Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
“The Perils of The Pursuit of Perfection“
By Tim Fulton (PSY0002109277)
How often do we watch the athletes we idolise and marvel at their physical attributes, skill and mental toughness? It often looks like they were made to play their sport, as if the way they play the game is perfect. When I think of the perfect athlete I often think of Roger Federer. Although Roger is not infallible to losing tennis matches, some of his matches I have witnessed (especially in his prime) made me think that he was untouchable.
As performance psychologists, clients often tell us that they want to perfect a particular aspect of performance. This notion is appealing. I mean who wouldn’t like to play ‘perfect’ tennis like Roger Federer, but this idea is fraught with danger.
Perfection by is definition suggests that nothing more can be done to improve, that you are faultless. In reality, we know that nobody in this world is perfect, not even the great Roger Federer. If you asked any athlete who had played as close to perfection as possible: “Is there anything you could have improved during that performance?” They would almost always say there are areas still to work on.
There are a number of problems with aiming to be perfect. Firstly, how can you quantify or define perfection? When assessing performance it is helpful to be able to assign a numerical value in order to track improvements. What benchmark would you assign to that aspect of performance that would indicate that it could no longer be improved upon?
By it’s nature, perfection is something that is unachievable. No matter how close you get to it, it is still out of reach as there is always something that can be improved. For example, when Roger Federer serves he may be able to hit a target 100% of the time. Closer analysis may reveal that he is able to achieve optimal speed and spin if he precisely hits a particular set of strings. Furthermore, there may be an optimal ball toss position that allows for the greatest weight transfer through the serve. The list of elements that need to be addressed for perfection to be achieved is infinite. Therefore, the chances of producing the most perfect and pure shot possible are virtually impossible.
Similarly, if the perfect shot was achieved it is even more unlikely that it can be replicated reliably. Athletes may be able to execute a skill that elicits the perfect result but there are often a number of other uncontrollable factors that contributed to that result. For example, scoring a hole in one in golf is not only influenced by how the golfer executed the stroke but also the direction of the wind, the slopes on the green and countless other influences. There are a so many elements that the golfer cannot fully account for when standing on the tee box. However, if the ball goes in the hole we can confuse the best possible result with the stroke being perfect.
The pursuit of perfection may also cost an athlete in other areas. Trying to perfect an aspect of performance can often lead to obsessiveness and detrimentally impact others aspects of performance. The more resources you put towards perfecting something the less you have for other things. This is not just limited to sporting performance but can permeate into other factors of life such as creating stress within interpersonal relationships.
Instead of aiming for perfection, it is better to set goals that are framed as ‘improving’ or ‘pursuing excellence’ in particular aspects of performance. But what is the best way to pursue improvements? Well firstly, it may be beneficial to break down performance into parts such that an improvement in each part will improve overall performance. It is important that these parts can be controlled by you or at the very least influenced.
Secondly, goal setting can be an essential part of improving performance. However, if the goal is set too high, as is the case when aiming for perfection, this can act as a barrier to improving performance. Research has unequivocally shown that setting unachievable goals are demotivating to athletes in the long term. That is why we as performance psychologists ensure that goals are challenging yet achievable.
Lastly, monitoring progress across all of the chosen parts of performance are an invaluable tool. Recording and tracking your progress has two main benefits. It can help you to build confidence as you can see tangible improvements over a long period of time. It can also help to inform better training regimes. If you are not seeing the intended improvements in a certain aspect then maybe it is worthwhile altering your approach.
At Condor Performance we use a unique tool called the ‘Wanting It Wheel’ that allows us to break down performance into smaller parts, set goals for each part and monitor progress through monthly checks. This tool allows clients to continually improve their performance without getting stuck by aiming for perfection.
Feel free to share your thoughts / comments / questions in the space below.