Perfectionism and it’s negative aftermath
Perfectionism and it’s negative aftermath
IN THIS ISSUE:
PERFECTIONISM is the scourge of human performance. It's the wolf dressed in sheep's clothing, a villain masquerading as the good guy. It's truly ironic that your drive to be the best can frequently turn into the one biggest roadblock to your success. Like a double-edged sword, your push to be perfect, when controlled, can cut through obstacles thrown in your way and clear a wide-open path to your athletic dreams. However, when perfectionism runs rampant and starts to control you, it can cut your self-confidence to shreds, kill your motivation and send your performance down the tubes. Perfectionism will suck every ounce of enjoyment and satisfaction out of your sport. If you let perfectionism run your life, your two closest friends will be intense feelings of inadequacy and depression. In this issue we will take a closer look at the immensely destructive nature of this obsessive drive to be perfect.
ATHLETE'S LOCKER - "Perfectionists are far from perfect!"
PARENT'S CORNER - "Is your perfectionism hurting your child?"
COACH'S OFFICE - "Stop and smell the roses"
DR. G'S TEACHING TALES -"An obvious choice"
"Perfectionists are far from perfect"
One of the characteristics that I see in all great athletes is that they possess a burning desire to be the best. Their inner drive to rise to the top fuels these athletes' efforts and keeps them going when the going gets rough. This desire motivates them and helps them discipline themselves to continually keep pushing outside their comfort zone.
An integral part of this drive to be the best is an intense dissatisfaction with mistakes and mediocre performances. In fact, many top athletes are unhappy with anything short of perfection. Why? Because these athletes feel that they can always do better than their best. As a result they are continually looking for and dwelling on the things that they've done wrong so that they can make them right.
Now on the surface, this may look like a wonderfully positive trait to have. After all, why should you be happy with making mistakes or being just average? A real winner certainly doesn't feel fulfilled as an athlete with sloppy performances! Besides, isn't constantly hunting down your weaknesses and continually trying to improve them a great success strategy? In fact, isn't that the only way to turn your dreams into a reality?
Certainly, being dissatisfied with mediocrity and honestly looking for, and working on your weaknesses is a sure-fire success strategy. There's no question that you can't become a champion without adopting this kind of approach. The only way that you can truly get stronger as an athlete is by strengthening your weaknesses. Furthermore, having little tolerance for mistakes will also help you raise the bar on your overall performance. If you're always pushing to be better, sooner or later you will be! Right?
Well, yes and no! There's absolutely nothing wrong with dwelling on and fixing your mistakes. However, there is something very wrong with being so obsessed with being perfect that you are never satisfied with your performances and efforts regardless of feedback to the contrary from your coaches, parents, friends and teammates. If you continually expect yourself to be perfect, you are setting yourself up to fail BIG TIME!!!! Let me explain.
If you truly want to be successful as an athlete, then you have to understand that perfectionism is a double-edged sword that can cut both ways. Simply put, when harnessed constructively, perfectionism can effectively cut through the obstacles and hardships you're confronted with in your life and clear a wide-open path to your dreams. Having what I call "healthy perfectionism" will get you to continually reach higher and higher until you indeed achieve a level of personal excellence and success that is truly fulfilling.
However, when used destructively, perfectionism can cut your self-confidence and self-esteem to shreds. It will sabotage your performances and kill your dreams dead in their tracks! When you turn the sword of perfectionism on yourself like far too many athletes do, you will also kill the fun and enjoyment that the sport used to bring you. If you're competing without the fun and enjoyment, then there is one thing that I can guarantee you: You will NEVER perform to your potential! Enjoying what you're doing is a necessary prerequisite of peak performance. No fun, No excellence! It's that simple! This so called "unhealthy perfectionism" we're discussing is a very serious disease that will leave you de-motivated and bumming big time!
So what is this destructive use of perfectionism? "Unhealthy perfectionism" has three interrelated components: First, the athlete always focuses on what he actually did (or thinks he did) wrong regardless of how well the rest of his performance went or feedback from the outside to the contrary. Second, the athlete measures her "imperfect performance" against a perfect ideal that in reality doesn't even exist! (There is NO PERFECT in sports or life!) Third, the athlete then ruthlessly beats himself up emotionally for these mistakes, failures or bad performances.
It's these three nasty habits of over-focusing on mistakes, thinking your performance wasn't good enough compared to an unrealistic ideal and then emotionally beating yourself up for your "failings" that totally destroy your self-confidence and leave you feeling depressed. Let's briefly look at each of these components. Think about this: If you only dwell on what you think you've done wrong in a performance and you make this the most important thing on your mind, then you'll always struggle with low self-confidence. If you play great, but make one or two mistakes, and this is where you put all your energy, "I can't believe I blew that! That was so bad! I'm so much better than that! What's wrong with me," then you'll leave that particular performance feeling like a loser. In this way perfectionists distort reality. They perform well but come away from the game feeling like they didn't!
When you do this to yourself you are a crook! You rob yourself of the opportunity to feel good about yourself. You rob yourself of confidence! If you are continually focusing on your mistakes and shortcomings, you will be blind to what you actually accomplish. This is an awfully nasty trick to play on yourself!
When you combine this negative distortion with a tendency to continually measure your performance against an unrealistic, perfect ideal, you'll struggle even more with low confidence and self-doubts. As a result, you'll be continually plagued by feelings that whatever you do, it just isn't good enough. In the end, these feelings of inadequacy will paralyze you and leave you feeling depressed and hopeless. The fact of the matter is that there is no perfect in sports. We are all human, and by definition, being human means being imperfect. It means that sometimes you are going to have sub-par performances. You are going to make mistakes. Sometimes you're just going to suck! That's life! Deal with it! It's fine to strive for perfection in everything that you do. However, expecting yourself to be perfect is flat out foolhardy, and will bring you nothing but heartache in your life.
The last "killer" component of this unhealthy perfectionism threesome is a tendency to emotionally pound on yourself. The perfectionist is exceptionally hard on herself. When she messes up or falls short, she is ruthless and mean in her self-assessment. "You suck! You don't even belong on this team. You're so bad! I don't know why they're giving you a scholarship to play here! And you call, yourself a D-I athlete!"
If you have a tendency to get this down on yourself I'd like to offer you a bit of advice. Getting angry with yourself when you mess up or fail will NEVER, EVER help you get better. It will NOT motivate you onward to improved performances and it will NOT help you avoid costly mistakes in the future. On the contrary! Getting down on yourself when you make mistakes will only make you more uptight, distract your focus of concentration from the game or match, and further erode an already shaky self-confidence.
Your job when you make mistakes is to learn from, and then forget them. When you fail, you must forgive yourself and then leave that failure in the past. Dwelling on your screw-ups will only lead to more screw-ups! Accept the fact that you're going to make mistakes. Accept the fact that you can always be better. Accept the fact that there is no perfect. Accept your humanness. Strive to be perfect while at the same time, forgive yourself of your imperfections.
"Is your perfectionism hurting your child-athlete?"
At the biggest meet of the season she actually did it! She finally reached a lifetime goal. Ever since she was an 8 year old and had just started swimming, she had wanted to compete at Olympic Trials. As a very young swimmer her club's team had taken a trip to see this big meet and she had instantly gotten hooked, mesmerized by the excitement and intensity of the struggle to make the US team. Sure, getting to the Olympics would be even cooler. But she figured she'd cross that bridge when she got there. First step, The Trials!
Now here she was, all these years later looking up at the scoreboard at the race's end in utter joy and disbelief. She saw her lane number and the time right next to it, but the numbers must be wrong somehow! What she was looking at was an Olympic Trials qualifying time! She kept blinking to be sure that her eyes weren't playing tricks on her. She thought that she must be dreaming! She had made the cut in her best race, the 200-yard freestyle, swimming the fastest time of her life!!!! She saw her coach celebrating on the deck, heading towards her with a huge smile and when he swallowed her up in his signature bear hug, she realized that it must be so. She actually had done it! In an instant as she got out of the pool she was swarmed by happy teammates who hugged her and "high fived" her. It was at this point that it finally hit her. She dissolved into tears of joy, laughing uncontrollably while the tears streamed down her face. She had never been happier or more proud in her life!
She excitedly called home that afternoon right before they boarded the plane for the flight back. Unfortunately all she got was the answering machine, so she left the results and times of all her races, including her Olympic Trials qualifying time in the 200-yard freestyle. She couldn't wait to get home and secretly hoped her parents would meet her at the airport to help her celebrate.
The flight back home was a joyous blur although she couldn't stop the tears of happiness. The plane's captain had even announced over the PA system that they were carrying an Olympic Trials qualifier. Everyone on the flight applauded which both embarrassed her and filled her with pride. Even her coach got a little teary as they talked about her achievement and everything that it had taken. They both flashed back to all that she had gone through over the years to achieve this unbelievable goal, all the struggles, setbacks, disappointments, sacrifices and then all that gut-wrenching work, all those brutal mornings when she had dragged herself out of bed at 4:15am half asleep to train. It had all paid off and now she was flying on top of the world. As they reviewed it all together more tears came. Soon both were laughing and crying.
Her excitement only grew as the plane finally descended, landed and taxied to the gate. As she looked out the window she thought she spotted her mother standing there in the big plate glass window by the gate. She collected her carry-on baggage and both she and the coach headed off the plane together. As she came out of the jet way she spotted her mother standing in the crowd and she and the coach headed towards her with big smiles.
It was weird, but for some reason her mom's smile looked forced and her hug felt stiff. It was as if the woman was trying to be happy. However, that illusion lasted all of three seconds and was shattered when her mother opened her mouth. What she said and the way that she said it froze both daughter and coach in their tracks, shocking them into disbelief. It was actually quite incomprehensible that the woman could have responded this way.
"What happened to you in your 100 Butterfly? Your time wasn't very good!"
Her tone was nasty and accusatory implying that the girl had gone and done something terribly wrong. Mom was clearly displeased that her daughter did not swim fast enough in her other top event! Well there's an intelligent, compassionate response! Both coach and daughter were speechless!
What's wrong with this picture? What happened to the, "Honey, I'm so proud of you!"? How about the, "Olympic Trials! WOW! That is absolutely amazing! Way to go girl! You are the cat's meow! You are the doggie's Woof!?" No, mom couldn't think to say any of these normal, expected responses because she had a wee bit of a problem with perfectionism herself. Can you begin to imagine the damage that your perfectionism will do to your child? Let's take our swimmer as an example.
Obviously both the girl and her coach were devastated by mom's reaction. Who in their right mind wouldn't be? What this mother basically said to her daughter with this response was, "your making Olympic Trials is not good enough and means nothing to me because you still had a "bad" race in another event." Talk about raining on someone's parade! This mother is a criminal! She is a thief! She just stole her daughter's moment of glory from her and her coach. Her actions and words were like a knife that cut through her daughter's self-esteem and confidence. How dare she!?
This is not at all unlike the parent who looks at his son's 95 on the history test and gives the boy a hard time about the one or two questions he got wrong. The message that you give your children when you get "perfectionistic" on them by ignoring their small or larger victories and focusing on their "losses" is that you think that they are not good enough.
Reading this you may sit there and protest! "No, I'm just trying to make her better!" "I'm doing this for him because he has so much potential!" B.S.! You may think that you are actually helping your child "excel" or "improve." You may look in the mirror and convince yourself that you have "noble" intentions. However, the real meaning of your communication is not in your intentions at all, but in the response that you get from your child. Put yourself in this swimmer's shoes. How was she supposed to feel with a mother who responded this way?
Don't kid yourself! Being perfectionistic with your children is NOT going to motivate them to become more successful, happier people! Instead, what you're doing is hitting your child with a nasty one-two punch! First off, you ignore what success the child had, and tell them that regardless of what they accomplished, it's just not good enough. Now there's a message that builds self-esteem! Second, and far more damaging, you teach your child to do the very same thing to him/herself. That's right! If you get in the habit of continually "raining on your child's parade" by always focusing on what he supposedly did wrong, while ignoring what he did right, you will pass this nasty, self-esteem killing behavior on to the next generation. That way, whenever your child does achieve something noteworthy, she will dismiss it in her own mind as "nothing" (just the way you did to her) by finding fault with herself somewhere else. Who knows? If you really get "lucky" your child might do the very same thing to his kids when he has a family!
The end product of this nasty habit of never being satisfied with what you do is depression, poor motivation and low self-esteem. After all, why should you bother trying hard when whatever you do just isn't good enough?
Please understand! Perfectionism is a poison. It's a serious addiction! Don't force-feed it to your kids! Instead catch them doing things right. Celebrate their small victories. Recognize the hard work and effort that they are investing in their activities. Cheer them on! And finally, stop trying to make them better by illuminating all their shortcomings. That's not your job! Instead, that job belongs to the coaches. If you insist on ignoring my words and still taking this role on, I can promise you that sooner or later, it will backfire in your face with disastrous, long term consequences.
"Stop and smell the roses"
One of the biggest problems that I see in sports today is our obsessive preoccupation with winning and being number one. Don't get me wrong! I like winning as much as the next guy. And by itself, striving to be the best is not such a bad thing. On the contrary! I think it's incredibly valuable to be in the habit of organizing your life around hard work and the pursuit of excellence. As a result, you and your athletes will ultimately achieve more. However, when you continually demand and expect perfection of yourself and others, when you come down really hard on both yourself and them whenever they fall short, you'll be setting yourself up for a lot of sub-par performances and a bundle of misery.
Because of the nature of your job as a coach, you are continually under a tremendous amount of pressure from a number of fronts. First off, you're probably grossly underpaid. Most coaches don't exactly make the big bucks. Second, like far too many coaches, you're probably under-appreciated. Coaches always seem to get tons of feedback whenever they are doing things wrong, and rarely hear about it when they do things right! Furthermore, you are often expected to win all the time and when you don't, you tend to catch a lot of flak from all your "supporters." In addition, your skill and effectiveness as a teacher is constantly measured by how much you "produce." Therefore, people wrongly assume that you're not a good coach unless you have a winning record. And finally, one other added benefit to joining the coaching profession: There are very few jobs out there where you get to have highly qualified "Joe Public" evaluate your job after every single practice and game.
In an unforgiving way our sport-crazed society demands that you be perfect. The news media, fans and parents all expect you to be a "real" winner, i.e. to produce a winning record. As a consequence, you are put into an unenviable, no-win position. When your team does win, several possible outcomes occur that directly or indirectly diminish your victory. First, your win was expected and therefore you get less credit for it. Second, maybe the "experts" find something to criticize in your victory; for example, you didn't win by a large enough margin. Or maybe your team just played poorly according to them. Third, some of your coaching decisions were considered to be suspect by all those in the "know." Or, worse yet, the "experts" frequently take away your victory by asking you to focus on the next game, the next opponent or the next competition. In other words, when you succeed, you're allowed about 20 minutes to actually savor the victory before someone asks you, "So what are you going to do for me tomorrow?" However, if you lose, you catch all forms of hell.
There's no question that our sports dominated culture leans towards the perfectionistic. Truth be told, we are never satisfied with anything short of an unrealistic, perfect ideal. For example, in the 2000 Olympics we got to see swimmer Summer Sanders become the most decorated female swimmer in history when she won her 7th and 8th gold medals. However, someone started an idiotic undercurrent that Summer's medals did not mean as much because they were only from relays and not individual events. Does this bizarre way of reasoning mean that individual athletes who participated in a team sport on a gold medal winning squad should also feel diminished because they didn't win an individual gold? Please!!!!! Give me a break!!!! Being an Olympic athlete means that you are in an elite group of the best athletes in the world. Winning a gold medal of any kind means that you and your team are considered to be the best in the world.
As a coach, it is important that you resist falling into the perfectionism trap with both your athletes and yourself. Just because others may try to force their unrealistic standards on you, doesn't mean that you have to pass their idiotic and performance-disrupting approach on to your athletes. You, above everyone else should know that there is no perfect in sports. Continually expecting perfection and refusing to settle for anything less is a dead end that leads to unhappiness, poor performance and ultimately burnout.
What does this specifically look like? When your athletes or team perform well, reinforce them for it regardless of the outcome. Catch them doing things right. There is no more powerful form of motivation than positive reinforcement and feedback. Yes, they probably could have done better. In fact, you can always do better. However, continually dwelling on an athlete's or team's shortcomings and mistakes will only erode confidence and kill motivation. Don't be stingy with your praise when your players perform well. Don't have unreasonable parameters of how you measure what's praise worthy and what's not. If you do, you won't be helping your athletes become stronger. On the contrary! You'll be slowly weakening them.
Use this same kind of reasoning with yourself. Do not expect yourself to be perfect. Do not highlight and over exaggerate your shortcomings as proof that you have failed to reach this ideal. Push yourself to be the best, but then forgive yourself and your athletes when perfection is not achieved.
There is a wonderful example of the futile quest of perfectionism in Greek mythology. Sisyphus was a mortal who was punished by the gods for his wrong doings with the following task. He had to push a huge round boulder up to the very top of a hill. To get the boulder up there, Sisyphus had to exert a tremendous amount of effort. The gods told him that once he got the boulder to the top, he would be finished with his punishment and could return to his normal life. Unfortunately for Sisyphus, however, there was no end to this task. Once he reached the top, the boulder immediately rolled down to the other side, causing him to have to begin the whole process all over again. Since the top of the hill was rounded and the boulder would always roll down one side or the other, Sisyphus could never really successfully accomplish his job. He was therefore cursed for eternity pushing the boulder up one side of the hill and then another.
This is a perfect metaphor for the destructive quest for perfection. Simply put, there is no perfection in sports. It is an impossible ideal. Strive to be the best but don't expect it. Get your athletes to pursue excellence and perfection, but don't expect it!
DR. G'S TEACHING TALES
"An obvious choice"
You figure it out! The answer should be pretty obvious to you if you use your head. Who else but this kind of person and soccer player could get herself a full four-year scholarship to a powerhouse Division I college, the school of her choice? When you think about it, this is no small accomplishment given that only 1 in every 250 high school seniors gets an athletic scholarship! So you can probably begin to imagine what kind of individual it takes to achieve such a prestigious goal.
A long time ago I worked with these two athletes. They were really quite interesting. Janice was a winner from the get go. Even as a young kid you could see that she was unbelievably focused and had a strong commitment to excellence. Boy, was she passionate about soccer! On her very first travel team, as an 8 and 9 year-old, she was a superstar, not only out hustling and outplaying everyone on her team, but every player on every other team in the league. That first year she set all kinds of league and club records for goals scored and assists. Her coaches loved her because she was always eager to learn, and so what if she hated losing and occasionally it made her upset. I don't know many really good athletes who actually like it! Besides, the coaches loved her intensity and competitiveness, feeling that this is what made Janice special. Janice was indeed a rare talent and the kind of kid who had the potential to go on to play professional soccer.
Donna, on the other hand was the exact opposite of her cross-town rival. She was a pretty good athlete herself at a young age, but she was so much more laid back than Janice and seemed to be far more concerned with the latest gossip and having fun than she was with playing serious soccer. There were a number of times both in practice and at games when Donna was seen to be "touring La La Land," as her coach put it, joking around, smiling and laughing, as if she wasn't really into the game. Don't get me wrong here. Donna still managed to play some pretty good soccer. However, any good coach would've easily seen Donna as your basic "airhead." How could you think otherwise, watching her interact with her team right before and during games? Even if the game was important and pressure packed, there was Donna being a clown! I know for a fact that this would sometimes drive her coaches to distraction. They even benched her a few times until she could pull it together. After all, how can you expect to play well when you just seem to be out to lunch?
When the girls were twelve they both made their ODP team. Actually, quite a few coaches were surprised that Donna had been selected. Her reputation as being too "fun loving" and not "serious enough" had preceded her. A number of coaches strongly felt that she should have been passed over for someone with a little bit less skill than her but who was far more serious about the game. These coaches reasoned that the more serious player would learn faster and make a more positive contribution to the program. However, at the last minute the head coach kept Donna on the roster because he "liked her energy." One assistant confided in me after the selection process and said, "You know, the kid's really a twit and doesn't belong on this team! She's taking the spot of a more deserving player." The funny thing about all this was that Donna could actually play the game. Sure, she wasn't the best player in her position, but in and around the jokes she did work hard.
On the other hand, choosing Janice for ODP team was the biggest "no-brainer" for the entire coaching staff. She was hands-down the best player out on the field and a unanimous selection. By now, her competitiveness and intensity had matured and very few girls that age could match her aggressiveness and skill level. The coaches also started to recognize Janice's on-field leadership ability. When teammates messed up she was right there with feedback about what they needed to do better. It's true that Janice's intensity occasionally colored the tone of the message to her mates. After all she had a serious commitment to excellence and wanted her teammates to share this with her. And it is also true that Janice would sometimes get frustrated and impatient with herself whenever she messed up. However, the coaches saw this as a positive sign. They felt that she set a powerful example for her teammates and contributed to raising the level of play of the entire team.
By freshman year in high school both girls had begun to distinguish themselves as fine athletes and good players. Janice continued to be one of the best players in the State and her work ethic and quest for excellence seemed to propel her to the top. She was the starting striker for the varsity as a freshman and led the team in points. College scouts had started coming to the team's games and she began receiving letters of interest from some of their schools. The varsity coach especially loved Janice's competitiveness and push to be the best. When she made mistakes, like any really good athlete, she'd get angry with herself because she knew she could do better. This seemed to motivate her to work even harder. When the team lost it was the same thing. Because she was an intense competitor, Janice hated losing with a passion. She took responsibility for these losses reasoning that as the team's leader, she should have done more to help the team change the game's outcome. Therefore on the bus rides back after a loss, Janice brooded about what she did wrong and what she could do better next time. The coach truly admired her intensity and standards. In his mind there was no question that he had a real winner in Janice.
Donna didn't start as a freshman, but she did make the varsity squad. By mid-season she had played her way into being one of the first players off the bench. She was getting a fair amount of playing time and seemed to be making a positive contribution to the team. She was well liked by her teammates and still her happy-go-lucky self. Before games she joked around as usual which tended to annoy the coaches just a bit. When she made mistakes, like Janice, she too was the first to take responsibility for them. However, one thing seemed to really bother the coaches. Donna never seemed that upset by her mess-ups and the team's losses. She refused to hang her head after bad games and continued to joke around. Once, on a team bus ride back after a particularly tough loss, Donna stood up and said, "C'mon guys, let it go! We'll get' em next time...It's only a game!" Then she began singing a silly song. Before her teammates could join in, the head coach yelled at Donna to sit down and shut up. He also added that if she cared more about the game, perhaps the team wouldn't have lost today!
It is true that to become a real champion you have to really care about what you're doing. Taking things too lightly just won't help you get to your dreams. Furthermore, blowing off your failures too quickly sure looks like you don't take your commitment very seriously. That's why it seems pretty obvious to me who ended up with that full ride to college. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
By senior year Donna had gained a little bit of ground on Janice. She too was the starting striker on her team and an on-field leader. However, as good as she was, Donna was still behind Janice physically, tactically and technically as a player. Janice was just simply a better all around player. There was, however, one very critical area where Donna outshined her friend. An area that was so important, it made all the difference in the world.
And that's why it didn't surprise me at all to get that excited phone call from her letting me know that she had signed a letter of intent with a D-I program. She had been awarded a full, four-year scholarship to play for her favorite team! She was pumped!!!! The head coach had even personally called Donna himself to congratulate and welcome her to the team.
You see, the one area that Donna seemed to consistently outshine her rival was mentally. Her fun-loving, devil-may-care attitude had served her well over the years. She had learned to bounce back quickly from her mistakes in games and to keep the wins and losses in perspective. Janice, being the perfectionist that she was, had less and less tolerance for her mistakes and the team's losses through high school. Her play in both junior and senior years had suffered because she would get so down on herself whenever she messed up or didn't perform to her potential. As good as a player as she was, she had no confidence in herself what-so-ever because she continually felt "not good enough." What coaches saw as her intensity and competitiveness over the years was really part of the problem. She just couldn't tolerate losing or being less than perfect.
And that was always the funny thing about Donna. Most coaches misread her joking, "that's OK, no big deal" attitude towards the game. They mistakenly thought she actually didn't care and was just a goof ball. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The fact of the matter was that Donna cared immensely about soccer. It was and had been the most important thing in her life. Like Janice, Donna had a tremendous commitment to excellence. She too hated losing. However, she had also learned early on that mistakes and failures are a normal and important part of the learning process. That, in fact, without failure and mistakes an athlete can't get better. Unlike Janice, she had also been taught that expecting perfection from yourself and beating yourself up when you fall short of this is a destructive addiction that will kill your confidence and wreck your game. Donna had learned early on to forgive herself for her mistakes. She had learned to not take herself so seriously. As a consequence she had become a phenomenal player and a wonderful teammate. And that's why she's playing D-I ball right now!
If you are struggling with a performance difficulty or consistently underachieving, call me today! I can help.