April 28, 2016

BROFSKY | The Price of Perfectionism in Sports

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Perfectionism is seeing the world in black and white, win or lose, jubilation or sorrow. There is no in between, no gradation. It is setting excessively high standards — maybe even impossible ones — with no room for stepping-stones or minor progress. At first glance, perfectionist athletes seem to be the ones with the strongest drive and best work ethic — but there is a darkness that looms potentially enshrouding such athletes in a self-defeatist pattern.

On the surface, perfectionists seem to be the athletes with the biggest commitment to the game. They center their world on their sport, looking to it for a sense of completion. They continuously try to reach their demanding goals with unceasing motivation — and sometimes this can lead to impressive feats and high levels of play.

However, in Psychology Today, Dr. Adrian Furnham claims, “But there is a dark side: Perfectionism is seen as a cause and correlate of serious psychopathology. At worst, perfectionists believe they should be perfect — no hesitations, deviations or inconsistencies. They are super-sensitive to imperfection, failing and weakness. They believe their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes. And they don’t know the meaning of ‘good enough.’”

Perfectionism can take the positive aspects of setting goals and twist them to an unrealistic extreme. This means very little validation, very little that can assuage the mind and comfort it. If the perfectionist athlete doesn’t meet the standard previously set, there is a gap set aside for a downward spiral. It leads to a focus on inadequacies and allows for much self-criticism. It’s a double-edged sword. It may mean success and motivation to be the best — but in most conditions it leaves too much room for failure, too much room for self-destruction.

Dr. Furnham argues, “So pity the poor perfectionist. They are driven by a fear of failure; a fear of making mistakes; and a fear of disapproval. They can easily self-destruct in a vicious cycle of their own making: Set unreachable goals → fail to reach them → become depressed and lethargic → have less energy and a deep sense of failure → get lower self-esteem and high self-blame.”

Another consequence of unhealthy perfectionism is distorting reality — coming away from a game with a completely different perspective on your performance than everyone else.

Jonny Wilkinson, former British rugby player, discusses his perfectionism in his role as a goal kicker. He said in 2009, “Maybe I’ll hit four-in-a-row and just miss the fifth one … Instead of being satisfied with that, I won’t allow myself to leave until I’ve hit five… An hour and a half later — and having missed loads of appointments and left myself running completely late — I might do it.” He won the 2003 Rugby World Cup, but suffered from injuries after, most likely due to burnout from his routines.

Mark Brodie wrote in his article “Perfectionism and Burnout,” that “Wilkinson’s need to be the perfect player got him to the peak of his career, but was also his downfall as he pushed himself too far physically and experienced burnout, in his body and his mind. Wilkinson describes his desire for perfectionism as both unattainable and ‘unhealthy.’ ”

This transcends the drive to be the best; it is attempting to be better than your best. It’s asking to never be satisfied with who you are as an athlete because obsessive scrutiny of the gap between you and unattainable perfection will never constitute productivity.