Perfectionism in Sport

Perfectionism  is  a  personality  disposition  characterized  by  striving  for  flawlessness  and  setting  exceedingly  high  standards  for  performance, accompanied  by  tendencies  for  overly  critical evaluations.  It  is  a  disposition  that  may  pervade all  areas  of  life,  particularly  areas  in  which  performance plays as major role (e.g., work, school). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that perfectionism  is  a  common  characteristic  of  competitive athletes.

Perfectionistic Strivings and Perfectionistic Concerns

Traditionally,  perfectionism  has  been  regarded  as a sign of psychological maladjustment and mental disorder,  because  people  seeking  help  for  depression  and  anxiety  often  report  elevated  levels  of perfectionism.  Traditional  conceptions  regarded perfectionism  as  a  one-dimensional  personality disposition. In the 1990s, however, a more differentiated view emerged that conceptualized perfectionism  as  a  multidimensional  and  multifaceted characteristic.  From  this  view,  a  consensus  has emerged  that  perfectionism  should  be  differentiated  into  two  main  dimensions:  perfectionistic concerns  and  perfectionistic  strivings.  Whereas the  dimension  representing  perfectionistic  concerns  captures  those  aspects  associated  with  concern  over  mistakes,  fear  of  negative  evaluation by  others,  feelings  of  discrepancy  between  one’s expectations and performance, and negative reactions  to  imperfection,  the  dimension  representing perfectionistic  strivings  captures  those  aspects  of perfectionism associated with self-oriented striving for perfection and very high personal standards of performance.

The  differentiation  between  these  two  dimensions is central to the understanding of perfectionism. Whereas the two dimensions are often highly correlated—most people who show elevated levels of perfectionistic concerns also show elevated levels of  perfectionistic  strivings;  they  show  differential, and  often  contrasting,  patterns  of  relationships. Perfectionistic concerns show strong and consistent negative  relationships—that  is,  positive  associations  with  negative  characteristics,  processes,  and outcomes  (e.g.,  neuroticism,  maladaptive  coping, negative affect) and with indicators of psychological maladjustment  and  mental  disorder  (e.g.,  depression).  In  contrast,  perfectionistic  strivings  often show positive relationships—that is, positive associations with positive characteristics, processes, and outcomes (e.g., conscientiousness, adaptive coping, positive  affect)  and  with  indicators  of  subjective well-being  (SWB)  and  good  psychological  adjustment (e.g., satisfaction with life).

The  differentiation  between  the  two  dimensions  is  of  central  importance  also  in  sport  and exercise  psychology  (SEP),  where  perfectionistic  concerns  and  perfectionistic  strivings  show different—sometimes   opposite—relationships with  emotion,  motivation,  and  performance.  As in  the  general  perfectionism  literature,  however, the  positive  associations  of  perfectionistic  strivings  are  often  “masked”  because  of  the  overlap with perfectionistic concerns and may be revealed only  when  the  negative  influence  of  perfectionistic  concerns  is  controlled  for.  Consequently,  it  is important for studies in SEP investigating perfectionism to use statistical analyses that control for the overlap between the two dimensions in order to  uncover  the  often-marked  differences  that  the two dimensions show.

Emotion

In the general perfectionism literature, a frequent and  well-replicated  finding  is  that  perfectionistic  concerns  are  associated  with  positive  affect, whereas  perfectionistic  strivings  are  associated with  negative  affect.  The  same  holds  for  perfectionism in sports regarding general affect and specific  affective  experiences.  For  example,  research using  imagined  scenarios  to  investigate  how  athletes  respond  to  success  and  failure  in  important  competitions  found  that  when  the  overlap between  the  two  dimensions  was  controlled  for, perfectionistic concerns were associated with negative  affect  after  failure,  whereas  perfectionistic strivings were associated with positive affect after success. Differential relationships of the two perfectionism  dimensions  have  also  been  found  for competitive  anxiety,  an  important  emotion  frequently  experienced  by  competitive  athletes  that has  received  much  attention  in  sport  psychology (SP).  In  the  literature,  three  aspects  of  competitive  anxiety  are  usually  differentiated:  cognitive anxiety,  somatic  anxiety,  and  self-confidence. Cognitive anxiety represents the side of competitive  anxiety  involving  negative  cognitions  about possible  failure,  and  somatic  anxiety  represents the  side  involving  perceptions  of  bodily  symptoms and heightened negative arousal. In contrast, self-confidence  involves  positive  cognitions  and feelings  indicating  that  one  is  up  to  the  task  and capable of giving one’s best possible performance. Consequently,  self-confidence  in  competitions  is a sign of low competitive anxiety and has shown positive  relationships  with  performance.  A  number  of  studies  have  examined  the  relationships between  perfectionism  and  competitive  anxiety in  athletes.  Overall  findings  show  that  only  perfectionistic  concerns  are  associated  with  higher levels of cognitive and somatic anxiety and lower levels of self-confidence. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings (once the overlap with perfectionistic concerns is controlled for) are associated with low levels  of  cognitive  and  somatic  anxiety  and  high levels  of  self-confidence,  suggesting  that  athletes who strive for perfection (and are not overly concerned  about  not  achieving  perfection)  approach competitions  with  a  positive  mind-set  that  may help them achieve a higher performance.

Motivation

Motivation  is  another  key  variable  in  SP,  particularly  achievement  motivation.  An  important predictor  of  athletes’  achievement  motivation  is achievement  motives.  Achievement  motives  are stable individual differences in learned, affectively charged  anticipatory  responses  to  achievement situations that energize and direct people’s behaviors. Research traditionally differentiates between two  achievement  motives:  hope  of  success  (motivating people to achieve success) and fear of failure  (FOF)  (motivating  people  to  avoid  failure). Mirroring the findings from the competitive anxiety  literature,  studies  controlling  for  the  overlap between  the  two  perfectionism  dimensions  have found that only perfectionistic concerns were positively associated with FOF. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings were positively associated with hope of  success  (and  negatively  with  FOF),  suggesting that perfectionistic strivings are associated with a positive mind-set regarding achievement situations that may help athletes attain success, whereas perfectionistic concerns are associated with a negative mind-set focusing on possible failure.

Another variable closely associated with achievement  motivation  is  achievement  goal  orientation. As   with   achievement   motives,   perfectionistic strivings  and  concerns  show  a  clear  differential pattern  with  achievement  goal  orientations,  particularly  when  the  2  ×  2  model  of  achievement goals is considered. The 2 × 2 model differentiates two  dimensions  of  goal  orientation—definition (performance  vs.  mastery)  and  valence  (approach vs.  avoidance)—resulting  in  four  different  goals: performance-approach,  performance-avoidance, mastery-approach,    and    mastery-avoidance. Performance-approach goals represent the motivation  to  demonstrate  normative  competence  (e.g., striving  to  do  better  than  others),  performance-avoidance   goals   represent   the   motivation   to avoid   demonstrating   normative   incompetence (e.g.,  striving  to  avoid  doing  worse  than  others), mastery-approach  goals  represent  the  motivation to  achieve  absolute  or  intrapersonal  competence (e.g.,  striving  to  master  a  task),  and  mastery-avoidance goals represent the motivation to avoid absolute   or   intrapersonal   incompetence   (e.g., striving  to  avoid  doing  worse  than  one  has  done previously). A number of studies have investigated the  relationships  between  the  two  dimensions  of perfectionism and the 2 × 2 goals. Across-studies results showed that when partial correlations were computed controlling for the overlap between the two  dimensions,  perfectionistic  concerns  showed positive  correlations  with  performance-avoidance and  mastery-avoidance  goals,  indicating  that  perfectionistic concerns are associated with avoidance motivation in competitive achievement situations. In  contrast,  perfectionistic  strivings  showed  positive  correlations  with  performance-approach  and mastery-approach  goals,  indicating  that  perfectionistic strivings are associated with an approach motivation.

Performance

The  findings  that  perfectionistic  concerns  are associated  with  a  negative  mind-set  and  avoidance motivation in competitive situations, whereas perfectionistic strivings are associated with a positive  mind-set  and  approach  motivation,  suggest that  the  two  dimensions  of  perfectionism  also show  different  relationships  with  performance. Unfortunately, only few studies so far have investigated  perfectionism  and  sport  performance, and  the  findings  they  have  produced  are  not  as clear-cut  as  those  of  the  studies  regarding  emotion  and  motivation.  On  the  one  hand,  there  are findings that corroborate the many findings from the  general  perfectionism  literature  claiming  that perfectionistic strivings are associated with higher performance:  In  a  study  investigating  basketball training   performance,   perfectionistic   strivings were  associated  with  higher  performance  across a  series  of  trials  in  a  new,  nonstandard  training task,  and  in  two  studies  investigating  racing  performance  of  triathletes,  perfectionistic  strivings predicted  higher  race  performance  beyond  what was  expected  from  the  athletes’  previous  performance  (seasonal  or  personal  best).  On  the  other hand,  there  are  findings  indicating  that  both  perfectionistic  concerns  and  perfectionistic  strivings are detrimental to performance. In a study investigating  athletes’  psychomotor  performance  in  a balancing task (stabilometer performance), which took place under laboratory conditions where false performance  feedback  was  given  (athletes  were told  they  were  performing  below  expectations), both dimensions of perfectionism were associated with lower performance. Finally, there are findings indicating  that  both  dimensions  of  perfectionism can enhance performance and lead to performance improvements.  In  the  study  investigating  basketball  training  performance,  athletes  who  had  high levels of perfectionistic strivings and high levels of perfectionistic  concerns—which  is  a  combination of  the  two  perfectionism  dimensions  that  most theories and research in perfectionism would consider  unhealthy,  maladaptive,  or  dysfunctional— showed  the  greatest  performance  improvements across  the  trials.  It  appears  that  if  we  disregard the laboratory study with false performance feedback,  perfectionistic  strivings  are  not  detrimental to sport performance. On the contrary, perfectionistic  strivings  may  be  associated  with  higher  performance in training and competitions.

Open Questions and Future Research

Perfectionism  is  a  characteristic  that  can  have important  implications  for  athletes’  well-being, their emotional experiences and motivational orientations,  and  their  performance  in  training  and competitions. Yet compared to research in general perfectionism,  research  on  perfectionism  in  sport is still underdeveloped, and many open questions remain  for  future  research.  First,  little  is  known about how individual differences in perfectionism develop. Second, we do not know anything about the  long-term  consequences  of  perfectionism  in sport. In particular, we must learn more about the long-term consequences of perfectionistic strivings on  performance,  as  some  researchers  have  suggested that perfectionistic strivings, while boosting performance  in  the  short  run,  are  detrimental  to sustained  performance  and  athletic  development because  they  may  have  negative  consequences  in the  long  run  (e.g.,  athlete  burnout).  Third,  we must know more about how perfectionism affects the team (e.g., team cohesion, team performance). While  a  number  of  studies  have  investigated  perfectionism in athletes engaged in team sports, these studies  have  focused  on  how  individual  athletes’ perfectionism affects the individual athletes but not on how it affects the team. Finally, until now most of the research on perfectionism in SEP has focused on  sport,  and  only  very  few  studies  have  looked into  exercise.  More  studies  are  needed  to  investigate  what  role  perfectionism  plays  in  physical activity (PA) and exercise behavior.

Conclusion

Although some researchers suggest that perfectionism in sports is a negative characteristic because it undermines  athletes’  performance  and  stifles  athletic  development,  empirical  evidence  shows  that perfectionism has a dual nature with both negative and positive sides. This dual nature is represented in   the   two   main   dimensions   of   perfectionism—perfectionistic  concerns  and  perfectionistic strivings—that  show  different  and  unique  relationships with athletes’ emotion, motivation, and performance. The pattern of findings suggests that only perfectionistic concerns are clearly maladaptive. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings are associated  with  emotional  and  motivational  qualities that  may  give  athletes  an  additional  “boost”  to make an extra effort and achieve the best possible result. Even some clinical psychologists are beginning  to  recognize  that  perfectionistic  strivings may  form  part  of  a  healthy  pursuit  of  excellence and, as such, are not unhealthy, dysfunctional, or maladaptive. However, this may be the case only when perfectionistic strivings are not accompanied by perfectionistic concerns because perfectionistic concerns  are  clearly  unhealthy  and  maladaptive. While  these  concerns  may  have  no  direct  negative  effects  on  sport  performance,  they  represent a serious risk to athletes’ psychological well-being (PWB) as well as their motivation, self-esteem, and health.

References:

  1. Enns, M. W., & Cox, B. J. (2002). The nature and assessment of perfectionism: A critical analysis. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 33–62). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Stoeber, J. (2011). The dual nature of perfectionism in sports: Relationships with emotion, motivation, and performance. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4, 128–145.
  3. Stoeber, J. (2012). Perfectionism and performance. In S. M. Murphy (Ed.), Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 294–306). New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 295–319.
  5. Stoeber, J., & Stoeber, F. S. (2009). Domains of perfectionism: Prevalence and relationships with perfectionism, gender, age, and satisfaction with life. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 530–535.

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