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The Problem With Perfectionism

Updated: Jun 5

‘Perfectionist’ gets thrown around a great deal when describing athletes. It is often encouraged and reinforced within sport because why wouldn’t we want to be perfect athletes? Perfect athletes don’t make mistakes, always win, and can push through any obstacles right? Except that the perfect athlete does not exist. When we are perfectionists we are fighting for a standard that is impossible to attain. 

Perfectionist athletes believe that to eradicate mistakes and shortcomings they need to work longer and harder than their opponents by training outside of practice times, skipping rest days, never wasting time, never saying no to a challenge, and never letting physical pain hold them back. This perfectionist athlete is never satisfied which allows slip ups to feel like personal failures. Comparison becomes the tool for success. As long as I am doing more than the person next to me, I am a good athlete. 

These behaviors are rewarded by coach validation, teammate respect, and consistent high performances at the start. So of course the athlete will adopt this as not only a competitive tactic, but as a lifestyle mindset. 

Inevitably, the body and mind will decide they cannot keep up. The rigid expectation to overachieve at every turn will leave this athlete hurting when it can longer be carried out. 

My perfectionism led to a serious injury and struggle to acclimate to a new lifestyle in retirement. I skipped rest days and ignored physical pain not knowing how to identify good pain from bad. I suffered with the transition from consistent full days of rigorous courses and strenuous practices to inconsistent days of very little in comparison. In college, coming home exhausted was a success, not having time to sit down during the day was working hard. The lack of opportunity I had to reach this level of exertion in retirement left me feeling lazy, and underachieving. 

These thoughts and feelings were not reality. They were remnants of a perfectionism that no longer served me. It is uncomfortable to undo the unrealistic standards that have controlled our lives for so long, but the earlier it is done the sooner we can allow ourselves to be happy with where we are and excited for where we can be. 

There is an important difference between perfectionism and high expectations. One is motivated by fear of failure while the other is motivated by perceived capability and confidence. Athlete are still human and humans are meant to make mistakes, are meant to rest, and are meant to be challenged in ways that allow them to grow, not break them completely. Shifting your expectations to those that will allow you to outlast your opponents is a secret weapon that will transfer to your success beyond and after sport. Have high expectations for yourself, not perfect ones. 

-Kendall Martin 

Former UCSB Track and Field Athlete

TEDx Speaker 

UCSB Sports Psychology Group Founder

The Hidden Opponent, Head Campus Captain 

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