Should You Stop Demanding Perfection from Your Athletes?

Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” It seems perfection is a double edge sword. It can inspire and paralyze. The pursuit of it can raise the level of an athlete’s performance. Or it can cripple her with fear and anxiety. With such risks and rewards, should coaches stop demanding perfection from their players altogether?

The Problem with Perfection

I prefer that coaches encourage a pursuit of excellence rather than perfection. In my experience,coaches who emphasize perfection unintentionally sabotage their athletes’ performance.

Over the years I’ve observed that athletes who become obsessed with achieving perfection tend to also be:
  • risk averse
  • prone to anxiety
  • uncommitted to their decisions
  • hesitate under pressure
  • overly critical of their performance

These are often secondary effects of perfectionism. They happen because athletes are afraid to fail.

Unfortunately, failure is exactly what they get.

The danger with perfection is that it is an absolute; black or white, perfect or flawed. There is no middle ground. If you believe, as I do, that there is always room for improvement, then perfection is – as coach Lombardi said – unattainable.

Two Sides of Perfection

Let’s start by defining our terms. According to Joachim Stoeber (2011), “perfectionism is a personality characteristic defined by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations.”

You can see from this definition that there are two distinct dimensions of perfection: 1) a pursuit of flawless performance and 2) over concern for evaluation.

The first dimension, pursuit of flawless performance, is associated with striving for perfection and setting exceedingly high standards for performance.

The second dimension, overly concerned about evaluation, is associated with an overemphasis on avoiding mistakes, fear of negative evaluation by peers and coaches, disappointment of not meeting expectations, and extreme frustration with errors.

Researchers have found that the first can help improve performance (in training and competition) while the second hinders it.

More specifically, the chart below captures the differences between the two different dimensions of perfectionism.

Pursuit of Flawless Performance is linked to…
Over Concern for Evaluation is linked to…
positive emotions
negative emotions
greater self-confidence & less muscle tension
higher cognitive anxiety & more muscle tension
hope for success
fear of failure
a strong desire to get better and be better than others
to avoid being worse than others and performing worse than before

How to Promote Healthy Perfection in Your Athletes

Unfortunately, these two aspects of perfectionism are likely to coexist in an athlete.

Naturally you may be wondering if it is possible to reap the benefits of pursuing perfection without the maladaptive and overly critical side effects.

The simple answer is yes. Researchers call it healthy perfection.

However, as you can probably guess, it isn’t that easy. So, what can you do?

You can help your athletes develop skills and tools which minimize the negative effects of perfection AND promote the positive benefits. That’s what healthy perfection is.

Here are 5 ways to help your athletes develop the healthiest aspects of perfectionism.

1. Foster a Growth Mindset. A growth mindset drives an athlete to focus on improvement and mastering his or her skills. This focuses him on what he can control and a daily process of getting better.

2. Encourage Process Goals. Process goals direct an athlete’s focus to executing the fundamentals of their sport. Flawlessly executing the fundamentals gives athletes the best chance of success.

3. Redefine Success. Often athletes define success simply by wins and losses. This creates a fragile sense of confidence and a fear-based mentality – both undercut performance. Define success by measures that are more controllable and which show improvement over time.

4. Accept Mistakes as Part of the Process. When coaches emphasize perfection, this is where they go wrong. When athletes pursue their full potentials, they have to get outside their comfort zones. That means taking risks. And when athletes take risks, they make mistakes. Mistakes can be corrected and coached.

5. Use Mistakes & Failures to Get Better. This is a key factor in determining an athlete’s resilience – how they cope with failure. Mentally tough and resilient athletes use their failures and disappointments to fuel future successes. This comes from understanding that failure is inevitable (see above), isolated, and in the athlete’s control.

Free Download

To help you share these 5 strategies with your athletes download this free poster to hand out or hang in your locker room.

Click here to download poster

Equip Your Athletes for the Journey

Ultimately, if you’re like most coaches I know, your goal is to get the most out of each athlete’s potential. This is certainly a worthy pursuit and a difficult charge.

I encourage you to be mindful of what you emphasize in the process. Beware the two dimensions of perfection. One elevates performance while the other deteriorates.

If you choose to travel the road of perfection, intentionally incorporate the five strategies above to maximize the good and minimize the bad along the journey.

Question: Which side of perfection have you seen more in your athletes?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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