Understanding the psychological components that help with optimal athletic performance is a key priority for applied sport psychology. A controversial issue within the field is perfectionism. Perfectionism is described as a broad multidimensional personality trait characterised by the pursuit of extremely high standards; striving for flawlessness, and over critical performance evaluation (Frost et al. 1990; Flett & Hewitt, 2005). Some may debate that being a perfectionist athlete is admirable because of the desire to achieve, and high motivation levels (Stoeber, Uphill, & Hotham, 2009). Nevertheless, perfectionism in sport is a controversial issue to which perfectionistic tendencies are seen as both adaptive and maladaptive (Frost et al, 1993; Terry-Short et al., 1995).
The multidimensional perfectionism scale devised by Hewitt & Flett (1991) evaluates perfectionism from three perspectives; self-orientated; other orientated and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-orientated is the
excessive desire for perfectionism from one’s self, other orientated is demanding perfection from those around you and socially prescribed is the perception that significant others demand perfection from you (Flett &
Hewitt, 2005). There has been much controversy within the literature regarding which dimensions are adaptive and maladaptive, but the general consensus is that socially prescribed is associated with the unhealthy maladaptive perfectionism and self-orientated is linked to healthy adaptive (Hill et al. 1997; Flett &
Adaptive perfectionism can be explained as a positive pursuit towards achievement, whereas maladaptive perfectionism is associated with being concerned with evaluation; having a fear of failure and reacting negatively to defeat (Stoeber et al., 2008). Adaptive perfectionists typically set realistic goals prior to performance which ensures self confidence and motivation is maintained due to the belief that goals are obtainable (Slade & Owens, 1998). Therefore, adaptive perfectionism positively correlates with self-efficacy, motivation and high achievement amongst other desirable characteristics (Bieling et al. 2004).
Flett and Hewitt reported that although certain components of perfectionism may be positive, perfectionism is primarily maladaptive among athletes and exercisers (2005). Maladaptive perfectionism is positively associated with psychological difficulties such as distress (Stoeber & Eismann, 2007), injury (Krasnow et al. 1999), depression (Minarik & Ahrens, 1996); self destruction; anxiety (Antony et al, 1998; Egan et al, 2006); neuroticism; personality disorders and eating disorders (Haase et al 2001; Anshel, 2004); decreased physical health and well-being due to over training, disordered eating, and low self esteem (Hill et al, 2010; Hewitt & Flett 1991; Hewitt et al. 1992). Hall (2006) also detailed that perfectionism is also associated with shame (Tangney, 2002); performance anxiety (Hall, Kerr & Mathew, 1998); and suicide ideation (Hewitt, Flett, & Turnbull-Donavon, 1992). Evidence suggests that perfectionism may also act as a predisposing factor to athletes developing burnout during their performance career (Hill et al, 2008). When goals are not reached, maladaptive perfectionists engage in harsh self criticism and irrational beliefs resulting in feelings of inadequacy; reduced motivation and decreased self-confidence (Flett & Hewitt 2005).
The cognitive processes underpinning perfectionism were first examined by Horney (1950 In, Hall, 2013) and Ellis (1962, In. Hall, Hill & Appleton, 2013) who argued the core qualities of perfectionism are having a set of
irrational beliefs and a dysfunctional attitude. Flett et al. (1998) found that perfectionists may induce a pattern of intrusive self-focused thoughts about achieving perfectionism. Hill and Appleton (2011) showed that this cognitive process has corrosive influence on the quality of motivation in elite junior athletes. Nevertheless, there has been little research conducted on how perfectionism has been defined in sport, as the core qualities have emerged from other achievement disciplines.
Blatt (1995) offered that perfectionists may be resistant to direct attempts to alter ways of thinking and therefore, it may be effective to structure the learning and performance environment to change the perfectionist cognitions. Being able to create an optimal motivational climate in athletes is also likely
to lead to increased participation and enjoyment (Keegan, Harwood, Spray & Lavallee, 2009). Environments which are seen to be extremely critical, rigid and promote social comparison will foster numerous debilitating cognitive and affective outcomes (Mainwaring, 2009 In. Hall & Hill, 2012). Providing a learning environment to promote adaptive perfectionism may be an effective way to challenge perfectionist mindset.
Are coaches able to identify which athletes have perfectionist traits? And how can we help coaches create an environment to promote adaptive perfectionism and healthy motivation? Ideally, for coaches, it would be beneficial to not only know the signs of a perfectionist athlete, but also how to create the best environment to dissolve maladaptive perfectionism. In line with Stirling and Kerrs’ suggestions for future research, “the development of guidelines for coaches and parents to assist them in assessing, monitoring, and motivating
perfectionistic athletes may also be helpful.” (2001, p. 22), I believe that it would be beneficial for coachecs to have a better understanding on getting the best out of their perfectionist players.
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Abraham Lincoln once described an a optimist as someone who “finds opportunity in every difficulty” whilst a pessimist to be someone who ‘finds difficulty in every opportunity”.
Another way to look at optimism is in terms of explanatory style. Explanatory style examines the way an individual explains their experiences, successes and failures (Scheier & Carver, 1985 In. Martin-Krumm et al, 2003). Looking at how people explain certain events, or the reason behind the athletes success or failure, we can see if they are optimistic or not. We can also use people’s explanatory style to predict biases, and future outcomes because of their expectations of success or failures (Seligman, 1991).
What is an Optimistic Explanatory Style? (Peterson, 2000)
●Positive events: internal (within persons control) stable (this reason will always be the there) and global (effects everything) causes e.g. we won the game because I am talented.
●Negative event: external (outwith person’s control), unstable (the reason is only temporary) and specific (only effects that certain situation) factors e.g. We lost the game because the other team scored a lucky goal.
So why is it good for athletes to be optimistic?
The main advantages of having an optimistic explanatory style is that you are more likely to be persistent and committed during the action phase of working towards a goal and are more likely to be able to tolerate uncontrollable suffereing (Espahbodi, Dugar & Tehranian, 1991). When someone has an optimistic explanatory style, the belief that one will have a successful performance is within their control, and the reason is stable e.g. I am a good player. Whilst they view unsuccessful performances as temporary setbacks, and the cause to be something out with their control e.g. Bad weather. Therefore, their self esteem is not effected because they believe that they are in control of the good and not of the negative.
By believing that you are had a good performance because you are talented (internal, stable, global) and not because you play in a good team, or you were lucky (external, temporary) will allow you to believe you are capable of future positive performances. Performers who have an optimistic explanatory style are more likely to believe they will succeed in the future.
There have been various studies that show the benefits of being optimistic such as:
●Better performance and less variability (football; Gordan & Kane, 2001);
Research in Seligman’s book (2006) shows that people who have a pessimistic explanatory style are:
● More susceptible to depression when things go wrong
Therefore, to sustain or promote positive self esteem, we could try to make athletes more optimistic. In 2010, I completed a study “the effectiveness of a positive psychology intervention on optimism levels of female soccer players” where I carried out 8 sessions of positive psychology sessions with 15 semi professional female soccer players in the ’Hampton Roads Piranhas’ from Virginia Beach, Virginia.
What is Positive Psychology?
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) reported that positive psychology, “has many distinguished ancestors, and we make no claim of originality” (p. 13). It is the scientific study of optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions which promotes positive aspects of life such as happiness, well-being, satisfaction, hope and optimism (Joseph & Linley, 2007). I created an intervention to use with the footballers based on this theory using both Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism” (2006) and “Group Psychotherapy Psychology Manual” (PPT; Park & Seligman, 2007). The intervention was devised to increase awareness of explanatory style; and to encourage player’s to look at positive aspects of self and their strengths.
The results of the study showed that scores of optimistic explanatory style increased from pre-test to post-test and there was significant difference on internality and globality but not stability (two out of the three indicators of optimistic explanatory style). For example, the explanation of ability being the cause of a positive event almost doubled on post-test whilst the number of negative events attributed to ability decreased by 50%. Additionally, the number of unstable references to performance decreased.
The players evaluated the program and indicated that afterwards, they had more awareness of explanatory styles; a positive effect on player’s thought processes e.g. made me think more positively; and think differently about discouraging situations; and were more aware of effect football has on them e.g. ‘I learned that soccer influences my every day life and attitude”.
In conclusion, by increasing and building optimism, we are less likely to have our self esteem hurt when we are faced with negative events, and our self esteem will continue to grow when we are faced with positive events. We can do this by using different activities geared towards promoting understanding about explanatory style as well as building g on strengths and positive aspects of character. Feel free to contact me about any of the activities used within the positive psychology intervention.
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Tracy Donachie, MSc in Performance Psychology.