Mental Equipemnt Syndicated Column – Sep 1, 1997 – Dr. John F. Murray – 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 and maladaptive.

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 worthless.”

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 perfectionists

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 performance

Creativity is robbed and learning stunted by not trying newer and perhaps riskier methods

Excessive self-criticism takes the enjoyment out of sport and life

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 perfectionsistic:

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 perform.

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!