Is Perfectionism Helping or Hurting?

Most of the information from this blog comes from an article called “Are Perfectionistic Strivings in Sports Adaptive? A Systematic Review of Confirmatory, Contradictory, and Mixed Evidence” by Gotwalls, Stoeber, Dunn, and Stoll.

Everyone has some perfectionistic tendencies whether related to work, school, socializing, hobbies, or sports. It’s incredibly rewarding when someone gives us an A+, a promotion, or a glowing compliment because of a job done perfectly. You probably know someone who cannot accept an outcome that falls short of perfection. Maybe that person is you. This article explores the underlying thoughts and attitudes that push us to perfection, as well as the benefits and losses of trying to be perfect.

In any type of performance there are two categories that make up perfectionism, according to the article. Perfectionistic strivings refer to a person’s drive toward being perfect and the high goals they set. I have coached players at Swarthmore College that have spoken of aspirations of scoring so many goals in a season, being named All-American, or cracking the starting line-up. These are examples of perfectionistic strivings. On the other hand, there are perfectionistic concerns which entail worries of making mistakes, fear of negative teammate/coach/parent evaluations, aversive internal reactions to an imperfect performance, and frustration which is the bad feeling when expectations do not match the outcome. The research on perfectionistic strivings and concerns, in both general psychology and sports, has yielded what I would deem “common sense results.” Studies show that perfectionistic strivings and high goal setting are helpful for athletes. Motivated drive coupled with high goals can help an athlete work hard to improve and become successful. Conversely, perfectionistic concerns tend to hurt an athlete’s performance. In a nut shell, athletes often play better when they are driven and set high goals, while eliminating negative, fearful, and anxious thinking. Here is the problem. The people who set high goals typically have a lot of those negative, fearful, and anxious thoughts. Psychologists are often faced with the task of helping people keep lofty goals while decreasing negative thinking.

Take a moment to recall a time when you were trying to reach an elevated goal. Perhaps it accompanied thoughts of failure, fantasies of criticism from others, and worries of impending mistakes? Why do we have these self-created barriers to success? People often share the following lines of thinking with me.
1. “If I think these terribly negative things, then when someone does say it about me, it will not hurt as much.” There is some truth to this, but often we never hear these negative things from another person and even when we do, it still hurts to hear. So what good does it do to say these bad things to ourselves?
2. “If I think negative things, then I’ll be more motivated to do better and avoid future failure.” Often the opposite is true. People tend to be their most motivated to work hard and improve when they feel good and less motivated when they feel poorly about the task at hand. Most athletes have some understanding of the value of confidence, so why undermine your confidence with your own negative thinking?

To better illustrate the impact of negative thinking, let’s examine a realistic example. A quarterback for a high school team engages in negative thinking. He says to himself, “I suck because I only completed 70% of my passed (which in reality is great). I missed the target 30% of the time therefore my coach is going to bench me, my teammates are going to be pissed off at me, on Monday morning people are going to laugh at me in the hall, and my girlfriend is going to dump me.” Sound silly? It’s not. In fact, this negative thinking has a tendency to go deeper. This QB might think, “Because of last night’s awful game I’m never going to be scouted, I won’t get recruited, I won’t get a scholarship, I’ll never get into the college of my choice, and therefore I’m never going to get a good job.” Again, it sounds silly to read this. But I’ve spoken with many athletes who share similar ideas. Overly critical, negative, and unrealistic thinking kills confidence and lowers motivation, which almost always results in poor performances. Hopefully, this entry provides some more evidence that specific mental training and therapy can be as useful to an athlete as physical training.