Just as athletes create goals for the upcoming season, coaches set goals for personal and professional development. Recently, I talked with CTS Coaches Jason Koop and Andy Jones-Wilkins on the Koopcast podcast, where I mentioned my goal to address perfectionism – or perfectionistic tendencies – when I believe it interferes with an athlete’s path to success. So, in the context of training and performance, what is perfectionism and how can pursuing perfection be bad?
Definition of Perfectionism
First off, how do we identify perfectionism? The clinical description, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology is: “n. the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems”. Beyond this, a few telltale signs may indicate perfectionist tendencies have been given a seat at the table. Here are some clues that may help identify whether you or someone close to you has a tendency toward perfectionism (note: this list is not comprehensive):
- Receiving feedback or criticism leads to defensiveness
- Seeks the approval of others
- Puts things off, procrastinates frequently
- Frequently guilt-ridden
- Expects perfection in all things
- Tends to be highly critical of others
- If you achieve your self-imposed standard, you’ll create a new, higher standard in the future
One doesn’t need to meet all the above criteria to struggle with perfectionism. If three or four tendencies above ring a bell, you may be moderately or greatly affected by perfectionist tendencies.
Perfectionism: Good or Bad?
To clarify, perfectionism in and of itself is neither a bad nor good characteristic. Rather, it’s the outcome of these tendencies that can influence our athletic lives and beyond. Plenty of athletes lean toward perfectionism and successfully harness those propensities to their advantage. Therefore, if you found yourself saying, “Yes, that’s me,” to several points above, understand that there is no universal merit to either side. Perfectionist tendencies start becoming problematic when they stand in the way of attaining your goals. At that point you may want to consider better ways to manage your inclinations so they work for you rather than against you.
Negative Outcomes of Perfectionism
Reluctance to take on challenges is a common negative consequence of perfectionism in athletes. When someone seeks perfection, their willingness to accept anything less prevents them from attempting something that could lead to failure. The stakes are perceived as terribly high, even if it’s an interval workout, a training competition, or a field test. Setting high standards is generally good, but these athletes set standards incredibly – arguably impossibly – high. Worse yet, when perfectionists achieve their excessively high standards, a typical response is to believe the level was set too low to begin with. As a result, they raise the bar even higher for the next attempt.
Perfectionist athletes are more likely to fail, in part because they don’t give themselves enough opportunities to succeed. The tendency to avoid tasks where the likelihood of failure is moderate to high reduces their total number of attempts. Success in sport, and in many aspects of life, is a numbers game. They are less likely to experience success, compared to athletes willing to give it their best shots day in and day out, because their attempt numbers are lower. More attempts mean more opportunities for success, and perhaps more importantly, for learning, if you accept the potential for failure. I consider it a red flag when athletes avoid workouts or competitions because minor conditions weren’t quite right.
As a coach I feel comfortable helping athletes address their minor perfectionistic tendencies, but I refer athletes exhibiting more severe signs of perfectionism to professional therapists. On a day-to-day basis, I think it is important to reassure athletes that I don’t expect perfect outcomes from any task I ask them to perform. Perfect workouts don’t exist. Neither do perfect races. And certainly there are no perfect ways to eat, drink, sleep, or think.
Sometimes the stars align, however, and athletes achieve outstanding performances in training and races. We celebrate those with justified enthusiasm. But understand that those excellent moments don’t just happen. They result from many hours of effort, from being willing to struggle, to be average, or even less than average on plenty of occasions. Practicing your craft with intention and an eye toward good form and progress, you’re almost guaranteed to move the needle in a positive direction.
Just. Keep. Trying. Be willing to come up short, but don’t allow yourself to opt out of trying because you’ve decided perfection is the only acceptable outcome. When you do that, you really are more likely to come up empty handed, or at least left wanting.
Be Perfect at Something, Not Perfect at Everything
Another tactic that can help perfectionist athletes is to consciously create a narrow and specific target for perfection. Perhaps focus on perfecting sleep hygiene, hydration throughout the day, or just lacing shoes to a degree that feels just right. For some athletes, a little bit of perfection goes a long way. If they get that aspect right, they don’t need everything else to be perfect. To do this effectively, choose something that is manageable, largely within your control, and that will have a considerable and positive impact. To avoid being overwhelmed by feelings of losing control, set boundaries for how much flexibility you’re comfortable with in other areas. Over time try to gradually increase this flexibility.
To my current and future athletes…
Going forward, I’m committing to calling attention to evidence that perfectionism may be interfering with progress. I’ll employ tact and kindness, of course, but we’ll have uncomfortable conversations when necessary. My goal is to help athletes achieve more than they initially believe is possible, and it takes more than a smart training plan to do that. To athletes who are self-coached or perhaps struggling to improve with a static training plan, you won’t find the key to unlocking your potential in an interval set or block of training. Find someone who will challenge your mindset and approach to training.
By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach