Perfectionism in Sport

This free article by one of the acclaimed sport psychologists from Condor Performance looks at the pros and cons of Perfectionism.

Can we learn to strive for excellence without it coming back to bite us?

What Is Perfectionism?

I thought starting this article on perfectionism with a couple of dictionary definitions would be useful. First of all, this is how The Cambridge Dictionary defines it:

“perfectionism”UK  /pəˈfek.ʃən.ɪ.zəm/ US  /pɚˈfek.ʃən.ɪ.zəm/

The wish for everything to be correct or perfect

And now the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable

I have added another few possible definitions of perfectionism of my own that might lean more towards the sport and performance context:

  • Not satisfied until certain things can no longer be improved and/or
  • Unhappy and unsatisfied with anything short of the perceived best and/or
  • Obsessed with the improvement of something, often to the detriment of everything else.

Not All Bad

Perfectionism, as is the case with anxiety in my last article, often gets a bad rap. But as is the case with anxiety, I will argue below that there are actually some aspects of perfectionism that we want. As some of my clients will know, I often talk about keeping the beneficial aspects of wanting to be perfect but moving away from the negatives.

This is easier said than done. What helps a lot is when you have used the methods on yourself. Yes, that’s right. Yours truly is correctly labelled by many as a perfectionist. But I have learned, via decades of self-reflection and hard work, to manage it in a way in which it’s mostly useful. I have tamed the tiger. 99% of my perfectionistic traits benefit myself, my family, clients, colleagues and my endeavours. The final one per cent still ruffles a few feathers!

Most Of Our Clients Are Perfectionists

It should come as no surprise that many sporting and non-sporting performers who consult with sport psychologists are chasing improvement. For a start, many of our clients are amongst the most successful at what they do in their particular domain. We are blessed to work with some of the best golfers, tennis players, motorsport drivers, MMA fighters, and cricketers – you name it – in the world.

Occasionally, we are part of their journey from wannabe to world record holder. Or we join them when they have already reached the top 1% of their performance domain. But this is still far from where they would like to be.

Many of our clients are typically already very good at something but are remarkably unhappy about how good they are compared to where they want to be. Our clients, therefore, range from extreme and obsessive perfectionists right through to mid-range type of perfectionists.

I would find working with somebody at the opposite end of the spectrum much harder. Somebody who did not give two hoots about their performance, equipment, training environment, nutrition, etc. Wow, that’s a tough case. 

Origins of Perfectionism

According to this excellent article by licensed psychotherapist Sharon Martin, ‘the root of perfectionism is believing your self-worth is based on your achievements’. Wow, that’s a big clue. Guess whose achievements are more noticeable/visible than the everyday population? High-level performers and athletes, that’s who. The text below in green is a direct copy and paste from Sharon’s article and is in line with the reuse guidelines on her website.

“Perfectionism is often present when some combination of these factors exists:

  • Rigid, high parental expectations
  • Highly critical, shaming, or abusive parents
  • Excessive praise for your achievements
  • Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate
  • Believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements
  • Black-and-white thinking
  • Efforts to feel in control
  • Cultural expectations”

As you browse this list above, do any ring a bell for you? They certainly do for me.

How To Manage It

Often, one of the most useful ways to start looking at the solutions to something is first to examine the issues that can occur when it is left to be as it is. Basically, what might happen if you decide to do nothing at all?

Most of the issues are related to striving for the impeccability of something that is only partially under our influence. For example, the perfect lap time. Or the perfect round of golf or perfect race. Obviously, it depends on how the individual is defining these, but mostly, it is about some form of result. This is a very difficult position for anybody to find themselves in. Wanting certain combinations of results so much that anything short is a disaster, but only having some influence on whether or not the results actually happen. You can see why, for so many perfectionists, this combination can cause a lot of issues.

I often likened this to chasing the Loch Ness Monster. Many people will tell you it’s real, and you can buy a T-shirt with a picture of it and spend countless hours and dollars looking for it. But you ain’t gonna find it because it doesn’t exist.

This red flag can be extended to all important areas of performance that are not guaranteeable (most of them). Want the perfect equipment all the time? Sorry, sir, your bags did not get put on this flight. Feel like you play your best in perfect weather conditions. Oops, it rained too much last year and not enough this year. What are you gonna do about it? Do you believe you need to be feeling and thinking great to perform at your best? Good luck with that, pal.

The Clinical Underbelly

There is the clinical underbelly of an extreme quest to be perfect. Everything else important in your life often gets neglected and put to one side. Yes, as tragic as it is, there is a pile of divorced people out there because their spouse cared far more about what happened at the home ground (sporting venue) than at home (place of abode).

And with this example, we find our first clue to the first possible solution. More often than not, elite athletes and performers will define themselves far too much by what they do. Ask one of the world’s best surgeons who they are, and they’ll probably say, “I am a surgeon”.

Of course, the real question that would warrant this exact response is “What do you do?” and not “Who are you?”. So, one powerful psychological strategy is to help the person define the answer to these questions separately. “I would like you to tell me who you are without replying with any clues about what you do (for work, or school, etc).”

One Person But With Many Hats

When I do this, I often use the notion of humans having multiple hats they wear. Often, this will range between half a dozen to a dozen hats. Each hat represents one significant aspect of the person’s life. As is the case with actual hats, they can be taken off and put back on. And they can look nothing like one another.

For elite performers, two of these hats should be related to their sport or performance area. Not three, not one, not zero, but exactly two. One of these hats ought to be The Trainer. Obviously, depending on the domain, it might be more appropriate to use the word preparer. The second hat wants to be the Performer or Competitor.


In summary, trying to be perfect has some benefits, but like a runaway bull, it needs to be tamed to be useful. If you would like some professional help with this, flick a quick email to our Intake team below, and they’ll get back to you within a few days.

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Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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