Sports Psychology: Dealing with the Perfectionist
Dave Yukelson, Ph. D.
I deal with high achieving perfectionists all the time, telling a perfectionist to relax or chill is usually not the best approach, it is not the way they are wired. I like to talk with athletes about Adaptive vs. Maladaptive perfectionism. One of the characteristics of a champion is their ability to let go of mistakes quickly and not dwell on them, get to the next pitch, play, serve, etc. so to speak. They are driven by their desire to succeed but know how to shift gears quickly and get to the next play,
In contrast, the maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by nothing is ever good enough mentality, getting in their own way, negativity spirals downward and often out of control, particularly under pressure. The key is not changing the person, but rather, change their approach, learn how to “Flip” the pancake so to speak (their self-talk) to something more constructive and task oriented, “right here, right now in the present moment” that will help them manage their frustration and move forward. This is much better than beating yourself up for not performing up to expected standards.
There are mental training techniques, similar to what I might use with a baseball player to recognize (self-awareness), regulate (breathe, release tension and clutter), redirect (focus, positive self-talk, and actions to the task at hand right here, right now). It works for academics, athletics, personal and social development. You have to realize that perfectionism is one of the things that has helped the perfectionist be successful (drive to succeed, goal oriented, goal directed, etc.). The key is to get them to focus on process of the giving the best effort one can at that given time. A tennis player who has trouble with a particular drill might, for example, step out of the situation, breathe, slow things down, get a drink of water, towel off, reconnect, give the best effort he/she can in the following practice sequence.
In baseball or softball, we call this concept the “circle of excellence”. If for example, a pitcher just threw 2 balls to the backstop, an infielder just one-hopped the first baseman or airmailed a throw to the plate, or a batter just swung at two breaking balls in the dirt, I advise him/her to:
- Step out of the circle
- Redirect his/her mind to the task at hand
- Be playful with self-talk
- Relax the shoulders and arms
- Get ready for the next pitch
- Breathe as he/she re-enters the imaginary circle of excellence
- Get ready to get after it – Nick Saban calls this “play the next play”
This routine, if practiced, can be accomplished within 5 seconds. Athletes need to:
- Recognize the mistake
- Release (let it go/relax)
- Redirect their mindset to something positive
- Play the next play.
Yogi said, “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” He also said, “No brain, no headache.”
Regardless of the sport, you have to play the play in a relaxed state. You can’t think about how you are going to make the play once it starts. You have to relax and let the motor skills that you have been practicing take over.
David Yukelson, Ph.D., retired after 29 years as the Director of Sport Psychology Services for all 31 teams in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at Penn State University. After retirement, he worked part time as a Mental Training and Sport Performance Consultant in the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at Bucknell University. He is currently a Leadership Development Consultant, Performance Coach and Team Specialist.