The Problem with Perfectionism

“Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect” is a common saying in the sport of gymnastics. It is also, most likely, an un-achievable goal.

Human Perfection is an Oxymoron

I heard one of my gymnast say, “I will not accept anything less than perfection”. Perfectionism is a trait too often taken to an extreme by young gymnasts in the sport today. It seems as though it should be a positive attribute, but it often times it can do just the opposite. Humans are, in fact, never perfect.

Perfect Defined

Perfect, as defined in a dictionary reads, “being without fault or defect”; furthermore, perfectionist is defined as, “a person who will not accept or be content with anything less than perfection.” This is a rather high goal for someone trying to succeed not only in gymnastics, but in everyday life.

Perfection Paradigm

Perfection has been viewed as a positive, healthy paradigm which drives young athletes to succeed, which in turn will yield high quality efforts in training and competition. Unfortunately, striving for true perfection can be detrimental for a young gymnast because, in reality, perfection can not be achieved!

Possible Causes of Perfectionism

Many gymnasts feel as though they let their parents, coaches or teammates down. Usually, though the parents, coaches and teammates don’t think that and it is only the gymnast who feels that. Some causes of perfectionism can be traced to anxiety or compulsive disorders, like OCD.

The Negatives of Perfectionism

One of the biggest drawbacks of trying to achieve perfection is that the young perfectionist gymnast is often never happy: She is always just one step ahead of failure. If a young gymnast can never achieve success in her mind (which is most often the case) than where else is there to go but down. It’s like a downward spiral. The negative attributes of perfection begin to shape performance.

Inability to Celebrate Success

The pressure involved in trying to perform at optimal levels produces a constant state of threat, which usually arises before competition. At the completion of the task, if the gymnast was successful then it is a sense of relief rather than exhilaration.

Perfection -> Failure

Furthermore, if the gymnast was not successful, a painful sense of failure will set in. If a gymnast experiences nothing but failure (in her mind) then the remainder of the sporting event is going to be affected, not to mention the entire season.

Possible Outcomes

In addition to these problem, a gymnast trying to achieve true perfection may also have low-self esteem, carry unhealthy emotional expressions (frustration, anger, sadness), show signs of depression and anxiety, develop eating disorders or have thoughts of suicide. These may seem a bit over-drawn, but these are possible outcomes.

Gymnasts Who Balk on Gymnastics Skills are Perfectionists

As a part of my study of fear in gymnastics, I have found that almost all gymnasts, who balk at skills because of fear (other than gymnasts who have had a serious and traumatic injury), are perfectionists. Ninety percent of gymnasts who balk on gymnastics skills (usually back tumbling) from fear are identified as perfectionists. There is a definite relationship between the extreme pressure perfectionists put on themselves and that kind of fear problem.

Strategies to Overcome Perfectionism

As you can see, perfectionism may not be as positive as you thought. If an athlete is suffering from this type of behavior, there are strategies which can be used to modify this approach to gymnastics performance:

  • Show them the relationship between their current behavior and unhappiness and poor performance.
  • Help them gain insights into the causes of their perfectionism and how it developed in them.
  • Have gymnasts understand the relationship between perfectionism and negative emotions.
  • Make failure acceptable even desirable.
  • Psychologically and verbally reframe their perfection into excellence.
  • Celebrate and help them celebrate their victories, new skills learned and every step of improvement and progress they make.
  • Help them develop amnesia for their mistakes.
  • help them learn to enjoy the entire process of achievement.
  • Consult with us as to how develop a program for your perfectionist gymnast.

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