Sports psychologists can’t agree on whether or not perfectionism is a good or bad thing. The advantages are obvious and evoke images of the athlete practising a given shot, kick or putt over and over, until rare mastery is achieved. But the proposed downside is that perfectionism breeds anxiety and self-criticism, ultimately undermining performance.
Oliver Stoll and colleagues believe part of the reason for the disagreement is that there are actually two aspects to perfectionism: one is striving for perfection, the other is having negative reactions to a less than perfect performance. Their prediction was that the striving aspect would be beneficial to sports training, while the negative reactions aspect would be harmful.
Stoll’s team measured these two aspects of perfectionism among 122 sports science students before observing their performance on a novel basketball training exercise that required the students to practice scoring a basket from behind the basketball board.
Striving for perfection was measured by students’ agreement with statements like “I feel the need to be perfect”, while negative reactions to imperfection were measured via students’ agreement with statements like “After training, I feel depressed if I have not been perfect.”
To the researchers’ surprise, the students who showed the most improvement over the course of the training (four series of seven attempts) were those who reported high levels of both striving for perfection and negative reactions to imperfection. They speculated that perhaps the students who strove for perfection, but who were then unconcerned by whether they achieved that perfection or not, had less motivation to do well in training than the students who reported having both forms of perfectionism.
More research is clearly needed with other sports, and in actual competition rather than a training environment, the researchers said. However, they concluded: “perfectionistic strivings may form part of a healthy pursuit of excellence and may be adaptive in situations where such strivings may give athletes an additional motivational ‘boost’ to do their best, and thus achieve better results and make greater progress.”
STOLL, O., LAU, A., STOEBER, J. (2008). Perfectionism and performance in a new basketball training task: Does striving for perfection enhance or undermine performance?. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(5), 620-629. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2007.10.001