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Being a perfectionist in sport

For many people, perfectionism is a concern. It features in lots of different areas of people’s lives. Importantly for sport parents, perfectionism can be rife among athletes at any age.

This article is republished with permission from Sport Parent EU

Perfectionism and young athletes

What is perfectionism?

For many people, perfectionism is a concern. It features in lots of different areas of people’s lives. Importantly for sport parents, perfectionism can be rife among athletes at any age.

If a youth athlete sets unrealistic goals, is never satisfied with performance, and is afraid to fail or make mistakes, then they may be experiencing perfectionism. Perfectionism can also be at play when people expect too much of a youth athlete (i.e., other people impose perfectionism on youth athletes) or a youth athlete expects too much of others and criticises them (e.g., teammates).  

Everyone has perfectionism to some degree. Some people experience high levels of all features of perfectionism. Others have only unrealistic goals or only fears over making mistakes. There are also those who experience very low levels of either.

How does perfectionism influence youth athletes’ experiences?

Our research has typically found that perfectionism undermines the potential for sport to be a rewarding experience for youth athletes. In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that:

  1. For female youth athletes experiencing all features of perfectionism, sport was an opportunity to ‘shine’. However, when they could not outperform others, they were highly self-critical.
  2. For female youth athletes setting and striving for unrealistic goals, sport was an opportunity to experience success (e.g., win). However, they were frustrated and disappointed in themselves when they were not at their best.
  3. For female youth athletes preoccupied with making mistakes and failure, sport was a place to belong with peers but they were highly anxious.
  4. For female youth athletes experiencing very low levels of perfectionism, sport was simply a place to develop skills and make new friends.

Based on our findings, experiencing very low levels of perfectionism brings about positive sport experiences. However, when youth athletes have unrealistic goals and/or are preoccupied with making mistakes and failure, a more mixed sport experience is likely.

How can other people help?

The female youth athletes in our study expressed many preferences regarding parents, coaches, and peers. Specifically, they desired to participate in a sport environment where parents, coaches, and peers focus on self-improvement, effort, and co-operation. Such an environment can be created by:

  1. Rewarding a youth athlete’s efforts even if the skill or performance is not perfect.
  2. Emphasising the importance of the learning process over the result (e.g., winning).
  3. Refraining from advocating that only superior performance will do.

For further information please see these documents for parents and coaches and check our this excellent video:

Image Source: Unsplash

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