The relationship between perfectionism and sporting excellence is often endorsed into many athletes; in order to be the best you must strive for perfection. A precursor for sporting success can be perceived as obtaining the ‘ideal body’. For example, dancers/gymnasts are expected to be small and compact, whereas swimmers are expected to be tall and broad. By achieving the ‘ideal body’ required by your sport, you will in turn have a greater advantage of winning. But what if your body isn’t naturally made like this?  How can you obtain this body image in order to excel ?

On the basis that athletes are driven to perform well, the goal-orientation in defining success differs between individuals. Some see success as winning and outperforming their competitors whereas other see success as beating their personal best. The Achievement Goal Theory by Duda & Nicholls (1992) focuses on two goal orientations: ego-orientation and task-orientation. Task-orientation can be defined as self-referenced goals, such as mastering a skill, therefore he/she feels competent when made progress. Alternatively, ego-orientation is to demonstrate ability in relation to the ability of others, these athletes therefore feel competent when relative to their peers.

The drive to succeed can also be related to the underlying personality trait of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a trait often found in high achievers but also a key risk factor in the development of an eating disorder. Perfectionism can be split up into: self-orientated perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-orientated perfectionism involves setting unrealistic and overly high standards for oneself. In comparison, socially prescribed perfectionism is the belief that external factors (family, friends) hold excessively high standards for oneself; thus creating an extra pressure for that individual as they feel the need to meet with those expectations (Polivy & Herman, 2002).

The onset of disordered eating patterns can therefore be explained through goal orientation and perfectionism interactions. Athletes who are highly ego-orientated and socially-prescribed perfectionists could particularly be at risk, due to the concept of social comparison. These athletes are driven to engage in disordered eating with an intent in altering the body’s size to meet the requirements of social external factors. Particularly, the interaction between athletes who are highly ego-orientated adopt the “win at all costs” philosophy, and often embrace the idea that winning in the end, justifies all means (Roberts, 2001). As these highly ego-orientated athletes are also high socially-prescribed perfectionists, they will not only have concerns about one’s appearance, (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) but also evidently recognise athletes that fit the ‘ideal body image’ more then themselves. These athletes will then associate this body image with the contribution to success, and therefore result to pathogenic eating methods in order to meet these rigid body requirements.

Given that athletes are also high perfectionists in setting exceptional standards for oneself and dealing poorly with small failures, these individuals when immersed in a competitive environment will in turn increase their risk of developing disordered eating patterns (Fosbery & Lock, 2006).  As a performance climate inhibits the view that ability is predetermined and demonstrated by achieving superiority (Theeboom, De Knop & Weiss (1995).  Coaches/teachers who therefore clearly emphasise the differences between ‘the best’ athletes and the ‘less able’ due to their natural ability or physique; may lead their pupils resorting to pathogenic weight control methods in order to fit within this perceived ‘ideal body’.  Thus it appears the coaches’ opinion or view is important to the athlete, but also related to success.

So how can a coach help to reduce an athletes risk of disordered eating?

Throughout the literature, mastery climates have been found to have negative correlations to dieting and coach/peer pressure, suggesting that when performers perceived their climate as mastery there was a reduce in risk. Coaches that provide a supporting, co-operative environment that does not compare dancers/gymnasts on ability, seem to reduce the disordered eating risk which in turn decreases the weight-related pressure perceived by their pupils (Smoll, Smith & Cumming, 2007.).

In summary, it can be suggested that goal-orientation, perfectionism and motivational climate are all risk factors in the development of disordered eating. Athletes who are socially-prescribed perfectionists and highly ego-orientated seem to be at an increased risk. Highly-ego involved athletes want to outperform others by consistently comparing themselves. This in turn may lead to social comparison; an individual who sees success in others related to body image, will hypothetically compare that body image to others and themselves. This will then be used as basis to succeed within their sport. Environmental factors can be changed in order to reduce eating disorder risk within athletes. Examples of additional factors, that could also contribute to an athletes disordered eating that are not explored within this article are self esteem, injury/illness, and biological/genetic.

ReferencesShow all

Duda, J.L., & Nicholls, J. (1992). Dimensions of achievement motivation in schoolwork and sport. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 1-10.
Polivy, J.,& Herman, C. P. (2002). Causes of Eating Disorders. Annual Review of Psychology. 53. 187-213. 
Roberts, G. C. (2001). Understanding the dynamics of motivation in physical activity; the influence of achievement goals on motivational processes. In G. C. Roberts (Ed). Advances in motivation in sport and exercise. (pp.1-51). Campaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456-470.
Fosberg, S., & Lock, J. (2006). The relationship between perfectionism, eating disorders and athletes. Minerva Pediatr. 58. 525-536.
Theebom, M., De Knop, P., & Weiss, M. R. (1995). Motivational Climate, Psychological Responses and Motor Skill Development in Children’s Sport: A Field-Based Intervention Study. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 17. 294-311.
Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., & Cumming, S. P. (2007). Effects of Motivational Climate Intervention for Coaches on Changes in Young Athletes Achievement Goal Orientations. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 1. 23-46.