If you are a tennis player, coach, or parent, you might believe that
success could only be achieved through the most complete and total
pursuit of excellence. You might also think that perfectionism is
the key to unlocking the door to untold riches, and that those who
fall short of perfection are doomed to mediocrity and shame. If
these two statements characterize your views on performance, or if
you know someone adhering to these assumptions, then read on. It is
perhaps ironic that perfectionism leads neither to higher performance
nor happiness. In fact, perfectionism can destroy your success and
enjoyment of sport and lead to general problems too. This month
we'll examine the curse of perfectionism and offer tips on breaking
this pattern in order to clear the way for real success.
What, You're Not Perfect?
In any performance situation, it is healthy to want to do your best.
This is accomplished by honing technical skills provided in coaching,
improving mental skills through sport psychology (Mental Equipment is
one starting place), and conditioning your body with specific
training and nutritional strategies. This pursuit of high standards
and emphasis on quality is a prerequisite of true accomplishment and
should be encouraged. However, when the focus becomes so
perfectionistic that standards are set high beyond reach or reason,
and life is measured entirely in terms of productivity and
accomplishment, the drive to excel becomes self-defeating, dangerous
Perfectionists believe that if they fail to perform flawlessly, they
will be embarrassed, disgraced, and doomed. They irrationally
believe that they must be perfect to be accepted by others. Winning
6-1, 6-1 becomes a "less-than-perfect" experience of blowing two
games, while losing closely is grounds for humiliation and self-exile.
No success is appreciated and winning simply leads to higher and
more unrealistic goals. Life becomes an endless pursuit of
acceptance through performance. Fear of failure is a close ally
since focus is often directed on past failures rather than
accomplishments. Rather than viewing competition with positive
energy and an eager attitude of challenge, perfectionists make self-statements such as, "I cannot fail, because if I fail I am totally
Many wonder whether perfectionism enhances performance especially in
competitive societies where "winning at all costs" thinking
predominates. If perfectionism worked, this article would not be
written. Studies indicate that perfectionists actually succeed less
than their less rigid counterparts and are less skilled in their
sports! Successful perfectionists appear to achieve their success
despite perfectionism rather than because of it.
The Disadvantages of Perfectionism
O.k., so you've identified someone (maybe yourself) as a
perfectionist. So what! You want to win, you'll do anything to
succeed, and you'll consider yourself useless if you don't. Is there
a more serious price to pay by adopting this stance? Below are some
of the problems associated with perfectionism:
- Many forms of physical illness including coronary artery disease are
more prevalent among individuals with perfectionist tendencies
- Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are common among
- Intense self-criticism leads to intolerance of others when they
fail to meet unrealistically high standards, often resulting in
resentment and relationship difficulties
- Focusing on flaws and mistakes depletes energy. This may escalate
to panic-like states prior to competition, impairing smooth
- Creativity is robbed and learning stunted by not trying newer and
perhaps riskier methods
- Excessive self-criticism takes the enjoyment out of sport and
Breaking the Pattern
In order to change long established behavior patterns and personality
characteristics, it may be necessary to enlist the support and
services of a qualified professional. Long established habits,
beliefs and traits never change overnight, but acceptance of a
problem is a first step.
Here are a few tips consistent with attempting to become less
- Change your absolute standards and begin appreciating even minor
successes by setting lower goals
(See May, 1996 Article on Goal Setting)
- Realize that others are less interested in how you might perform
than you think. Accept yourself as
worthy of the same amount of acceptance regardless of how well you
- Focus on the enjoyable aspects of the sport. Try to appreciate
performance and let the outcome take care of itself.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes. Think of long-term improvement
rather than immediate success or failure.
- Ignore the outcome completely and simply try to achieve one
performance goal (e.g., play more aggressively from the baseline).
Perfectionism is not all it's cracked up to be, and it is far from a
prerequisite for optimal performance. On the contrary, this
compulsion is harmful to your athletic performance and enjoyment in
life. Stop being so perfect and you'll find the key to real success!
See you next month ...