Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions.

Translating such physical determinants into optimal performance outcomes requires something arguably more subjective. Indeed, when understanding the making of champions, we also may consider psychological determinants of performance. Specifically, personality traits have received a lot of attention in sport as they are known for their ability to predict behavioural outcomes, and thus can inform how individuals act, and perform within a sporting context.

One personality trait or disposition which remains controversial regarding the impact of its role in elite sport is that of perfectionism. Perfectionism is commonly identified in elite athletes, defined by Stoeber & Otto (2009) as a

“striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance alongside over-critical evaluation of behaviour”.

So, does perfectionism help, or hinder performance?

Its role is contentious due to its multidimensional nature. This means it is conceptualized as having some components which are adaptive, and beneficial to sporting performance and others which are maladaptive and detrimental to sporting performance.

These two different components have been named by researchers as perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns. Perfectionist strivings involve individuals setting high standards for themselves and ‘striving’ to attain these standards, accompanied by high self-esteem and life satisfaction. Arguably, these are necessary to perform at high levels.

A study of Olympic athletes found that perfectionist strivings were present to a much greater extent than perfectionist concerns. Alternatively, perfectionist concerns relate to a tendency to behave in ways to avoid making mistakes, and are characterized by doubting one’s actions and being excessively critical of personal mistakes, with failures presenting a threat to individuals self-worth. For example, in distance runners, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns may affect how they appraise an upcoming competition:

Athlete A demonstrates perfectionist strivings by suggesting “I have set a standard for myself in running under 20 minutes for a 5k, and I will do everything I can to achieve it”.

Athlete B, demonstrates perfectionist concerns by saying “If I don’t achieve a time of below 20 minutes in the 5km I will have failed and everyone will judge me”.

The relative presence of components of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns have been used to classify individuals as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ perfectionists. Healthy perfectionists are suggested to typically demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist strivings and unhealthy perfectionists demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist concerns. Healthy perfectionism is associated with high confidence, positive mood, and superior performance. Alternatively, unhealthy perfectionism has been associated with consequences deleterious to performance, namely; burnout, increased anxiety and poorer mental health.

But, it is not as simple as it seems…

The paradox of perfectionism…

Recent research suggests that we cannot assign athletes into single categories as either a healthy, or unhealthy perfectionist. The presence of perfectionist strivings typically correlates with perfectionist concerns and components of perfectionist strivings have been shown to interact with perfectionist concerns, making concerns more maladaptive in the presence of perfectionist strivings. So, Athlete A, will commonly demonstrate elements of Athlete B’s dispositions.

Perfectionist strivings may be misconstrued as inherently adaptive because the majority of research has omitted the effect of perfectionist concerns when reporting outcomes in individuals. This means that the beneficial effect of perfectionist strivings seems to be inflated. In summary, the conceptual meaning of perfectionist strivings appears to change depending on how it is measured. Indeed, it has been suggested that the combination of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns…

“energise a pattern of overstriving which has pervasive and debilitating effects” (Hill, 2014)

 This results in what is known as the ‘paradox of perfectionism’. If perfectionist strivings improve performance, surely, they should be distinct from factors which do the opposite? It appears that we cannot purely be a healthy perfectionist without the maladaptive components of perfectionism coming into play. As an athlete who wants to perform at the highest level, or for coaches supporting these athletes we need to develop strategies to promote facets of perfectionist strivings, and identify, and minimize the maladaptive outcomes to performance and mental health of perfectionist concerns.

The following section will identify evidence-based practices to minimize the negative implications of unhealthy perfectionism that may arise in athletes attempting to achieve high levels of performance.

Reducing Burnout

A negative outcome of perfectionist concerns is burnout in athletes. Burnout consists of a triad of factors conceptualized by Appleton & Hill (2014) as:

1) Reduced physical or emotional capacity for sport

2) lower accomplishment

3) reduced value of participation in sport.

The incidence of burnout in perfectionists has been found to be mediated by the type of motivation athletes have. ‘Healthy’ perfectionists were found to have more intrinsic motivation. This means they partook in their sport for the pure enjoyment or love of it. Those who were unhealthy perfectionists were motivated in their sport to avoid negative outcomes, or for external rewards such as praise from others.

This suggests that promoting intrinsic motivation may be a means to reduce burnout in perfectionist athletes. According to self-determination theory, a ‘needs supportive’ environment can facilitate intrinsic motivation. This can be done through the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Indeed, athlete’s perception of the satisfaction of these basic needs within sporting environments has been associated with a reduced risk of athlete burnout.

Satisfaction of these needs in athlete’s environments can be done as follows:

  • Autonomy – give athletes choice in the selection of their training and competition.
  • Competence – give athletes task focused feedback, in a non-controlling manner
  • Relatedness – emphasize social support between teammates as an important factor in a training environment

Increasing Self-Esteem

Mental wellness is an antecedent to success in athletes. Therefore, it is imperative to identify strategies to promote this in athletes. Research has suggested that self-esteem plays a mediatory role in the relationship between perfectionism and mental health – with lower levels of self-esteem predicting poor mental health in perfectionists.

Researchers have done some digging into the components of self-esteem which predict negative outcomes in perfectionists. Baseline self-esteem is a component of self-esteem, relating to an individual’s perception of self-worth and is relatively static. A study of Swedish Olympic athletes found that those with higher baseline self-esteem typically showed attributes of perfectionist strivings, namely high personal standards. This was accompanied by low perfectionist concerns. Those with low baseline self-esteem scored highly on perfectionist striving, but also high on perfectionist concerns. This undermines performance as it increases competition related anxiety, resulting in excessive worry and fear of failure.

So – should we just focus our efforts on increasing baseline self-esteem? This may be challenging because research has suggested that it is something relatively static, informed by genetics, upbringing, and prior experiences.

However, using the critical confidence equation, we may be able to identify ways to overcome the negative implications of low baseline self-esteem. This equation suggests:

Self Confidence = Baseline Self-Esteem x Evidence

The self-confidence someone has for their performance is a function of their baseline self-esteem multiplied by evidence they have accumulated from performance and training.  Those with low baseline self-esteem, typically have to ‘earn’ self-confidence for performance and based on this equation, we can do this by increasing the amount of evidence they have for their ability.

This evidence can be accumulated through creating what is known as a ‘preparation environment’. This involves the athlete deciding on their attitudes, standards and values which they will endeavour to uphold in training which will be conducive to the highest quality of training. In line with this, coaches should insist that the standards set should be upheld and not compromised. Within this environment, athletes should be encouraged to learn from own actions, continually set themselves shifting targets and kept accountable for upholding the self-selected standards. Creating such an environment may account for the negative outcomes of low baseline self-esteem in perfectionists through increasing self-confidence via accumulating evidence of ability.

Goal Setting

 Perfectionists typically set high standards for themselves. But, how perfectionists think about their goals can result in differing effects on performance outcomes. Perfectionist strivings have been associated with mastery goals. Individuals with mastery goals view competition or training as an opportunity to improve ability and skills, and failure to meet these goals as learning opportunities. Performance approach goals have also been associated with perfectionist strivings. These are goals orientated around proving one’s ability, and attempting to demonstrate that it is superior to others. Perfectionist concerns have been associated with performance approach goals, as well as performance avoidance goals. Here, individuals view training or competitions in terms of avoidance, they fear performing below their ability, or worse relative to others. Both types of performance orientated goals typically result in lower levels of performance because instead of “improving their ability, the focus is very much on proving ones ability” (Stoeber et al., 2008).

We know that we may not be able to classify individuals into healthy and unhealthy perfectionists so the focus of perfectionist’s goals may differ depending on the situation. Therefore, it is important to encourage techniques within high performing athletes to promote mastery-approach goals. Epstein’s TARGET framework is an acronym for a series of techniques which have been create a mastery-orientated environment in sporting settings:

Task – encouraging athletes to focus their practices on personal tasks, achieved through setting individualized goals with reduced opportunity for peer comparison.

Authority: allowing athletes to elicit authority in training and evaluative measures of their performance.

Reward success based on individual effort and not performance relative to others.

Grouping, involving collaborating with team mates and peers in a non-comparative manner which benefits all athletes.

Evaluation based on improvements on a personal level. This should focus, on the quality of mastery of a particular task as opposed to performance relative to others.

Timing of feedback and evaluation should be implemented in adequate time, flexibility is encouraged by the athlete and the coach.

It has been shown that adopting each of these principles can form a mastery-orientated environment, which is conducive to creating mastery-approach goals. Research has shown elite athletes have described as it being a predictor of their enjoyment of sport, and also improved performance. Additionally, it can reduce the likelihood of some of the consequences of maladaptive perfectionism; specifically, burnout.

Coping Responses to Failure

Facets of perfectionism affect how individuals react to failure. A research study of young elite athletes found that high levels of perfectionist concerns predicted negative psychological outcomes in response to failure, mediated by fear of shame and embarrassment. Additionally, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns predict life satisfaction, indicative that those with high levels of perfectionist concerns struggle to cope with

The risk of negative outcomes of perfectionism is enhanced in those who experience failure. This may be unavoidable in elite sport where high standards are constantly set, and the margins for error are small.

However, “proactive” coping strategies can act as a protective mechanism, buffering to the negative outcomes of failure in perfectionists. One of these is called “positive reframing”. A study measured level of satisfaction following stressful events in athletes demonstrating high perfectionist concerns. The use of positive reframing was particularly effective for those high in perfectionist concerns, and increased their life satisfaction to a similar level to those low in perfectionist concerns.

So, how can athletes implement positive reframing into their sport? This can be done through writing down the negative thoughts and failures as a means to initiate conscious reframing of them. From this, we can try to draw positive aspects from these outcomes, and focus rather on what has been achieved, as opposed to what hasn’t.

For example:

Failure: I didn’t win a race I was expected to.

Positive reframing: I didn’t win the race, but I executed my race plan as I hoped to and I put my best effort into the performance.

Broadly, this technique essentially encourages the athlete to accept imperfection. Striving for perfection is not maladaptive, but insisting that one has to be perfect is, especially when self-worth is contingent on attaining exceptionally high standards. It is challenging to learn to accept imperfection in performance settings which are inherently evaluative, but this technique can help address that.

To summarize…

Some components of perfectionism are desirable and necessary in performing at the highest level in elite sport, but due to their high correlation with the maladaptive components of perfectionism, it is important to identify specific strategies to foster resilience to these negative outcomes. Conscious awareness of these, alongside implementing strategies based on research evidence to reduce these can act as a buffer to their impact and facilitate striving for success with a healthy and positive mind-set. In summary, these strategies involve:

  • Reducing the risk of athlete burnout through fostering a needs-supportive environment conducive to high levels of intrinsic motivation.
  • Addressing low baseline self-esteem using the critical confidence equation by generating tactics that individuals can use to ‘earn’ self-esteem
  • Creating an environment conducive to mastery approach goals through the TARGET framework
  • Generating effective coping strategies in response to failure to promote resilience and satisfaction