Perfect. The dictionary defines Perfect as being without fault or defect. Flawless.
We live in a world where perfect is the expectation.
I spend most of my time working with collegiate and professional athletes. I also spend a lot of time having conversations with coaches about their teams and athletes. I spend a lot of time watching practice, lift, training, and games. I observe, I listen and I analyze.
The language we use in and around our sport is crucial. So is the language we do not use. Language is not just important for how we communicate with other people but it is incredibly important for how we speak to ourselves. It is a constant dance of both internal and external messaging.
Is the word PERFECT always used or blatantly stated in and around our sport setting? No. To be honest I don’t hear many players or coaches express needing things to be perfect. Most of the time its the opposite. “We can’t be perfect, I know I can’t be perfect, I don’t expect perfection every time.”
However, at the same time why do the fear of failure and fear of making mistakes plague so many of our youth and collegiate athletes? Across the board - in all aspects of society imperfection and flaws are seen as NOT OK. Lets take something outside of sport - The beauty industry. Look at any instagram or social media platform and all you see is beautiful (often fake) women pumping ads about skin creams and laser treatments that GET RID of flaws. We see fitstagrams talking about how to GET RID of body fat and cellulite. There is a work out for how to get rid of almost ANY PART OF YOUR BODY that you don’t like.
This is not an issue that is alone in sport and performance. This is a much larger issue that plagues our society as a whole.
However for athlete’s imperfection, making mistakes and flaws can touch a very sensitive piece of our self worth. This issue can directly be linked to our value as a human.
For a Pole Vaulter specifically, perfection equals paralysis. It is easy to get fixated on one particular phase of the jump. Its so easy to start comparing to the next person in line or a teammate they have with potentially 3 or 4 years more experience. Very quickly, the message or thought of “that wasn’t good” becomes “I am not good.”
So its a very confusing message when many of us know we can’t be perfect, many coaches say they don’t expect perfect BUT at the same time - success in sport revolves around winning and being at a higher level than your opponent. This can get confusing and extremely hard to navigate. It’s even harder to navigate when you don’t have the support and the tools in place to help yourself out.
I was far from perfect. I wasn’t even close (To be fair - no one is or ever will be but I digress). I come from an incredibly long history of chronic anxiety, bouts of serious depression and panic attacks that have landed me in the hospital. I have been ruled by anxiety the majority of my life and coped with this anxiety in many harmful ways such as self-mutilation, binge eating and substance abuse. Although there were many contributors, at the core of my issues was this idea that I needed to be “perfect” in everything I did. I was inherently less than if I was not perfect EVEN THOUGH I continued to fall short of my own expectation of perfect time after time. It was still something I was always seeking.
And that is the problem with perfect. Perfect is a destination. Perfect is the end game right? For many elite athletes, perfection is what drives us. Again - we rarely use the word “perfect” … but isn’t this what many of us are thinking? The want and desire to continue to hone our craft and skill and to “be the best we can be.” If we make a mistake people can hardly notice because we are really that good. When we are perfect, everything falls in to place. We are the best on the field in any given moment, we attend the college program of our dreams and we have athletic careers that are ones to be spoken about for years to come.
But at what cost?
In my opinion, as seen in my own personal story this is a serious problem. Perfection is fuel for the fire. It makes for a nasty case of depending on external validation, which starts to heat up and provoke what I call our inner critic.
What is the inner critic? In my terms the inner critic is that voice inside our head that never shuts up. It is the voice of doubt. It is the voice of negativity and criticism. It is the driver of constant comparison and assessment. It is the feeling that we are never enough. The inner critic is persistent. It is ugly. It is loud.
Many athletes have the idea that the inner critic is what keeps them sharp. This is what allows us to see what we aren’t doing so that we can constantly get better. That’s’ the goal right?
Ok. So how do we find balance? What’s the magic trick?
News Flash. There isn’t one. But, this is where I come in.
I’m not a Sport Psychologist. I’ve been an athlete and a coach my entire life but I didn’t go to school to study the psyche and sport performance. I landed on my trade by way of personal destruction and the dire need to heal. As I speak to more and more coaches and athletes, I realize that this is an all too common story.
My specialty is mindfulness. A practice and way of being that allows us to pay attention to our present moment experience with a non-judgmental attitude. We can practice and train mindfulness in many ways. Some of my favorite ways to practice are meditation, breath work and yoga. These practices allow us to drop into our mind and body and get curious about what we are experiencing in a way that is more neutral and friendly.
How does this help with perfectionism and that pesky inner critic?
It allows us time to watch our thoughts and put space between what we are thinking and how we respond to them. This is crucial. We can see the inner critic for what it really is and claim some power back.
News flash : we do not have to BELIEVE everything we think. So the next time you notice your inner critic come around, try the following practice:
Notice what the inner critic is saying. What are you telling yourself about your performance?
Ask yourself a question : Do I have evidence for this thought? Can I ask a teammate or coach if I am unsure? This way we help ourselves decipher “Is this actually true?” Remember - often times the inner critic is not true!
Breathing is one of the most powerful things we can do when we are being hard on ourselves. Breathing allows us to push the pause button. This can be helpful when we are going back and forth with the inner critic.
What is 1 thing that you KNOW whole heartedly to be true about yourself as a human being. Something that NO ONE would debate or question. Tell yourself that. Over and over. Build up some confidence in a quality that you KNOW is true about the kind of person and athlete you are.
In closing I want to reiterate the definition of Perfect. Being without fault or defect. Flawless. It doesn’t exist. It is a destination that doesn’t exist in life and it certainly doesn’t exist in sport and performance. At the same time its not as easy as flipping a switch and not caring about perfection. We have to work at it. The practices of Mindfulness, Meditation, Yoga and Breath Work allow us to do this. The next time you feel the paralysis of perfection and your inner critic take is slow. The journey to navigating your mind is a marathon not a sprint.