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The Perfect Athlete

Do you manage your perfectionism in a positive manner or does your perfectionism manage you?

The Cycle of Perfectionism in Sport:

Phase 1. Motivation

  • You find a spark. This could be fueled by shame (to do better and/or to avoid perceived consequences) or by genuine, but only momentary, self-confidence in achieving excellence.

For Example: Genuine self-confidence: You make it on a feeder team in the minor leagues and feel confident you can make it to the pros. This wouldn’t be an unrealistic goal but if you had excessive drive or ambition, an unreasonable version of this may be “make it to the pros after one year in the minors”. Shame/Avoidance: You make it on a feeder team in the minor leagues and you are worried about not playing as well as the others and are driven to play well so your coaches don’t think you’re a bad player. Or you really thought you were going straight to the pros so you’re driven to prove you don’t belong in the minors.

Phase 2. All In

  • You put all your energy towards the goal and your pursuit becomes results driven. The goal must be done well or not done at all and the outcome becomes the most important aspect of your process (think tunnel vision).

For Example: From the outside this may not look any different than other athletes putting in full effort, commitment, and showing a good work ethic. The key difference is internal. It’s ok to strive to hit performance metrics in order to progress to the outcome you desire, in fact, that’s a part of solid goal getting; however, when the focus is consumed by results and outcomes, we lose the process which is foundational to achieving any worthwhile goal.

Phase 3. “Slump”

  • You make progress but it’s not good enough to your high standards so you get discouraged by perceived lack of progress. You may begin to get caught up in what you did “wrong” and become harshly critical of self.

For Example: In this phase, the lack of progress could be actual or perceived. Actual: missing more and more shots at practice and in games. Perceived: hitting the same number as before, or more, but the athlete doesn’t feel “good” about the performance. This could be a ‘moving target’ mentality (“Yeah I made more than last season’s average but I expected to play better this game”) or the perceived exertion when executing the skill feels difficult to consistently do.

Phase 4. Unhelpful Coping

  • Mistakes in your performance have now become threatening instead of learning opportunities. Mistakes may even be compounding and it feels like you’ve hit a ceiling. Your self-care begins to drop. This could look like the loosening of personal boundaries that would normally protect your time and energy (e.g. pushing yourself harder, pushing back sleep, not taking time for your normal routine, and more...) to compensate. When you neglect your needs, relaxation becomes difficult outside of practice, and behavior towards self and others becomes intense (short fuse with family, blaming teammates, easily frustrated with coach, irritable with self…).

For Example: Your sport-life balance gets out of whack here. You may see friends and family less and less and disengage from being social altogether so you can put more time into your training. You start doing extra conditioning and drills. That might not sound bad, but the extra may not be necessary and could lead to overtraining and increase injury potential, especially if your sleep decreases and eating habits don’t support the energy you’re expending. This precursor to 'Burnout', known as staleness (American Medical Association, 1990), occurs when an overtrained athlete has difficulty maintaining their training and can no longer achieve performance results. Not only is performance physically impaired but symptoms of mood disturbances also increase. On the other hand, some athletes may actually procrastinate or put off certain aspects of their sport and unconsciously engage in self-sabotaging behavior rather than physically overtrain. We’ll discuss this latter symptom of perfectionism when we deep dive Imposter Syndrome.

Phase 5. Burnout

  • Burnout is simply defined as a state of mental and physical exhaustion. The constant negative belief that it wasn’t good enough, with the addition of unhelpful coping mechanisms to make up for it, inevitably leads to stress where nothing seems good enough and you’re overwhelmed. It’s also possible you’re dealing with criticism from coaches and parents (aka “socially prescribed perfectionism”) so you’re trying to avoid performing poorly to perception manage those external sources. When you’re burned out, it becomes challenging to cope with stress on top of your day-to-day responsibilities. On top of feeling exhausted and that you're not accomplishing much, you may begin to lose interest or stop caring about what was previously important to you.

Phase 6. Judgment

  • Judgment is when you internalize the experience through emotional labeling; “If it wasn’t good enough, I’m not good enough” and connect outcomes and perceived inadequacy to character and self-worth. When athletes find themselves here, less desirable psychological consequences occur (e.g. anxiety, depression, helplessness, shame, performance anxiety...). Self-acceptance becomes contingent upon achievement and athletes strive to compensate and/or reduce increasing personal distress and negative appraisal which leads back to another “spark” and the cycle continues.

Perfectionism can be loosely defined as “setting excessively high personal standards for performance and the tendency to engage in over critical evaluations of achievement when striving to reach those challenging standards” (Hill & Curran, 2015). Performing perfectly is not realistic nor an obtainable goal and, although most athletes are aware of their perfectionist traits, others are not and thus unaware of how it inhibits their performance. Interestingly, perfectionistic tendencies have been found to increase the further an athlete’s skill develops and they rise from beginner to intermediate, to advanced, and finally to elite levels, begging the question: Can perfectionism actually facilitate performance (Hall, 2006; Gould et al., 2010)? The short answer is yes... but it’s complicated. Research has since discovered that like most things in life, there are two sides to this coin. The pursuit of exceptionally high standards may actually be beneficial to achieving performance excellence (Stoeber, 2011; Bieling et al., 2004; Gotwals, 2012). Perfectionism can create a motivating element and the drive to improve is a quality that overlaps with growth mindset (Stoeber, 2011; Bieling et al., 2004; Gotwals, 2012). This is known as perfectionistic striving and is positively associated with self-confidence, hope of success, approach goal orientations, and positive performance (Stoeber, 2011). In contrast, the other dimension at play within perfectionism (aka the other side of the coin) is called perfectionistic concern and interacts with the emotional and motivational components of performance differently (Stoeber, 2011; Frost, 1990; Gotwals, 2012; Stoeber & Gaudreau, 2017).

Whereas perfectionistic strivings is associated with functional outcomes and considered ‘adaptive’, perfectionistic concerns (excessive worry or rumination over mistakes; Frost et al., 1990) is associated with dysfunctional outcomes, such as negative self-evaluation and criticism, unhelpful coping mechanisms or adverse reactions, fear of failure, self-doubt, avoidance goals, and is considered ‘maladaptive’ (Hill & Curran, 2015; Stoeber & Gaudreau, 2017). This relationship is understood to fuel burnout among athletes and burnout can be a major cause of athletes quitting their sport before reaching their potential (Feigley, 2016). Research and anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that the onset of burnout may be gradual but predictable and therefore avoidable if high-risk factors of perfectionism are identified and managed early on (Feigley, 2016; Hill & Appleton, 2011).

6 Warning Signs of The “Perfect” Athlete:

1. Fear of Failure

Avoids poor results or worries about the negative consequences of a poor performance. Athletes are concerned about letting their team or coach down, maybe even parents (especially if under the age of 20; Gucciardi et al., 2012). The fear of failure creates avoidance goals driven to prevent perceived negative outcomes rather than pursuing achievement. We call this goal setting to survive instead of to strive. Procrastination may even show up in an attempt to avoid anxiety.

2. Unrealistic Expectations

Standards that are out of reach with reality. They may look like too much too soon or lack flexibility to meet themselves where they’re at. They may sound like “I want a mistake-free performance” or “I want to play perfectly”; “If I was really good at this then I would’ve succeeded” or “I expect to succeed every time I try”; and “I don’t need to rest.”

3. Polarized Thinking

An extreme thought process such as all-or-nothing/black and white thinking, labeling, and catastrophizing. See our resource on Self-Talk and Cognitive Distortions. These thought processes are overly critical and lead to athletes becoming easily frustrated or discouraged with their performance. Likely to occur during and after competing (in the moment and looking back on performance) but can eventually turn into performance anxiety and occur before competition (anticipating the bad) as well.

4. Highly Critical

Fixation on mistakes; no celebration within the process from small victories to major milestones. After accomplishing a task or goal, they are already looking ahead to the next step. Dismissive if someone compliments them, “Anybody could’ve done it” mentality, and so on.

5. Rigidity

We already discussed where a lack of mental flexibility can occur in expectations and in the thought process, but rigidity can be observable when an athlete has excessive rules for themselves (possibly around training or eating) and demands things are done in a particular order. Although mental performance consultants encourage and train athletes to exercise a routine for themselves, there needs to be a degree of flexibility in it or not being able to enact the routine the way they planned can cause anxiety.

6. Tunnel Vision

Focused on end-result; preoccupied with outcomes instead of learning or enjoyment. Self-esteem may seem dependent on what the athlete tangibly achieves; however, even if they hit what their target, they still may not be satisfied. Constantly moving the target on themselves or not seeing their progress or performance as good enough ties directly back to point #4.

Despite the fact that perfectionism (specifically, perfectionist concerns) can be a vicious cycle, athletes can learn to manage their perfectionism in a positive way so that they are no longer managed by their perfectionism. By breaking the cycle, athletes maintain appropriate energy levels throughout their competition season (instead of burning out) and find enjoyment in their sport again.

Suggestions for the “Perfect” Athlete:

Perfectionists would benefit overall from increased mental flexibility to better understand degrees of success and failure and challenge unrealistic or irrational demands, whether they are self-imposed or socially prescribed via coaches and/or parents (McArdle & Moore, 2012). One way this can be accomplished is through cognitive restructuring techniques (e.g. shades of gray), a behavioral approach to allow themselves more of a functioning scope to learn and perform within by reconceptualizing failure and mistakes as learning opportunities (McArdle & Moore, 2012; Hill et al., 2009). What would change if an athlete understood that they didn’t need to be perfect in order to “be enough” or perform well...and genuinely believed that? Cognitive restructuring doesn't just create flexibility to redefine success and positively change cognitive appraisals of stressful situations, but also allows athletes to address core beliefs about their abilities and self (identity) that makes their confidence bullet proof (Hill et al., 2009; Flett & Hewitt, 2014). Hill & Appleton (2011) found that perfectionistic cognitions were positively related to all symptoms of athlete burnout, so it goes, if you can get your thoughts to work for you instead of against you, then you can successfully reduce "perfection-fuelled burnout" and enhance performance (Hill & Appleton, 2011; McArdle & Moore, 2012).

Cognitive restructuring isn’t the only tool that perfectionists would benefit from. Learning to adopt an inward focus to eliminate seeking external validation or getting stuck in the comparison game fosters an intrinsic desire to excel and personal growth (Hill et al., 2009). Additional mental skills training may focus on how to goal set task-oriented, approach-goals towards what they want to achieve instead of ego-oriented avoidance goals away from what they hope to prevent to balance a process focus alongside their performance and outcome goals. Lastly, training in appropriate coping strategies to regulate arousal control and emotional regulation aid in mediating unhelpful coping mechanisms (e.g. overtraining, procrastination, etc…) that would otherwise lead to burnout (Hill et al., 2009).

Inside Rival implements preventive programs designed to build resiliency and reduce levels of risk among perfectionists as well as strategizes the appropriate mental skills training to intervene when perfectionism has already taken hold. Check out what resiliency in sport could look like for you:


1. Hall, H. K. (2006) Perfectionism: A hallmark quality of world class performers, or a psychological impediment to athletic development? In D. Hackfort & G. Tennebaum (Eds.) Essential Processes for Attaining Peak Performance (pp. 178-207).

2. Sellars, P. A., Evans, L., & Thomas, O. (2016). The effects of perfectionism in elite sport: Experiences of unhealthy perfectionists. Sport Psychologists. 30(3).

3. Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20(3).

4. Gould, D., Dieffenbach, K., & Moffett, A. (2010). Psychological characteristics and their development in Olympic champions. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 3.

5. Stoeber, J. (2011). The dual nature of perfectionism in sports: Relationships with emotion, motivation, and performance. International Review of SPort and Exercise Psychology, 4(2).

6. Bieling, P. J., Israeli, A. L., & Antony, M. M. (2004). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(6).

7. Gotwals, J., Stoeber, J., Dunn, J. G. H., & Stoll, O. (2012). Are perfectionistic strivings in sport adaptive? A systematic review of confirmatory, contradictory, and mixed evidence. Canadian Psychology, 53(4).

8. Frost, R. O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14.

9. Stoeber, J., & Gaudreau, P. (2017). The advantages of partialling perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns: Critical issues and recommendations. Personality and Individual Differences, 104.

10. Feigley, D. A. (2016). Psychological burnout in high-level athletes. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 12(10).

11. Gucciardi, F., Mahoney, J., Jalleh, G., & Donovan, R. (2012). Perfectionist profiles among elite athletes and differences in their motivation orientations. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 34(2).

12. Hill, A. P., & Appleton, P. R. (2011). The predictive ability of the frequency of perfectionistic cognitions, self-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism in relation to symptoms of burnout in youth rugby players. Journal of SPorts Sciences, 29(7).

13. McArdle, S., & Moore, P. (2012). Applying evidence-based principles from CBT to sport psychology. Sport Psychologist, 26(2).

14. Hill, A. P., Hall, H. K., & Appleton, P. R. (2009). Perfectionism and athlete burnout in junior elite athletes: The mediating role of coping tendencies. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 23(4).

15. Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2014). A proposed framework for preventing perfectionism and promoting resilience and mental health among vulnerable children and adolescents. Psychology in the Schools, 51(9).


If you’re interested in preventing burnout, developing a ‘go getter’ mindset that pushes you yet remains balanced, join the waitlist today.


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