Reward effort, not performance
The quest for perfection can have a negative impact on young athletes. (The Gazette)
In my last column about giving youth athletes a break, either through time off or playing another sport to avoid specialization, I spoke about parents identifying perfectionist tendencies in their child.
Patrick Cohn, a mental training expert and sports psychologist at Peak Performance Sports, was quoted as saying, “Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Perfectionist athletes are more likely to feel anxious or upset, and more worried about what others think of them.”
These tendencies can have a negative impact on the quality and experience of the child’s sporting experience. Working With Parents in Sports noted perfectionism is “about the unrealistic expectations that people can have for themselves and for other people in their life.”
There are several forms of perfectionism:
- Some people expect themselves to be perfect (self-oriented).
- Some people expect other people to be perfect (other-oriented).
- Some people think that other people in their life, like a parent or coach, expect them to be perfect (socially prescribed perfectionism).
Most people are somewhere in between high levels and low levels of perfectionism. Dr. Sarah Mallinson-Howard, associate head of sport and senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology in the School of Science, Technology and Health at York St. John University in England, believes perfectionism can ruin the positive experience of competing in sport. But it depends upon the type of tendencies the athlete has:
- If young athletes expect themselves to be perfect, it won’t mean they work hard and perform better. It can mean they will experience anxiety and worry.
- If they expect others to be perfect, it can impact negatively on friendships and they will feel less supported when they need help.
- If they believe that other people expect them to be perfect, it can result in unhappiness, stress and loneliness.
What can parents do to help their children better manage their expectations and feel supported? The following suggestions may help:
- Encourage and support the child to feel good about things other than how they perform in activities.
- Reward efforts even if things don’t go well. Mistakes or failure are part of learning to get better and should be accepted.
- Emphasize that sometimes things just need to get done and can’t always be perfect. They can learn a lot just by attacking the task.
Parents and coaches should want their athletes to compete to their best effort and remain focused, but not to the extent they lose sight of the process in their focus on results only.
Knowing some of the signs of perfectionism can help adults be proactive in easing the stress of perfectionism. These signs include:
- Overly anxious, angry or upset by mistakes.
- Chronic procrastination or difficulty finishing tasks.
- Easily frustrated and gives up easily.
- Early burnout and dropout from sports (or other activities).
- Chronic fear of embarrassment.
- Frequent catastrophic meltdowns when things don’t go well.
- Refusal to try new things for fear of making mistakes.
Reed Maltbie of the Player Development Project said parents should address symptoms of perfectionism with their child by devising a mistake ritual, such as the “flush it” motion or what he calls the Way of Champions I.P.R.: Immediate Positive Response.
“Give them a path forward and something different to do when things go awry.”
His suggested steps include:
- Help your child turn the perfectionist thoughts into process thoughts. Instead of looking at the outcome, the frame of view should be in the process. What did you do well? How else could you have done it? There is no such thing as perfect.
- Praise and encourage your child based on effort, not outcomes. By encouraging a work ethic, you are developing a growth mindset, creating an internal focus of control and setting them up to be process-oriented.
- Use celebrities from their sport as examples to give your child a different perspective.
- Be a model of excellence seeking for your athletes. Be willing to make your own mistakes and be willing to admit you made them and laugh them off.
Youth sports is all about process. The tag line for youth sports should be “start again.”
Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at [email protected]