The Problems with Perfectionism
Updated: Apr 3
Many athletes are perfectionists: highly motivated, committed to their goals with a strong desire to learn and improve. This provides many advantages and makes the athlete easy to coach. At the same time though, perfectionists lose confidence quickly if they do not perform with zero mistakes. As very self-critical individuals, perfectionists tend to dwell on mistakes and missed chances. This form of thinking can be detrimental to athletes when they do not perform their best.
Perfectionism can become a problem because of the underlying beliefs associated with perfectionism. These underlying beliefs can get athletes stuck in a cycle of self-critical, linear thinking that can ultimately hinder performance. Perfectionists often rely on linear thinking, goal-oriented approach, but rarely do athletes recognize its hindrance. Linear thinking includes ways of thinking that are dichotomous (black or white), absolutist, catastrophic, and pessimistic (highly critical).
In order to cultivate a healthier thinking process, it is important to help athletes understand the disadvantages of perfectionism and uncover the beliefs and behaviors that support perfectionism. These behaviors ultimate hurt an athlete’s confidence. The goal is to replace these unhealthy beliefs that hurt confidence with a philosophy that cultivates confidence and growth. Process thinking is the opposite of linear thinking. Process focuses on continual change and learning rather than just the end result. Everyone is going to make mistakes, it’s part of being human. Falling down is part of life, whether you’re a figure skater or not.
Athletes that utilize process thinking are mentally tough. They recognize that one mistake does not define them. They can fall on the first jump of a long program and not let that dictate how the rest of their program goes. These athletes take these experiences as learning opportunities. When mistakes are made, it is normal to be upset. Acknowledging and respecting the feelings associated with failure, but not letting those feelings hinder future performance, is key to being a successful athlete.
For example, many athletes believe that they must be “perfect” to perform well. If the athlete is stuck in dichotomous thinking, the beliefs are very black or white. The goal is to go for the middle “grey” area. If the belief is “If I don’t skate clean, then I failed” then we would want to replace it with: “If I don’t skate clean, I will feel disappointed about what I messed up on. But those mistakes will not define me as a person.”
If an athlete is stuck in absolutist thinking, cultivate awareness around the use of words like “ought,” “should,” “need to,” and “supposed to” is the first step. The goal is to replace these words with “can,” “is okay,” and “may.” If the absolutist belief: “If I don’t skate clean, I should give up because I can’t do anything right,” then we would want to replace it with “If I don’t skate clean, I may feel discouraged and those feelings are valid but that doesn’t mean I have to give up.”
Catastrophic thinking can cause an athlete to feel miserable about themselves and compensate by extreme behaviors. It is important to take a step back and recognize what is actually accurate. For example, if the catastrophic thought is, “If I eat an unhealthy dinner, I will gain weight and loose my jump,” then we would want to replace it with, “If I eat an unhealthy dinner, I may not have as much energy while training tomorrow. Eating unhealthy will not make me suddenly gain ten pounds and lose all my jumps.”
Pessimistic thinking leads to highly critical and blameful thoughts. For example, if the thought is, “I can’t land my double lutz,” then it would be important to make the cup half full and replace the thought with “There are many jumps I can land, double lutz may not be one of them right now.” Another good replacement would be, “It’s okay if I can’t land it right now, but I can progress by working on exercises that I know are forming good technique.”
Shifting your thinking process takes time and practice. It’s important to cultivate self-compassion, regardless if you are an athlete or not. We are human and every one of us will make mistakes. It’s with self-awareness that athletes will be able to recognize their false beliefs and replace them with accurate, realistic statements. When athletes shift away from perfectionism, they continue to be highly motivated and committed to goals with a strong desire to improve. The difference is that these athletes will not lose confidence and dwell on mistakes. When athletes can focus on their current training and performance, rather than past failures, they will be happier, more successful athletes.