Máire Treasa Ní Cheallaigh: Perfectionism

CAN you ever be too perfect? No is probably the automatic answer, but sometimes the pursuit of excellence in sport can lead to a futile road looking for the impossible – the perfect athlete or the perfect performance. The competitiveness of sport brings us to stressful situations like injuries, performance pressures, rows within the camp, rows with loved ones outside the camp and constant conflict trying to juggle it all. While being scrutinised by coaches, teammates and supporters. While trying to be perfect. The response to this kind of drive towards perfectionism can be good or bad for you, depending on how your head handles it.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is only part of a personality trait. It’s usually accompanied by its best friend, criticism.

And because the criticism is coming from your own inner voice and head, it’s hard to avoid and can get you down to the point that it affects how you play.

You’ll never outrun or outplay the inner critic, which in turn can create a dysfunctional mindset and a fear of failure. Your brain will start trying to assess why sport is causing you all this stress, and then will start to frame training and games as threats and out of your control. So we need to learn how to mute it. Often our natural reaction would be to ignore it and hope it goes away. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help. The inner critic will only get louder and meaner. An approach focused on problem solving, while initially more challenging, will be much more helpful.

Let’s not confuse a drive for perfectionism as a healthy pursuit of excellence. Excellence is different from perfection. An excellent performance is achievable. Perfection never is. Especially in a team sport. There are too many variables that will ruin that picture perfect day, and ultimately too many of those ‘failures’ can be detrimental to well-being and mental health.

There are simple questions you can ask yourself to see if you are chasing excellence or perfection.

-Look at the standards you’ve set for yourself and ask if they are achievable. If not, you’re setting yourself up to fall at the first hurdle.

-When you reach the standards you’ve set yourself, ask whether you congratulate yourself or if you even allow yourself to enjoy reaching a new stage or phase in your development.

-When you make a mistake, do you try to find a way to fix it, or do you continue to overthink it or try to avoid thinking about it? Fixing it will give your head a break.

-When you win a game, do you know you’ve performed well or are you able to give an honest assessment of yourself? Or do you rely on the opinions of others to colour your own self-judgment?
Do you give too much time to the opinions of others, especially if they’re negative? If your answers are more on the negative side, it may mean that you’re putting too much of your self-worth on achievements that might not be realistic.

A good way to keep track is to keep a diary of how you’ve handled problems. Ask yourself if you’re exhausting yourself mentally or physically. More of more isn’t always a good thing.

All or nothing thinking doesn’t work in life, and it doesn’t work in sport either. It may sometimes be described as ‘passionate’ in GAA circles but really it’s an unhealthy response to pressure. See the positives and take the time to tell your head that they have happened. Striving for standards is not a bad thing, but you must ensure that you’re doing it in a way that your self-esteem doesn’t depend on achievements only. As we know, those days are few and far between in sport.

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