowballing self-doubt and a desire to just avoid failure, you may be less capable of tolerating a high training workload.
Making Perfectionism Work for You
Highly motivated career professionals and competitive athletes often display some level of perfectionism, and to some extent these tendencies can be positive attributes that contribute to your success. It’s these tendencies that help you stick to interval workouts and continually monitor your fluid and caloric needs during long training sessions and events.
A bit of perfectionistic behavior isn’t necessarily bad, especially when athletes learn to emphasize perfectionistic strivings over perfectionistic concerns. To figure out whether your personality favors perfectionistic striving vs. concern, consider the following scenarios:
When you have precisely followed your prescribed workout, which of the following describes your mindset?
- Nailed it! That was good, and coach is going to like it, too. I’m moving in the right direction, what’s next!
- I got it done, but my cadence was low. Maybe I shouldn’t do those intervals on a hill. And my back hurt, maybe there’s something wrong with my position. I felt tired, should I try going gluten-free?
The A response is big picture and illustrates a sense of accomplishment and ability to put the workout behind you and move on with the day. Athletes who have the B response can always find something wrong with a workout; even small and insignificant errors get amplified in importance and nag at you. That level of self-criticism interferes with the development of confidence.[blog_promo promo_categories=”camp” ids=”” /]
When you are grabbing food to carry with you during a training session or event, which of the following describes your mindset?
- These bars work great; I know I ride well with them. I’m running low, though, so I’ll grab some of these other bars, too. I’ve tried them, they work well, and I’ll need the calories to perform well.
- These bars work great; I know I ride well with them. I’m running low, though, and I’m not sure about these other ones. They’re similar, but not the same. I read an article yesterday about dates. Maybe I should try that. Shoot, I really needed to have a good workout today; I wish I had more of the bars I like.
In both the A and B response, the preferred food elicits the same feelings of confidence, but running low leads to a lot of second guessing and self doubt in the B response. That athlete tends to talk himself or herself out of having a good workout. The athlete who gives the A response has the same choice to make, but doesn’t overthink the decision or second guess the result. They don’t let the fact they can’t control everything derail their whole workout or day.
When you are in the middle of a workout or competition and feel hungry, do you think:
- I need to eat carbohydrate so I can continue performing well. Chocolate flavor would be perfect right now.
- I need to get 110 calories of simple carbohydrate – not complex carbs – right now, so I don’t bonk. I hope I have the chocolate flavor, because that’s the one that works.
Both responses recognize the immediate need for carbohydrate calories and a craving for chocolate flavor. The big difference is that the athlete who gives the B response adds a bunch of details. The need to control the exact calories, type of carbohydrate, and flavor in order to accomplish the task successfully is problematic. Overcomplicating tasks by adding too many requirements for success gets in the way of confidence because it makes success (getting carbs) look and feel like failure.[blog_promo promo_categories=”bucket list” ids=”” /]
Now, I am not a sports psychologist (special thanks to Kate Bennett, Psy.D. of Athlete Insight for helping with this article) and am not qualified to diagnose a problem with perfectionistic behaviors. But after more than 20 years of coaching a lot of athletes, what I am qualified to tell you is that the best athletes I’ve worked with would answer “A” to all of the above scenarios.
Whatever level of perfectionism you have, it’s going to benefit your performance more when the motivation for your decisions focus on the positive outcomes that will result from greater perfection. How can you start to make this shift in your own thinking? Examine the thoughts behind your training behaviors to see if you are tipping more toward perfectionistic concern or perfectionistic striving.
When you find yourself motivated to avoid mistakes or prevent failure, proactively replace those statements with positive, progress-oriented language.
To some, this will sound like a complicated way of saying, “Think positive!” But this goes beyond merely thinking positive because it seeks to address thoughts specifically associated with behaviors. When you are training or competing, the thoughts associated with your actions matter! They can enhance your performance and set you up to take advantage of opportunities, or they can make you blind to opportunity and put you at greater risk for failure. There are a lot of perfectionist athletes out there, including many who let their tendencies work against them. If you’re one of them, the good news is you can do something about it, and your performance will improve when you do.
Flett, Gordon L., and Paul L. Hewitt. “Perfectionism and Maladjustment: An Overview of Theoretical, Definitional, and Treatment Issues.”Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment. (n.d.): 5-31.
Madigan, Daniel J., Joachim Stoeber, and Louis Passfield. “Perfectionism and Training Distress in Junior Athletes: A Longitudinal Investigation.” Journal of Sports Sciences (2016): 1-6.