The challenge is when striving for perfection leads to a rigidity in life, an unrealistic view of where things stand and a highly critical nature where any misstep is viewed as catastrophic, where any slight deviation from the Master Plan makes the athlete become fraught with guilt.
Striving to be your best is a great attribute when properly honed and channeled. Perfectionism typically falls into one of two buckets. The first step is determining what type of perfectionist you are.
The first type is perfectionism is externally-imposed. What this means is that athletes see others — coaches, peers, friends, parents, etc. — are exerting the pressure upon them to be perfect. These types of perfectionists feel that an incredibly high standard of performance must be met in order to feel valued and appreciated by other people. The pressure is to work toward extremely difficult goals in order to please others and have them feel proud of you, because this is the only way to affirm you are on the path to achieving high standards of excellence.
The second type of perfectionism is self-imposed perfectionism. This type of perfectionism is defined by athletes who set their own high standards for performance, against which they evaluate and judge themselves. Striving toward these high standards and their perceived importance in order to attain perfection is central this type of perfectionism. If tempered and kept to a healthy dose, this can be a positive attribute to have.
With externally-imposed perfectionism, the risk is that athletes never feel like they measure up, that no matter what they do or how they perform, it’s never good enough. This can lead to ‘choking’ in competition because athletes can get paralyzed by worrying too much about the expectations and outcomes. Pressure from others — real or simply perceived by the athletes — will lead athletes to becoming frustrated or pissed off when mistakes are made. Burnout occurs more frequently with this type of perfectionism as well, because athletes are dealing with their own expectations as well as those of others (again, real or perceived). This leaves athletes feeling like they can never please those around them; even words of encouragement can be dismissed and cast aside.
Self-imposed perfectionism tends to allow for a healthier mindset in athletes. When athletes create high expectations for themselves, they are in control of those expectations — setting them and adjusting them — which allows for less anxiety when thinking about them and striving to achieve them. There is typically a higher level of motivation and balanced mindset. Yes, falling short of expectations or goals is disappointing. But, athletes can typically have a heart-to-heart with themselves and tell themselves they did everything they could to achieve whatever the outcome. So, while disappointment can still be experienced, athletes who deal with self-imposed perfectionism tend to use that as motivation to prepare better for the next competition.
Some athletes will say, “Well, I fall into both types. So, what do I make of this?” The key is to determine which of the two perfectionisms is primary and guides your athletic journey. By identifying which type is primary, you can better cope with the associated emotions and feelings which are elicited, so you can minimize the influences that detract from your enjoyment and performances, and maximize the motivational aspects of striving for perfection.
If you seek improvement, then it is fair to assume you possess some perfectionist tendencies. Understanding what these tendencies are and how you react to them will help you better cope with unrealistic expectations and any disappointments you will surely experience during your athletic endeavors. At the end of the day, you should derive enjoyment from the process of self-improvement, whether your goal is to complete your first race or become world champion. Fundamentally, the journey should be the same, regardless of the stakes.