Perfectionism and Sport

Perfectionism is a personality characteristic defined by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance, accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations.

Traditional views see perfectionism as maladaptive, dysfunctional, and unhealthy. In sports perfectionism may prevent the very outcomes it seeks to promote.

A more recent view distinguishes between 2 dimensions of perfectionism:

  • perfectionistic strivings: setting high standards and striving for perfection.

  • perfectionistic concerns:  fear of making mistakes, fear of negative evaluation by others, and negative emotional reactions to imperfection.

Perfectionistic striving is associated with:

  • a focus on process and not on outcomes
  • increased conscientiousness
  • positive frame of mind and emotions
  • adaptive coping to difficult circumstances
  • increased satisfaction
  • focusing on “getting it right” instead of focusing on “not making mistakes”
  • increased self-confidence and decreased anxiety
  • better performance

Perfectionistic concerns are associated with:

  • thinking about outcomes (making or missing, winning or losing) instead of process
  • trying not to make miss instead of trying to make the shot
  • defensive frame of mind and negative emotions
  • increased anxiety and decreased confidence
  • fear of failure, fear of embarrassment

Perfectionistic striving will help you, perfectionistic concerns can destroy you.

So, is perfectionism good or bad for you as a curler?

It depends.

If perfectionism means that you set high standards for yourself and you focus on the process of improvement, it can lead to positive thoughts and feelings as well as better performance. Mistakes will not upset or demoralize you. You will be able to refocus on the next shot.

If, on the other hand, perfectionism means that you are concerned about missing you will over-react in a negative fashion to mistakes, you will get more upset, you will beat yourself up, you will be pessimistic, you will start to worry about how others view you, and you will be distracted from the task at hand.

For me it is the difference between aspirations and expectations. We can aspire to be flawless and see this venture as a quest to become perfect. But we cannot expect to be perfect every time, otherwise we will be frequently disappointed and lose heart. Remember that improvement is non-linear. It takes time for players to improve and teams to gel and there will be some ups and downs along the way. So take the long view and be patient. And don’t get down on yourself and your teammates.

Getting visibly upset if you miss a shot can not only negatively affect you, it can hurt your team.   That kind of thing can be contagious.

If your teammates see you get upset and down it is distracting and disheartening. In addition, it can cause the opposition to be more confident.

I have battled with perfectionism in many areas.   When golfing, I used to get upset with myself any time I drove a ball into the rough. This often led to a bad second shot. Then I checked out the statistics for the PGA tour and found that the best golfers in the world miss the fairway 25% – 30% of the time. So I learned to give myself a break. When I drive the ball in the rough I may get irritated for a little while, but by the time I get to the ball my negative emotion is gone and I focus on trying to play the best shot I can. It’s time to forget about outcome and concentrate on process.

So give yourself a break. Don’t think in “all or nothing” terms; don’t think of 4’s and 0’s. You won’t be perfect, but fortunately we don’t have to be perfect to be successful. And if you miss a shot, remember that your teammates are there to cover your back. That’s what teammates do for each other.

Reference:  Stoeber, Joachim (2011). The dual nature of perfectionism in sports . Relationships with emotion, motivation, and performance. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4 (2). Pp. 128-145.

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