Joe loved playing soccer and if he had a choice, he would spend all his waking hours playing the sport. He was also a high achiever in other areas of his life. He was proud of the A’s he received in all his classes. He was multi-talented and his parents were pleased with his efforts. However, by the time he entered 10th grade, his parents noticed he had started to become highly critical of himself whenever his team lost. It was difficult for him to get over his own mistakes. He’d punish himself by increasing his practice time and avoid hanging out with his friends.
One day, he told his dad that he would like to play soccer at a prestigious university in the future. His dad responded that that was a great goal to have. Then Joe said, “It’s probably just a dream because I’ll never be good enough.” His dad asked him why? Joe said that a “good enough” soccer player would need to totally love the sport and that he would also need perfect grades. His dad agreed that having passion for the sport was essential, and that Joe had that. However, Joe seemed stuck in his thinking and believed he needed to be perfect.
When your child athlete is no longer enjoying himself because unhealthy perfectionism is getting in the way, consider the following points.
Signs your athlete has unhealthy perfectionism:
- Working hard but focusing solely on winning.
- Inability to get over a loss for days until the next game, where the cycle begins again.
- Worrying about what others –teammates, parents, and coaches– think of their performance.
- High and unrealistic expectations for their own performance.
- Rigid thinking beliefs: Extreme thinking such as: “I’m a lousy player because we lost.”
- Inability to notice the positives, dwelling on the negatives, and magnifying their mistakes.
- Decrease in self-confidence as self-doubt creeps in.
- Expecting approval from parents, coaches and others when they feel they’ve had a great game.
- Feeling shameful when losing a game or not performing well.
- Displaying anger and lashing out when others are trying to connect.
- Belief that self-criticism and comparison help them become better athletes.
- Inability to see how their unhealthy beliefs hurt their performance.
- Disengaging from friends and family.
How you can help your perfectionist athlete?
- When your child is experiencing stress and anxiety about her athletic performance, be sure to validate and acknowledge her feelings. Allow appropriate time for her to express herself and process her experience.
- Create a family culture where the focus is on the “process” rather than the “outcome.” The “process” meaning the things that they can control and the “outcome” meaning the things that they cannot control.
- What can they control?
- Their effort level
- Their mindset
- Their work ethic
- Their focus on improvement and progress
- Their daily habits and choices
- What can they not control?
- Being “the” best
- How talented others are
- Whether they win or lose, get the best grades, etc.
- What can they control?
- Affirm that their desire to improve is an excellent characteristic trait. Let them know that you have noticed their great work ethic and efforts to improve.
- When his team wins, he may ask your opinion about his performance, and whether you think he played well. You can compliment his “process” achievement, how hard he played, his passion, etc. Tell him, “I love to watch you play.” He may insist on your opinion. You may think there is nothing wrong with giving your child reassurance. However, when kids experience unhealthy perfectionism, reassurance seeking becomes a need to satisfy their insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. In the long run, it backfires.
- Help them know that what matters most is how much they enjoyed the game and if they competed to their best ability, not whether others think they played well. To increase their self-confidence they need to learn that they don’t need to depend on others’ opinions to feel good about their effort or performance.
- When their team loses, they may want reassurance because they feel like a failure. Most parents will want to praise their children by saying they played great even if they didn’t. Parents may want to blame others for the loss so their kids won’t feel bad. Do not do that. Remember to praise their efforts and be positive about the experience regardless of the outcome.
- Help them see the positives of the game and what they could learn from the loss. Encourage them to ask themselves, “What did I learn today?” When they start becoming critical, invite them to pause and ask themselves, “Is this helping me feel better?” They may say, “No, but it helps me work harder.” Remind them again to focus on the “process” of improvement and not the “outcome” of winning or losing.
- Help your children develop a “process” thinking vs. “outcome” thinking attitude as they engage in their athletic pursuits. Teach them to “control what you can control.” These principles also apply to their academics and to every area of their life. Kids can be taught to “compete with yourself” to get better. It is the only way that they will truly enjoy and learn the critical life lessons available from sports participation and their other activities.
As you help your kids focus on what they can control, you will be the inspiring coach that helps change their life! This principle is true for us parents as well! We all can benefit by focusing on the things we can control!