Perfectionists Deserve a Break…
by Dr. Randy Borum
“Don’t be such a perfectionist!” Do you get tired of hearing this from coaches and teammates? Well, you may in luck. Researchers have been learning that perfectionism has a positive side too.
Over the years, research has produced some seemingly contradictory findings on perfectionism’s role in performance. While some studies show perfectionism to be a central quality of elite athletes like Olympic champions, other studies have found that perfectionism undermines athletic performance.
Attempting to understand these different results, researchers have found that perfectionism has at least two different parts (or facets) – each has somewhat different effects on performance. One facet is a positive striving for perfection, which is shown in “having high personal standards, setting exacting standards for one's performance, and striving for excellence” (Stoll, Lau, & Stoeber, In Press). The other facet has been called “self critical perfectionism,” which involves “critical self-evaluations of one's performance, concern over mistakes, and feelings of discrepancy between expectations and results” (Stoll, Lau, & Stoeber, In Press).
Studies have found that those who have a strong positive striving for perfection have a more positive mood, more endurance, better performance, less anxiety, and more confidence in competitive endeavors. But – and here’s the catch – those benefits can fizzle out for those who also possess a high degree of self critical perfectionism. That self-criticality has been linked to depression, stress, increased competitive anxiety, less confidence during competition, decreased performance, and burnout.
For the perfectionistic combat sport athlete, these findings suggest that you can keep your lofty standards, but consider cutting yourself a break when you err or fall short. If you tend toward perfectionism, work with it, not against it. Learn to control the stream of negative shouts that flow from your inner critic. Learn to learn from your mistakes, not to react to them. In competition, responding to your own mistakes with frustration, worry or anger will only distract you and undermine your confidence. Have cue words ready to quickly re-focus yourself on the strength – not the limitations – of your performance and on moving forward, not looking back. There will be plenty of time later to reflect, analyze and learn about what you could have done differently. But when someone is punching you in the face or bending your joints in unintended direction – that’s probably not the best time.
For those interested in reading more research on perfectionism and sport performance, here are some references:
M.H. Anshel and H. Mansouri, Influences of perfectionism on motor performance, affect, and causal attributions in response to critical information feedback, Journal of Sport Behavior 28 (2005), pp. 99–124.
D.M. Dunkley, D.C. Zuroff and K.R. Blankstein, Self-critical perfectionism and daily affect: Dispositional and situational influences on stress and coping, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003), pp. 234–252.
J.G.H. Dunn, J.K. Gotwals and J.C. Dunn, An examination of the domain specificity of perfectionism among intercollegiate student-athletes, Personality and Individual Differences 38 (2005), pp. 1439–1448.
M.W. Enns and B.J. Cox, The nature and assessment of perfectionism: A critical analysis. In: G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, Editors, Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC (2002), pp. 33–62.
A.J. Elliot and D.E. Conroy, Beyond the dichotomous model of achievement goals in sport and exercise psychology, Sport and Exercise Psychology Review 1 (2005), pp. 17–25.
G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, The perils of perfectionism in sports and exercise, Current Directions in Psychological Science 14 (2005), pp. 14–18.
G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In: G.L. Flett and P.L. Hewitt, Editors, Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC (2002), pp. 5–13.
Hall, H. K. (2006). Perfectionism: A hallmark quality of world class performers, or a psychological impediment to athletic development?. In D. Hackfort, & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Essential processes for attaining peak performance (Vol. 1, pp. 178–211).
J. Stoeber and K. Otto, Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges, Personality and Social Psychology Review 10 (2006), pp. 295–319.
Stoeber, J., Stoll, O., Pescheck, E., & Otto, K. (in press). Perfectionism and achievement goals in athletes: Relations with approach and avoidance orientations in mastery and performance goals. Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
Stoll, O., Lau, A. & Stoeber, J. (In Press). Perfectionism and performance in a new basketball training task: Does striving for perfection enhance or undermine performance?
Psychology of Sport and Exercise.