Perfectionism and its application within a football setting1 Opinion
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism has been identified as an innate characteristic of personality (Stoeber et al. 2007), in a sporting context it is characterised by the setting of exceptionally high standards, a complete striving for flawlessness and the overly critical evaluation of one’s performance (Frost et al. 1990; Flett & Hewitt 2005). Perfectionism is widely recognised as a multidimensional characteristic, the multidimensional perfectionism scale devised by Hewitt & Flett (1991) evaluates perfectionism from three standpoints; self-orientated, other orientated and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-orientated is the excessive yearning for perfectionism from one’s self, other orientated is demanding perfection from those around you and socially prescribed is the perception that those significant others demand perfection from you (Flett & Hewitt 2005). There has been much discrepancy within the literature regarding which dimensions are adaptive and maladaptive, the general consensus suggests socially prescribed is associated with the unhealthy maladaptive form and self-orientated is associated with the healthy adaptive form of perfectionism (Hill et al. 1997; Flett & Hewitt 2005). During the early stages of research into perfectionism, the construct was regarded as a largely undesirable maladaptive characteristic due to its correlations with neuroticism, depression and personality disorders amongst other personal problems (Flett et al. 1989; Hewitt & Flett 1991; Hewitt et al. 1992). However more recently it has been established that there is an adaptive characteristic to perfectionism which positively correlates with self-efficacy, motivation and high achievement amongst other desirable characteristics (Bieling et al. 2004). In addition to this Stoeber & Otto (2006) suggest adaptive perfectionism is characterised by a combination of high perfectionistic strivings and low perfectionistic concerns regarding mistakes and low socially prescribed perfectionism, whereas maladaptive perfectionism is characterised by high perfectionistic strivings and high perfectionistic concerns. Research has been conducted upon elite and sub elite athletes in various sports such as Dance (Nordin-Bates et al. 2011), Football(Stoeber & Becker 2008), Gymnastics (Krasnow et al. 1999), Ice Hockey (Stoeber et al. 2009), Olympian Sports (Gould et al. 2002) and Rugby (Hill & Appleton 2011). The general consensus within the literature suggests that successful elite level athletes have healthy perfectionist tendencies and focus upon achieving success rather than avoiding failure and are more likely to see failure as a step on the road to success. For example an individual that misses a penalty in a game will believe they have the opportunity to make up for the failure by scoring another scoring opportunity later in the game ultimately leading to success. Whereas their less successful counterparts are more likely to exhibit unhealthy perfectionist tendencies such as setting of unrealistic goals and tend to see failure as always being just around the corner no matter how well they are performing (Slade & Owens 1998). From the literature examined perfectionism appears to be apparent in all sports, this is probably because it can form the basis of one’s personality (Stumpf & Parker 2000).
Perfectionism and its effect in Football
Stoll et al. (2008) found that athletes learning a new skill are more likely to be successful, as they strive for nothing less than perfection and perhaps surprisingly have higher negative reactions to imperfection. When an associative or autonomous phase footballer is learning a new skill such as how to use their weaker foot, they are striving for perfectionism which is a healthy and desirable trait. However if they cannot get to grips with the kinaesthetic feel for the skill and cannot transfer the skill from their stronger foot this could lead to frustration which could spur on the performer to keep practicing until their weaker foot is as strong as their other foot (Frost et al. 1997). It is not a uniform finding within the literature that negative reactions are good for performance; however there is limited research upon perfectionism and its links with training therefore this should be interpreted with caution. More research should be conducted to determine whether the adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism are dependent of each other or interlinked. From a performance perspective adaptive perfectionism is likely to positively influence performance through the utilisation of an adaptive coping strategy by reducing cognitive anxiety, increasing self-confidence and emotional reappraisal so even in the face of failure the performer remains positive. It has been suggested by Slade & Owens (1998) that those individuals displaying adaptive perfectionism shall set realistic goals prior to performance such as ‘I want to get 80% of my shots on target’. During the match a striker who uses an adaptive coping strategy is able to cope with the fact some of their shots are off target, in the same way a midfielder is able to cope with the fact that some of their passes have been misplaced. This coping strategy preserves the athlete’s self-confidence and ensures they remain motivated to continue playing as they believe success is just around the corner (Bergman et al. 2007). Whereas a maladaptive perfectionist is likely to set unrealistic goals prior to performance such as ‘I want to score 5 goals’ as they want to avoid mediocrity (Slade & Owens 1998), which ultimately leads to failure causing feelings of inadequacy, reduced motivated and decreased self-confidence (Flett & Hewitt 2005). It has been documented that maladaptive perfectionists performances are characterised by a concern over their mistakes, discrepancy between their expectations and results and negative reactions to mistakes (Stoeber et al. 2008). During a football match a striker maybe worried about how many shots they are going to miss throughout the game as they believe failure is just around the corner which is linked to experiencing cognitive anxiety (Koivula et al. 2002; Stoeber et al. 2007). Once they have missed a shot irrespective of whether the goalkeeper had made a good save or not, it is possible they shall become frustrated this can cause the performer to become aggressive, which has a debilitating effect upon performance (Dunn et al. 2006).
Strategies to combat maladaptive perfectionism
The general consensus within the literature highlights the importance of cognitive behaviour therapy and cognitive restructuring (Shafran et al. 2002; Kearns et al. 2007). Kearns et al. (2007) implemented a 6 week cognitive and behavioural intervention which significantly increased confidence and decreased anxiety through the use of structured problem-solving, maintenance strategies, thought diaries and normalising of thoughts. DiBartolo et al. (2001) aimed to determine whether cognitive restructuring would reduce maladaptive perfectionist tendencies in the performance of a speech task and found cognitive restructuring decreased anxiety and increased self-confidence. Although this research was conducted within a clinical setting it would seem reasonable to suggest that by changing an individual’s coping strategy from avoidance to approach, by fostering emotional reappraisal rather than emotional suppression there could be a facilitative effect upon performance by promoting more adaptive tendencies in a maladaptive perfectionist. More research needs to be conducted upon cognitive therapies in an athlete based population.
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About Sarah Jackson
Sarah Jackson 22 years old, MSc Exercise Physiology Student at Loughborough University.