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Perfectionism in The Time of Coronavirus

In July 2021, the world’s attention will be turned to the Tokyo Olympics to watch the best of the best compete for that Olympic glory. A guesstimated 11,000 athletes representing 206 nations are expected to compete.

But what does it take to reach such an elite level of athletic achievement?

Of course, there are many aspects that can lead to efficacious sporting performances, but one in particular that has a remarkable multidimensional impact is that of perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the denunciation of any standard short of perfect; it is different than solely just trying to do your best. Striving for perfection drives elite performers to ever greater summits, even whilst recognizing that the achievement of perfection is eventually unattainable. But the real question that one needs to ask themselves is- Perfectionism in sport: perk or peril?

Perk or Peril?

Perfectionism can play a dichotomous role in the sporting performance of athletes. On the outside, perfectionism may seem like a positive mannerism for an athlete to have. After all, isn’t it every athlete’s goal to strive for perfection and settle for nothing less than the best?

It fuels a fire in you, keeps you motivated and emboldens you to set big goals. At the same time, this drive to be perfect helps you find flaws and weaknesses in your performance that you can improve upon.

Perfectionist athletes are never genuinely happy with their performance. That’s where the trouble lies. Considering this paradoxical role, it can be difficult to understand the role perfectionism truly plays. Insight into the role of perfectionism will help coaches and young athletes to optimize sporting performance and maintain a healthy mindset.

Perfectionism: Healthy and Unhealthy

Perfectionism can be grouped into both healthy and unhealthy dimensions. Perfectionism, of course, will not be healthy or unhealthy under all contexts across all time. For different individuals, it will manifest in distinctive ways with shifting implications in different contexts.

Healthy perfectionism is symbolized by having a self-oriented striving for excellence, high personal standards, positive reinforcement, the quest of realistic goals and an awareness of personal and situational limits. Healthy perfectionists are able to focus on self-improvement and positive self-evaluation; when faced with challenges, they uphold a positive attitude, strive to establish the reason for a failure and self-reflect in order to be able to attune their performance in the future to avoid making similar mistakes.

Fear of failure and mistakes in perfectionism

On the other hand, unhealthy perfectionism is embodied by negative reactions to and fear of failure, concern over mistakes, qualms about actions, hyperbolic responses to setbacks and a chronic discontent or uncertainty about performance. Furthermore, they are often overly demanding of themselves and others, defining their self-worth through performance.

Pandemic and perfectionism

We are in a period of great uncertainty and perceived uncontrollability while trying to cope with fears of safety and changes to life conditions. The practice of physical isolation or social isolation prescribed in order to stop the spread of the virus adds to feelings of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. Most notably, there is a severe disruption to daily routines and goal-motivated behavior that is not only disquieting, but it can also be highly dissonant with personal needs and typical sources of personal worth and this can impact the sense of self and identity.

Sport competitions are a conversion of an athlete’s training and experience into their best performances and often result in increased competitive anxiety. With the pandemic affecting the sporting timetable globally, athletes all over have faced a shortage to put their skills to a test. Achieving Olympic glory is every athlete's dream; thus, it may not come as a surprise that athletes may cultivate the values of unhealthy perfectionism, which not only might increase their competitive anxiety but will make them susceptible to burnout.

Finding Balance

There’s no harm in striving to be a perfectionist, but one needs to find a balance.

Parents, coaches and teammates play a central role in the development of perfectionism in athletes. The development of athletes’ perfectionistic tendencies are influenced by their perceptions of their parents & coaches perfectionism. Whilst healthy perfectionists view coaches and teammates as a positive source of encouragement for hard work and achievement, unhealthy perfectionists acknowledge their importance; yet often consider them to be a source of pressure to perform well.

The social environment of athletes therefore has a significant impact on their perfectionistic tendencies. If athletes’ parents, coaches and teammates unveil healthy perfectionistic tendencies, this will encourage the development of healthy perfectionism in the athletes, which will lead to improved performance. Furthermore, if athletes can learn to work with their perfectionism in their sporting context by embracing their healthy perfectionistic tendencies and recognizing and managing their unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies, they can reduce the negative consequences such as athlete burnout and competitive anxiety.

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