Is perfectionism a good thing or a bad thing? If you Google the word and browse through the results, you’ll come away with two different impressions of perfectionism:
- It’s bad
- It’s complicated
When I conducted this search myself just now, the top results included a 2018 BBC article titled “The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism” (“It’s bad”) and a 2003 article on the American Psychological Association website titled “The Many Faces of Perfectionism” (“It’s complicated”). And if you take this process further, actually reading these articles, and then reading the research they cite, and then reading the more recent studies and reviews in which this research is cited, these mixed impressions will not be resolved but instead will only deepen.
In short, the question I posed at the outset is not easy to answer. Endurance athletes, however, can ask a simpler question: Does perfectionism aid or hinder performance? And the answer to this question is a clear and resounding yes—perfectionism can either aid or hinder performance. Whether it does the one or the other depends on the type of perfectionism that predominates in a given athlete. In a 2006 paper, Joachim Stoeber of the University Kent identified two major strains of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. The first orientation is about aiming toward perfection, whereas the second is about escaping imperfection.
Five years later, in a review of existing research on perfectionism in athletes, Stoeber argued that perfectionistic strivings tend to aid athletic performance and perfectionistic concerns to hinder it, writing that “perfectionistic concerns show unique positive relationships with competitive anxiety, fear of failure, and avoidance goal orientations. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings show unique positive relationships with self-confidence, hope of success, approach goal orientations, and performance in training and competitions. The findings suggest that only perfectionistic concerns are clearly maladaptive, whereas perfectionistic strivings may form part of a healthy striving for excellence.”
Subsequent research has bolstered Stoeber’s contentions. In 2019, for example, British and Canadian researchers studied the effects of perfectionistic striving and perfectionistic concerns on putting performance following “failure” in a group of 99 college golfers. In the first part of the two-part design, each golfer was pitted against another (who was actually a confederate of the researchers) in a putting contest. No matter how well the subjects performed, they were told they were behind by 17 percent after 10 putts. They then completed 10 more putts and their performance in this second trial (measured as cumulative distance of the ball from the hole) was compared to their performance in the first trial.
A statistical analysis of the results revealed that golfers who measured high for perfectionistic strivings in a questionnaire completed before the putting trials performed better in response to “failure”—but only if they did not also score high for perfectionistic concerns. Those who exhibited high levels of both perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns performed worse in the second trial. In an interview for Medical Xpress, lead author Mick Lizmore commented, “Athletes are likely to continue to perform poorly after substandard performance if they have a rigid perspective on the meaning of failure, and are unrelentingly unforgiving of themselves when they fall short of heightened standards. There’s a difference between seeking and rigidly expecting perfection.”
So, what are the practical implications of this research? The thing about perfectionism is that it’s a trait. Like confidence, neuroticism, and other psychological traits, perfectionism is woven into the fabric of one’s personality—or else it’s not. The take-home lesson of the above-described study is not that you should have perfectionistic strivings and abandon perfectionistic concerns, therefore. You can’t just flip a switch and make these things happen.
Also, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have to be a perfectionist of any kind to perform to the best of your ability as an athlete. For every Tom Brady who achieves greatness via perfectionism there’s a Usain bolt who achieves it as a free spirit. Acquiring perfectionistic strivings wouldn’t necessarily make you a better athlete even if it were possible. But the obverse is not also true of perfectionistic concerns. If you “rigidly expect perfection,” you are almost certainly holding yourself back and you almost certainly would perform better if you were able to tamp down your fear of failure. The question is, is this even possible?
I think so. There are notable examples of athletes saddled with perfectionistic concerns who have bootstrapped their way beyond them and benefitted thereby. Your homework assignment is to read Chapter 4 of How Bad Do You Want It?, titled “The Art of Letting Go.”