PERFECTIONISM IN SPORTS – A PERK OR PERIL?

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Do you have a perfectionist in your circle of friends? Or maybe are you a perfectionist yourself? When do you call someone a perfectionist? Do you generally think it's a good or rather bad trait – in which situations and why? Is it good/ bad to be a perfectionist in climbing? Again – why/ why not? Before you read this blog article, take a second and reflect on these questions. 

WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?

Perfectionists are people who are striving for really high standards while at the same time being very critical about themselves (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990). Some dimensions of perfectionism lead to positive rather than negative outcomes. It is therefore important to differentiate between adaptive perfectionism and maladaptive perfectionism.  

There are three dimensions of the perfectionism according to Hewitt & Flett (1991):

1. Self-oriented perfectionism (or ego orientation) is an intrapersonal dimension which is characterised by an internal drive for exceedingly high personal standards, a demand for absolut perfection from oneself and a tendency to criticise oneself harshly. 

2. Other-oriented perfectionism is an interpersonal dimension characterised by demanding perfection from other people. 

3. Socially prescribed perfectionism also is an  interpersonal dimension characterised by the perception that other people demand perfection, hold unrealistically high standards from oneself and are critical. Others are perceived to refuse recognition and appreciation if external standards are not achieved.

Frost et al. (1990) provide another definition and division of perfectionism dimensions: setting demanding personal standards, necessity for precision and organisation (e.g. needing to maintain a sense of order), preoccupation and concern over mistakes, chronic doubts about actions and inadequacies, parental expectations and parental pressure, such as unrealistic standards and criticism. The first four dimensions are intrapersonal perfectionistic tendencies, the other two dimensions reflect interpersonal perfectionistic tendencies. 

Some dimensions, such as e.g. high personal standards or self-oriented perfectionism, can lead to positive outcomes, whereas others cause negative consequences – e.g. concern over making mistakes, doubts about action and socially prescribed perfectionism, such as parental pressure, tend to be positively associated with athlete burnout. (Slaney et al., 2002).

What impact does perfectionism have on sports and performance? 

Before I go into more detail of positive and negative consequences of perfectionism on performance, I want to point out that this topic is indeed really complex. It's not as easy to say whether perfectionism is good or bad. Many sports require flawless, errorless performance in order for athletes to be successful. Climbing is definitely among these sports – in particular recent bouldering with its many volumes, where everyone has to find an optimal position oneself to solve the problem as quick and as effortless as possible, diversified walls and hence physical and mental challenges. (Udo Neumann, 2018).

Despite this requirement of perfectionism, negative, counterproductive outcomes and unhealthy patterns of behaviour mainly occur among athletes who are characterised by an extreme, perfectionistic personality and who are focused cognitively on gaining perfection.

PERFECTIONISM & FEAR OF FAILURE

As already mentioned, concern over mistakes is associated with several negative outcomes, such as anxiety, low confidence, a failure orientation, and negative reactions to mistakes during competition. While athletes with high personal standards tend to not have any problems with anxiety or self-confidence, they report to have difficulties in concentrating while performing. They also tend to worry more about reactions of the audience. Athletes who strive for high personal standards are significantly associated with both a success orientation and a failure orientation. What does this mean? They strongly react to both positive and negative responses from other people (Frost & Henderson, 1991).

PERFECTIONISM & TASK ORIENTATION

The presence of an ego-orientation is associated with high scores on all subscales by Frost et al. (1990) (you remember: high personal standards, organisation, concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, parental expectations and parental pressure). Having high personal-standards is also correlated with task orientation (focussing on tasks rather than on outcomes). Athletes with extreme perfectionism tend to be dominantly ego-orientated, which weakens the effects if they also doubt their level of ability. (Hall, Kerr & Matthews, 1998).

PERFECTIONISM & SELF ESTEEM

Athletes with low self-esteem, dissatisfaction with their performance, and rating their competence very low in comparison (relative to the self-ratings of other athletes) tend to be concerned about their mistakes, doubt their actions, and perceive their parents as being critical of them (Gotwals, Dunn & Wayment, 2003). Generally, the correlation between perfectionism and self-esteem is very complex. E.g. a lack of success is a severe threat to athletes already vulnerable and low in self-esteem (Koivula, Hassmén, & Fallby, 2002).

PERFECTIONISM & SUCCESS VS FAILURE

It is important to distinguish between perfectionistic athletes who experience success and those who experience failure.

Perfectionists who experience success are less likely to experience distress. Self-oriented perfectionism is not maladaptive for rather successful athletes who are performing at a relatively high level, but it is associated with negative thoughts and reactions to mistakes among less successful ones (Wieczorek, Flett & Hewitt, 2003). Perfectionists are vulnerable to psychological distress and motivational deficits (Hewitt & Flett, 2002). With everything we do there are always "objective" failures, flaws or inconsistencies. Nothing we ever do will objectively be "perfect" – which in turn is the reason why perfectionists are more likely to feel stressed and  get motivational deficits: they are feel like they are failing by objective measures. Repeatedly failing in ego-involving life domains – such as where you see your strengths, your every day life, sport, work – has a strong negative impact. If one continuously fail on a personal level, negative outcomes such as depression could be the consequence (Hewitt & Flett, 2002). 

What can influence the correlation between perfectionism and negative outcomes?

Having coping styles available and perceiving a problem-solving ability are key factors (see Hewitt & Flett, 2002). Attention – there are also bad coping styles, such as avoiding the problem, ruminating  on it or blaming oneself as well as negative assessments of problem-solving ability. If using such strategies, perfectionists are at greater risk. Inherent risks are also higher for perfectionistic athletes who are defensively focused on mistakes and characterised by excessive fears of failure and self-doubts. Of course, we should also not forget that if we actually lack the skills when being a perfectionist, this can obviously have a negative impact, too. Insufficient ability reinforces dissatisfaction. Therefore, athletes who are too ambitious and try to overcompensate for their deficits in ability might feel particularly dissatisfied and, in turn, might be especially prone to negative effects of perfectionism (Flett & Hewitt, 2005)

However, if we perceive high self-efficacy – personal judgement of how well we can do certain tasks in order to be dealing well with future situations – and self-control, it also has a positive impact on our performance outcomes, particularly if we either have self-oriented or socially prescribed perfectionism.

To some extent, perfectionistic athletes might be "immune" to the negative effects of perfectionism as long as they experience success and if they have developed a proactive, task-oriented approach to coping with difficulties and setbacks. What is really important for the coping mechanism, is that these athletes develop a certain flexibility concerning their goals. They need to be able to adjust their goals depending on situational circumstances and current personal performance levels. 

Do you think it's mandatory to be a perfectionist in task-orientation to become a better climber (dimensions: ego-orientation, high standard and goals, necessity for precision) and to increase your repertoire of movements, skills and available motion sequences? 

How do you think you can train to be "less perfectionistic" if you are experiencing strong concern over mistakes or doubts about actions? What do you suggest doing if you fail to be as successful as you would like or when you lack self-esteem?

Leave your thoughts, comments, ideas in the comment section below. I am very interested to hear them! I will also write a follow up on this topic soon, where I will summarise the key factors of how you can deal with perfectionism in the best possible way.

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