Dealing with your child’s perfectionism in the sports arena

Nadia Comaneci

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high standards for performance, accompanied by tendencies towards overly critical evaluations of one’s behaviour (Flett & Hewitt, 2002).

Do you have a son or daughter who is a perfectionist? We are all well aware of how this characteristic plays out at school and at home, but how does it translate in the sports arena?

Research is currently divided on whether perfectionism is an ADAPTIVE trait that helps achieve elite performance, or whether it is MALADAPTIVE, and hinders performance. Athletes often face the “Perfectionism Paradox” (Flett & Hewitt), in that they are expected to produce near perfect performance outcomes, but cannot afford to be hindered by some of the negative consequences related to perfectionism as a characteristic – especially high competitive anxiety.

Let’s look at the cycle of neurotic, unhealthy, maladaptive perfectionism

  • The athlete works hard, attends training regularly, is committed and willing, expects a lot of themselves, and always strives to be the best…
  • Unrealistic goals are set…
  • This leads to an increase in the probability of mistakes and disappointments…
  • The mistakes and disappointments are interpreted as “Failure”…
  • At the same time, pressure from parents and/or coach are perceived by the athlete to be extremely high. The athlete worries about disappointing people…
  • The athlete is thus motivated by fear of failure/making mistakes…
  • This leads to tentative play/ performance in order to avoid mistakes, which very rarely leads to a favourable result…
  • There is over-analysis of performance, rumination, self-blame and poor recovery from mistakes…
  • Doubt creeps in, and confidence and self-trust decline rapidly…
  • Anger and irritation, and possibly bad sporting behaviour increase…
  • The “Failures” feed poor self-esteem…
  • Compulsive behaviour may set in…
  • Stress and high anxiety replace enjoyment and satisfaction of the sport…
  • Tension and rigid thinking decrease the capacity to be highly flexible and adaptable to the training and competitive environment – to “think on their feet” and solve problems quickly and effectively…
  • These lead to the body being physically tense and therefore technique suffers and exhaustion sets in quickly…
  • The athlete does not come close to reaching their “potential” even though they train and work very hard…
  • The athlete feels drained and can quickly “burn out” emotionally and mentally…
  • When perfectionism is combined with a moderate to low level of skill and ability, the situation becomes even more destructive.

 The core element to MALADAPTIVE PERFECTIONISM is negative reaction to imperfection.

Now let’s look at the cycle of positive, healthy, adaptive perfectionism:

  • The athlete has high personal standards, is committed and works hard…
  • Goals are challenging but realistic…
  • Mistakes are seen as an inevitable part of the learning process, and there is quick recovery from them…
  • The perceived pressure from parents and/coach is low, and there is no fear of disappointing them…
  • The athlete gets great satisfaction and joy from their sport, and this enjoyment is not totally reliant on winning…
  • The athlete is motivated by a need to achieve…
  • They have high self-confidence and a healthy self-esteem..
  • There is no excess stress and tension, and performance is effortless and relaxed. This lack of physical tension translates into improved technique, and increased capacity to be adaptable and flexible, and to solve performance problems constructively and immediately during performance…
  • They are likely to consistently improve, and to reap the benefits of the hard work they are putting in to training…
  • They will find positive challenge and “stretch” of their abilities in all that they do…
  • They become immersed in the joy and fulfilment of their sport…
  • The athlete has thus created a sustainable cycle of hard work, training and competition which will not drain them or burn them out.

The core element to ADAPTIVE PERFECTIONISM is a striving for perfection, without acting in an overly negative fashion when failing to attain it.

Because perfectionism is a personality characteristic, you as the parent are never going to be able to change this in your child. However, what you can do, is to help them to manage this characteristic in an emotionally intelligent way. This is done by teaching them to successfully regulate and manage the negative reactions to imperfection.

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