The Perfection Trap
© Winning Edge Psychological Services, LLC
Many athletes desire to have that perfect performance. Athletes often imagine having a perfect performance at a big event or championship. Unfortunately, it rarely happens – as perfection is a difficult thing to achieve. How many no-hitters happen in a typical professional baseball season? Not many! More importantly, striving to be perfect is the exact opposite of what the athlete should be striving for!! Let’s take a look at why and see where great performances come from.
Researchers Frost & Henderson (1991) studied the personality dimensions of perfection striving athletes and found 2 important dimensions. The 1st dimension is the athlete’s personality standards (his/her drive towards being perfect); while the 2nd is concern over mistakes (how much energy the athlete consumes worrying about making mistakes.
Let’s take a look at personal standards: if the athlete’s personal standard of performance is perfection – he/she has chosen a really tough benchmark. Anything less than perfect is going to be unacceptable and highly disappointing. This mindset is problematic, as the only outcome that will be acceptable is perfection. This does not leave much room for anything else! An athlete could have a mediocre performance and still win a competition. However, for the athlete who is perfectionistic, winning with a mediocre performance wouldn’t suffice. He/she would still be disappointed.
Concern over making a mistake (our 2nd dimension) relates to how much the athlete is focused on making mistakes. This is the exact opposite mindset we want our athletes to have. A perfectionistic athlete is spending much of his/her mental energy and focus worrying about making mistakes instead of what they control and how to execute his/her game plan. Think about this for a minute. If a golfer is standing on a tee box and about to take his/her tee shot over a small lake on a par 3 hole, the last thing he/she needs to be focused on is the ball going in the water. Yet, the golfer who is over concerned with mistakes will think “Don’t go in the water!” Even though they want the ball to land on the green – he/she focuses upon the mistake. Guess where the ball goes? IN THE WATER! This happens because his/her brain was on the water; and not upon what they really want to happen. A mistake focused athlete will make far more mistakes than one who is relaxed and focused on his/her strengths.
Let us take a look at an example situation. Jason has made it to junior nationals but is ranked 20th in his age group. He has extremely high personal standards and is focused on a perfect performance and winning nationals. He has worked hard, and has been in competitive gymnastics for 10 years. Jason is excited to be at national, however he finds himself focused upon what mistakes he might make and what could go wrong. His thinking is off focus (on mistakes) instead of what he does well, (clean execution of the elements, and feeling in control). So, going into the initial rounds he is striving for perfection, focused on mistakes, has a high level of body tension (not ready and relaxed) is worrying, and consuming a great deal of physical and mental energy. An athlete that cannot accept mistakes or problems has no mental/emotional flexibility, and thus cannot problem solve. This is a dangerous place to be, particularly in a big game or competition. It is dangerous because it leaves only 1 acceptable outcome; perfection!
Winning Edge likes our athletes to have high standards such as growing new skills, improving play, increasing confidence, having the ability to consistently control his/her focus, and having a well-structured and practiced competition plan. In our example with Jason we would make a few changes before he ever made it to nationals. We would help Jason define his goals for the season – with a focus on consistent performance and high quality. We would also eliminate the word perfect from his vocabulary. This may sound silly, but it is an important change. Perfection as a mindset allows Jason only 2 outcomes: great or horrible. Eliminating perfection opens up the entire spectrum of outcomes; going from fantastic to great, to good, to above average, to average, to below average, too bad, to horrible.
Second, we would train Jason to use direct focus cues in practice that direct his thinking to clean execution of movements and elements. This type of thinking keeps Jason in the moment and directly on what he wants to happen. Focus cues generally translate into consistent and quality performance. Third, we would train Jason to clear negative thoughts or feelings as he goes through practices. Clearing is an important technique that helps athletes quickly recognize negative or unwanted thoughts/emotions and eliminate them. This helps keep the athlete focused on what he/she wants to happen. Fourth, we would teach Jason body awareness techniques and energy management skills to keep his body relaxed, feeling energized, and ready for competition. Fifth, we would have Jason performing daily mental practice with his confidence through simple and effective confidence tools. Finally, we would wrap these skills together into 3 organized groups of routines: Jason’s pre-performance routine, his during performance routine and post-competition routine. Having this organized and structured plan of physical and mental performance provides Jason with a consistent, familiar, and comfortable routine that he can use anywhere in the world and keeps him positive, focused on quality outcomes and relaxed.
Contact Winning Edge Sports Psychology for more on how we may help you or your team achieve their personal best!
Frost, R.O. & Henderson, K.J. (1991). Journal of Exercise Psychology (13) pp. 323-335.
McCann, S. (1989). The Perfect Performance. Olympic Coach Magazine Vol. 8 (3) p. 9.