Young Athletes and Perfectionism

Too often, athletes try to be "perfect" when they perform. These young athletes set high expectations, then become upset when they fail to match their own standards.

We hear from parents and coaches who worry about young players who become easily frustrated and take disappointment home with them. You're likely familiar with athletes who display perfectionist behaviors.

Pros and Cons of the Perfectionist Athlete

Perfectionist athletes criticize themselves for making mistakes, often hold high and unrealistic expectations for themselves and tend to get frustrated easily after making mistakes. These kids are often perfectionists in other aspects of their lives--in school, for example.

On the positive side, you will find some advantages to perfectionism in young athletes. Perfectionist kids have a strong work ethic, are highly committed to their goals and are willing to learn and improve.

These positive traits often disguise the problems that are associated with perfectionism in sports. These kids are so motivated that you often don't think of them as having mental game struggles.

What Perfectionist Athletes Focus On

Sports kids who try to be perfect can undermine their performance in many ways. They focus too much on results, This gets them stuck in a vicious cycle of working hard, setting higher expectations and then thinking they are failing to reach their expectations.

It's important for you to understand that perfectionist athletes often unknowingly embrace very high expectations. They do this unconsciously. When they don't achieve their expectations, they feel frustrated. They feel like they have failed.

Here's a classic example from a baseball dad: "My son is a good athlete who has always had good success. However, he seems to focus on the negative, not the positive. If he is practicing hitting, and doesn't make good contact, after about three swings I hear 'I stink.' Unfortunately, things tend to go down hill from there."

Perfectionists think that maintaining very high and often unrealistic expectations is a good thing. They believe that the only other option is to live in a world of mediocrity. (It's ironic because their need to succeed in sports causes fear of failure, which can undermine their performance.)

Fear of failure kicks in when kids can't meet their expectations or the expectations of others. They become frustrated, lose composure and assume they are under performing. Then they won't achieve their full potential in sports. They begin to think they are failing at some level.

What Parents Can Do

Begin by identifying the very high or perfectionist expectations that pressure your young athletes. These are the expectations that motivate them to have a "perfect" game or practice and not make any mistakes.

Once you identify these expectations--"I need to throw a no-hitter in today's game"-- your job is to replace them with simple, process-oriented goals.

Smaller, more manageable goals such as "See the ball well during an at-bat" help athletes concentrate on the process. This helps sports kids achieve better results.

Manageable goals focus your athletes on the execution of one pitch or one play at a time. For example, a pitcher might visualize good pitches before each pitch.

The Right Goal

As a parent or coach, you want to be careful about placing super high expectations on your sports kids. You may do this without even realizing you're doing it.

Some parents and coaches ask kids to perform well--and place expectations on them--in an attempt to boost their confidence. They might say, "Make six three-pointers today!" Unfortunately, such well-meaning input can cause athletes--especially perfectionists--to try to meet these expectations, They then feel let down when they don't.

By lowering expectations and helping young athletes focus on manageable goals you put them in the best position to succeed.


Award-winning parenting writer Lisa Cohn and Youth Sports Psychology expert Dr. Patrick Cohn are co-founders of The Ultimate Sports Parent. Pick up their free e-book, "Ten Tips to Improve Confidence and Success in Young Athletes."

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