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The Paradox of Perfectionism

Perfectionism has been the most widely studied personality characteristic in sport and exercise psychology over the past decade. Perfectionism is a personality style characterized by setting extremely high standards of performance, striving for flawlessness, and a tendency to be overly critical in evaluating one’s performance (Flett & Hewitt, 2005). Investigators have differentiated between self- oriented perfectionism (the degree to which an individual sets extremely high personal standards and stringently self-evaluates relative to those standards), socially prescribed perfectionism (the degree to which one perceives that significant others hold them to extremely high standards and base their approval on meeting those standards), and other-oriented perfectionism (the degree to which one holds others to extremely high standards) (Appleton, Hall, & Hill, 2010; Dunn, Dunn, & McDonald, 2012). Investigators have also developed a sport-specific measure that assesses four dimensions: personal standards, concern over mistakes, perceived parental pressure, and perceived coach pressure (Dunn, Craft, & Dunn, 2011). The multidimensional nature of perfectionism has led to some interesting findings. Maladaptive perfectionism (a focus on high standards accompanied by a concern over mistakes and evaluation by others) has been found to be associated with excessive exercise (e.g., Flett & Hewitt, 2005; Flett, Pole-Langdon, & Hewitt, 2003), poor performance (Stoeber, Uphill, & Hotham, 2009), and athlete burnout (Appleton, Hall, & Hill, 2009). However, adaptive perfectionism  (a focus on high standards but not excessively worrying about making mistakes or about how others evaluate one’s performance) has been found to be associated with better learning and performance (Stoeber et al., 2009) and more adaptive goal patterns (e.g., Stoll, Lau, & Stoeber, 2008). Thus, depending on the specific components characterizing one’s perfectionistic personality, perfectionism can lead to both highly positive and extremely negative consequences. Other interesting findings derived from the literature on sport psychological perfectionism include the following:

• Perfectionistic standards do not automatically undermine performance and with the right goal focus can lead to optimal performance.

• Perfectionistic standards become debilitating when their attainment is needed for self-validation.

• Perfectionism is thought to be especially negative in times of failure.

• Extreme perfectionists with an ego orientation and low perceptions of ability will have debilitating effects, high levels of stress, motivational problems, and burnout.

• Perfectionists are at greater risk if they have poor coping skills.

• Certain types of perfectionism predispose people to engage in certain thought and behavioral processes that influence their exercise.

• Perfectionistic demands emanate from within individuals themselves or from others.

• A relationship exists between a child’s levels of perfectionism and his or her parents’ levels of perfectionism. Children whose parents model their own perfectionism or provide conditional approval of the child’s attempts at achievement are more likely to have perfectionistic tendencies.

• Adaptive perfectionism is related to approach motivation, whereas maladaptive perfectionism is related to avoidance motivation.

From an applied perspective, investigators suggest that it is important for those working in sport to help athletes and exercisers distinguish between a healthy commitment to high performance standards and unhealthy strivings (e.g., negative reactions to imperfections, fear of failure) associated with maladaptive perfectionism. This requires that the athlete not overly link his or her self-worth to performance and reduce any irrational sense of importance placed on performance (Hill, Hall, & Appleton, 2010). Finally, if individuals are characterized by extreme perfectionism, seeing a sport psychologist may be warranted.

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