The “Perfect” Athlete (Part 2 of 2 on Perfectionism)

Student Athlete

Seeming to parallel educational settings, many sports teams and athletic organizations encourage high achievement, rigid standards, and ambitious goals from their participants.  This phenomenon can begin early with coaches and parents telling children that ‘practice makes perfect.’ Furthermore, as an athlete continues to develop and grow competitively in their sport, they are often given the message that they need to perform without errors.  As a result, it is not surprising that these messages contribute to perfectionistic thinking for many athletes.  It is important to understand this risk so competitive athletes can pursue their goals and become successful without taking a toll on their physical and mental health.

What does perfectionism look like in sports?

While many athletes with whom I have worked would easily self-identify as being a ‘perfectionist,’ its hindrance on actual performance and health is not always as readily admitted.  Perfectionism is commonly viewed as a personality trait that reflects an individual’s obsessive pursuit of high standards and critical self-evaluation.  In sports, perfectionism has the potential to be a negative characteristic because, with perfectionistic thinking, athletes tend to experience a decrease in motivation, poorer performance, and a reduction in overall well-being.  Perfectionism also can contribute to individuals developing multiple psychological problems, using maladaptive coping skills, and increasing the likelihood of burnout.

Research findings demonstrate that adopting perfectionistic attitudes is not conducive for positive sports performance because it sets up an unhealthy relationship with exercise and training.  Competitive athletes invest a significant amount of time and effort into their training, often while excluding outside hobbies and interests.  Through this process of obtaining their goals, athletes then become overly dependent on self-evaluations about their athletic performance and may set goals that are unrealistic.  Since perfectionistic standards are never attainable to begin with, athletes will inevitably experience feelings of frustration and personal failure.

The problem with perfectionistic thoughts for athletes

Psychological research has highlighted that striving for excellence and high achievement is not destructive in and of itself.  Instead the real culprit is athletes’ maladaptive responses to perceived failures and the use of critical, perfectionistic thought-processes.  Therefore, the role of perfectionistic thoughts have been examined in the field of Sport Psychology by applying a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach through the examination of athletes’ use of irrational belief systems and automatic negative thoughts.  Below are a few examples of dysfunctional thoughts that can fuel perfectionism: 

  • Hyper-focusing on the need to obtain absolute perfection in trainings and competitions 
  • Being overly concerned with making mistakes
  • Experiencing doubts about the quality of displayed abilities to teammates and coaches
  • Endorsing all-or-nothing form of thinking (i.e., anything less than perfection is a failure). 

How to get help with managing perfectionism

Sport psychologists and qualified mental health professionals work with athletes to increase their awareness of the potential negative impact of perfectionism on sports performance and well-being and how to modify dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors.  Treatment focuses on the realization that perfectionism is undesirable because it not only undermines athletic performance, but also decreases one’s enjoyment in the sport.  Collaborative efforts are made to identify and replace negative automatic thoughts with more flexible and functional ones.  Common interventions include using exposure activities, adopting stress management techniques, and learning how to set specific and realistic athletic goals.  Even though many sport and athletic environments continue to reinforce unrealistic standards and rigid expectations for performance, working with a qualified professional can help athletes successfully reach their goals in a psychologically healthy manner.  

Ashley Hallheimer, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist