Parenting and Coaching The Perfectionist Athlete
Last week, we received a question that we get often, so we thought it would make a great blog:
“I was wondering if you could provide some advice. My son is 8 years old and plays on a travel baseball team. [He is ] blessed with athleticism. He’s fast and has great hand-eye coordination. The problem is, he struggles with the mental game. He is a perfectionist in almost everything he does. So, if he makes a mistake, he’s the kid who shuts down. For example, he missed a couple of balls at practice yesterday and just quit trying. He feels like a failure. I’m thankful that one of his coaches really supports him. I’m just wondering as a parent, what can I do to help? It’s so frustrating to see a child with such potential beat himself down.” – A Mom who just wants to help
Mom, we hear you. As a parent and coach, it can be frustrating, heartbreaking, and even at times a bit embarrassing watching your athlete struggle and act out after a mistake. Even worse, when you try and help in that emotional moment, the reaction from your kids can be to lash out even more. We want our athletes to compete, and to not accept less than their best effort and remain focused. The will to compete is great, but not when one loses sight of the process, and is only focused on outcomes.
This is the perfectionist athlete. This is an athlete who has attached his identity to his achievements, or lack thereof. And being perfection focused instead of process oriented can be the downfall of many a young athlete.
Sadly, perfectionism is on the rise according to recent studies, and nearing the status of a public health crisis, with nearly two out of five children today considered to display perfectionist tendencies. As journalist Amanda Ruggeri writes for the BBC, “Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.”
Many athletes, such as the boy above, are so hyper-focused on outcomes and avoiding mistakes that it consumes their sports experience. Playing baseball is no longer about fun, friends, or learning new skills. Playing baseball becomes a source of high anxiety. The sad news is it is becoming commonplace in our high-pressure, win at all costs, get recruited for college during middle school sporting environment. The more pressure we heap on kids, the more we see these outbursts. I am sure many of you have seen it at times with your own kids when competitiveness turns into perfectionism. It is heart-wrenching to witness in your child because you are torn by emotions of sadness and compassion coupled with the frustration and stress of knowing the reaction is not appropriate. It is a struggle to balance hurting for them and a need to help them.
Many times we come across athletes who show signs of perfectionism before they get to the epic outbursts. Knowing some of the signs can allow us to be more proactive, and ultimately, become a source of relief for our children. According to Anxiety BC look for these signs:
- Being overly anxious, angry, or upset by mistakes
- Chronic procrastination or difficulty finishing tasks
- Easily frustrated and gives up easily
- Early burnout and dropout from sports
- Chronic fear of embarrassment
- Frequent catastrophic meltdowns when things don’t go perfectly
- Refusal to try new things for fear of making mistakes
Perfectionism robs our children of the youth sports experience and develops long-term anxiety that can be damaging to the brain and body. It also teaches our children to have an unhealthy view of the world. Perfectionism is not about having high standards, as some argue. It is about having unrealistic ones.
If you have a child who is a perfectionist and has displayed some of the above-mentioned signs, there are things you can do to help him or her reduce the anxiety and do away with perfectionism altogether.
- Communicate honestly and openly with your child during unemotional times. Address the symptoms with him or her and define the problem. Let your child know those behaviors are the result of perfectionism and that you want to help him or her cope with it. If your child is very young, you can call it the “voice in your head that says you have to be perfect or else”. Talk about the fact that perfectionism makes us overly critical of ourselves and sometimes others. Try to help him or her see it through other people’s eyes by asking “How do you think that makes your teammates/coaches feel when you …” Then come up with a mistake ritual, like the “Flush it” motion, or what we call at Way of Champions I.P.R.: Immediate Positive Response. Give them a path forward and something different to do when things go awry. Here are some suggested steps to take in order to help your child. You can also check out the Center for Positive Parenting for more tips.
- Help your child to turn the perfectionist thoughts into process thoughts. Instead of looking at the outcome or product, the frame of view should be in the process. What did you do well in this process? How else could you have done it? Can you be a detective and find things you can adjust? Help your child understand two things with this reframe:
There is no such thing as perfect. There is seeking excellence. This is the idea that we can always be slightly better than we were the day before. We can always find some marginal gain to be more excellent and be a little better than we were the last time. There are beauty and fun in seeking new ways to get a little better. If we do our very best with the tools we are given at this exact moment, we are a success. So if we are willing to keep giving ourselves new tools, then we are constantly striving to do our very best in each new moment. No one should want to be perfect, everyone should want to be excellent.
Excellence requires mistakes. Richie McCaw, one of the greatest rugby players of all time writes one phrase in his notebook to remind himself that excellence is a lifelong journey, “Start again”. Each day he has a chance to start again. Hit the reset button, hunt for mistakes, be a better version of the person you were the day before. We should teach our children to be mistake hunters. Athletes who are willing to take risks, to try new things, who want to mess up once in a while so they can hunt down the mistake and correct it are the kind of athletes every coach wants on her team. Excellence is a never-ending journey that lasts a lifetime and crosses over all we do. We can seek it in everything, not just sport.
- Praise and encourage our children based on effort, not outcomes. If we only celebrate the wins or praise the outcomes, they begin to think that is what matters most. They think they are only valued when they do well, and that winning is what matters. Instead of saying “Nice goals today,” say “all that extra work you have been doing after practice on your shooting really paid off today, didn’t it?” That tells our athletes that hard work matters more than the goal. They can work hard every time they touch the ball, even if they only score once in a while. By encouraging a work ethic, we are developing a growth mindset, creating an internal locus of control (they can control how hard they work, but they cannot always control outcomes which rely on other players, weather, field conditions, and more), and setting them up to be process-oriented. Be very specific and make sure it is something they can repeat. A child focused on working hard and competing at her very best level is too busy climbing the excellence ladder to have a meltdown over one little mistake.
- Use celebrities from their sport as examples to give your child a different perspective. Michael Jordan has openly talked about the thousands of game-winning shots he missed. How many strikeouts did Babe Ruth have? How many shots did Abby Wambach take and miss on the big stage? Every sport has numerous athletes who have failed and learned from it or recovered from it. As my dad used to always say, “When you mess up, I don’t judge the mistake. I wait to see how you react.” Teach your children that mistakes are just road destination signs. They either tell us to keep going or they tell us to alter our direction a bit. They never tell us to stop completely.
- Be a model of excellence seeking for your athletes. Be willing to make your own mistakes. Then be willing to admit you made them and laugh them off so your child sees how to properly handle a mistake. Children learn so much more by watching us. This is a great chance to instill the right attitude without ever having to say a word. Julie Foudy, a 2x Olympic and World Cup champion soccer player, told us on our podcast that at dinner every night, she asks her kids to share one thing they struggled with that day, and she and her husband do the same. “It makes for some great conversation about adversity,” she says!
Our kids will have those moments where they get caught up in perfectionism. It is okay as long as we don’t get caught up in it too, and we help them reframe it, give them strategies for coping, and create a different perspective.
Youth sports is about mistakes, and learning, and seeking excellence, and having a good laugh. We never want to coach the competitiveness out of our kids, but perfectionism is a whole different animal. Perfectionism keeps us from enjoying the process of getting better. It ignores the reality that mistakes happen. It takes the focus off the fact that hard work matters more than the outcome. And it makes our athletes lose sight of the reality that everyone has less than perfect days, even the pros.
There is no perfection in sports. If there were, we would see only undefeated seasons, no-hitters at every baseball game, and records being broken at every meet. We don’t see that because perfection does not exist. What does exist is an unrelenting march toward excellence that keeps even the adults coming back to the field each day to “start again”. This should be the mantra of our children too.