Athletes are constantly under immense pressure to perform well and deliver their peak- performance. They spend endless hours training, maintaining their diet, mastering their skills, often at the cost of both, their intra personal relationships and mental health gradually being compromised. Everyone has heard the common saying ‘practice makes perfect’ but does this need for perfectionism, the slippery slope towards burnout can cause an athlete to breakdown?
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that is observed in individuals who have extremely high standards set for themselves. Perfectionists are overly critical of their performance, whether it is good or bad.
Athletes who are preoccupied with having flawless performance due to their need for perfectionism often self-sabotage their performance due to the notion of having no room for error. This can lead to unhealthy perfectionism over time.
Unhealthy perfectionism: the slippery slope towards burnout causes anxiety, low self-esteem and a fear of being looked down upon from the people in one’s social environment. When athletes have a fear of making mistakes in practices, they become overly critical of their performance and are unable to perform when the day of the match arises. This can be detrimental to the free flow and the gut instinct with which the athlete wants to perform.
An example of perfectionism in sport is observed in the former England Rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, who was regarded as the best goal kicker at the prime of his rugby career. In an interview, Wilkinson in 2009 mentioned how he obtained the ability to perfect his kick through hours and hours of practice- “Maybe I’ll hit four in a row and just miss the fifth one… Instead of being satisfied with that, I won’t allow myself to leave until I’ve hit five… An hour and a half later – and having missed loads of appointments and left myself running completely late – I might do it.” Wilkonson’s career observed a peak in 2003 after which he suffered from numerous groin injuries due to his exhaustive kicking regime.
What does the term burnout entail?
Burnout occurs when athletes are under a constant state of stress due to the pressure to win, train and perform. This stress can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, which results in the athlete losing interest in the sport. When an athlete feels as though they aren’t receiving any rewards or gratification from the sport, they might also feel entrapped (e.g.- the feeling when an athlete does not want to participate in the sport, but feels as though they must continue due to external pressures from their parents or coach who want them to continue doing so). This is linked to underperformance and could lead to a possible need to drop out from the sport. Burnout can also affect athletes at the peak of their career when they decide that they need to pursue other avenues to gain fulfilment in life.
In the words of Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka, after having lost a painful third round to 18-year old Leylah Fernandez. She admitted to the world that tennis was not bringing her the kind of joy that an athlete’s chosen sport should bring, “When I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief and then when I lose, I feel very sad, and I don’t think that’s normal.”
The thin line between perfectionism and burnout
When an athlete sets unrealistically high standards for themselves, it can lead to excessive stress, which could heighten the potential risk to burnout. Athletes who are majorly self-critical and react negatively to even minor perceived failures are more likely to experience burnout in their sport. Hence, perfectionism, the slippery slope towards burnout is very real and very easy to miss.
How to recognise the link between perfectionism and burnout?
- If you are an athlete and are constantly overtraining long hours, not only to beat your own personal record but also that one particular opponent, then it can, slowly but gradually lead to exhaustion, which in turn leads to burnout.
- While perfectionists do their level best to increase their growth and potential, they often blur the lines between growth and impatience. Perfectionists constantly set new goals for themselves and often end up with too much on their plate. As an athlete if your coach or your parents congratulate you on having achieved a certain goal and your knee-jerk reaction is “that was not my best performance” or “I can do much better than that” then you have forgotten to celebrate the small milestones in your journey. The additional pressure of not living up to your own expectations could burn you out quicker than you can expect.
- Focusing on the outcome or the result of the performance over trusting the process of getting there could demotivate the athlete. Forgetting to reward yourself for the small wins, like swimming an extra lap or lifting heavier, could also lead to burnout.
Moving forward: How can one prevent burnout caused by perfectionism?
- During competitions, accept that challenges will occur, whether it be the internal negative self-talk that you will not perform well or external events such as equipment problems or the pitch not being well maintained. Focusing on the flow of the current situation and moving on can be beneficial. For example, letting go of the “how do I do this?” and allowing yourself to just let the game run its course.
- Performing efficiently instead of without mistakes. Abandoning the “correct” or “no room for error” mindset, and focusing on executing performance with confidence and the appropriate skill will help athletes realise that not everyone is perfect and even the best players make mistakes.
- Taking adequate amount of rest days are crucial to combat the “more is better” fallacy of training. Scheduling days off training and doing something completely non related to the sport could give the athlete the appropriate rest that they require, both physically, emotionally and mentally.
- Believe it or not, maintaining positive relationships with the ones around you can also prevent an athlete from heading towards the brink of burnout. It is essential for athletes to receive support from the ones that they are close to. For example, parents, coaches, teammates and significant others as they can help reduce stress and feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Mindfulness meditation can improve emotional regulation, reduce anxiety, worry, rumination and the physiological and psychological responses to stress which are all factors linked to burnout.
- Lastly, seeking help earlier than later from a therapist or sports psychologist when an athlete is unable to cope with feelings of anxiety, depression or pointlessness during burnout is imperative so that the athlete receives the adequate level of support they require.
While every athletes dream is to play at the top most level in their sport and accomplish all the goals that they set for themselves, it is important to pace these goals out over time. Remember that at the end of the day, your body needs adequate rest, both physically and mentally, without which your body will burnout. While there is a thin line between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism : the slippery slope to burnout, which side of the slope do you think you fall under?
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