Perfectionism and high performance

While often seen as a negative characteristic, perfectionism can be used to improve athletic performance. There is a strong feeling with perfectionistic-oriented people that they are being judged for what they will do, not for who they are. Thus, they are always looking for what is wrong, rarely looking for the good in a situation. When someone with perfectionism tendencies can use it to their advantage, they have managed to find strategies to help them move beyond what others think of them, instead focusing on themselves and how they want to improve and develop. When we get overly tied up in our performance and allow it to become our identity, we can get too caught up in avoiding mistakes and putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to impress others—all of which makes us perform below our potential.

Not allowing performances to define oneself can be extremely difficult when an athlete receives a lot of attention and accolades for them. I have seen this difficulty develop with clients time and time again, where the driving force behind an athlete’s performance is no longer the intrinsic enjoyment, the challenge, and the desire to improve. Rather, it becomes a need to get something for it or feeling that without the expected results, the athlete is less of a person.

Tips for managing perfectionism

1. Figure out who you are: I sometimes ask my clients who they are beyond their sport. It’s not an easy question to answer, and often my purpose is not to get a response but to have them start to think about it. It’s important to start thinking about who you are— just you, beyond sports, school, work, etc. These are all things you do but they aren’t who you are. The more you develop yourself as a person and find your identity away from the things you do, the more you will be able to do the things you love.

2. Don’t do just one thing: Find some hobbies you can do away from the things you are striving to become great at. If you’re an athlete, take up painting, writing, photography, another sport, etc. This doesn’t mean you must put a lot of energy and time into these hobbies; they are there to fill your free time, to give you enjoyment, something to do in a relaxed way other than sit around and think about the mistakes you have made in your sport. It will ultimately make you happier and more well-rounded. Finding things to enjoy beyond your sport will help you realize that there are lots of other fun activities to do, and these will help you create a multi-faceted identity.

3. Choose your friends wisely: Choose to be around people who like you for you. It could be a teammate or someone away from your sport; the point is simply that when you are around people who don’t care how well you put a ball through a hoop or a puck in a goal, it is easier to be yourself and not create an identity based solely on something you do.

4. Become a detective: Learn to look at mistakes in a way a detective looks at a case. A detective removes emotions and looks to find out what happened and take it one step further figure out what to change and how to prevent it from happening again. Our emotions prevent us from seeing things clearly. You will make mistakes but if you can have your reaction, which you will, but then remove the emotion and look at things objectively to see what you can adjust and make you better you will be able to use mistakes to your advantage.

If you want to find out more about perfectionism and performance check out my latest book Fortitude: The Essential Guide to Building and Sustaining Mental Toughness. Available on Amazon.