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Apr 10 2023

Excellence Over Perfection: Help for the Perfectionist Youth Athlete

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Excellence Over Perfection:
Help for the Perfectionist Youth Athlete

Perfectionism is a common personality trait that can affect all areas of our lives, including athletics. Perfectionism is defined as "the belief that you must be perfect in order to be worthwhile." If you or your player are a perfectionist, then you know how this goes.

There’s ZERO room for error. Perfectionism makes it easy to get overwhelmed by the pressure and start feeling like nothing will ever be good enough. Everything must go exactly right in order to feel good about ourselves and our performance. And when it doesn't? Well, those feelings of self-worth are gone.

That’s especially harmful for youth athletes, where the goal of being perfect can lead a player down a self-destructive path of viewing mistakes as unacceptable rather than inevitable, tiny parts of learning a new skill or improving on existing ones.

  • They may become fearful of making mistakes, leading them to hesitate and potentially make more.
  • They may feel guilty when they do make those inevitable mistakes, leading them to question their talent and self-worth.
  • They may loose self-esteem, leading them to doubt their abilities, their role on a team, and even their desire to play the game.

One thing keeps coming up as a way to help youth athletes overcome their perfectionism: a growth mindset. A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and talent are not fixed but can be developed with effort and hard work. Research shows that children with this type of attitude tend to be more successful in school, sports, and other areas of life because they don't give up when faced with challenges or setbacks.

Sounds great, but the reality is, it’s easier said than done. It’s hard for these perfectionist youth athletes to quickly let go of mistakes on the field.

We can help, though.

Playing well during a game, scoring or saving a goal, getting a ground ball, winning a face-off or draw, making a great pass, winning a game or tournament … All of these things are awesome achievements but none of those achievements have any correlation to the worth of a youth athlete, a coach, or a parent.

Parents and coaches alike can focus on effort over outcome. Mistakes are an opportunity for learning. We coach our coaches to communicate positively with players, even when running through what went wrong. It should sound something like, “Great effort! Not let’s talk about what happened and what we can do differently next time.” If we focus on our child's effort, then even if they don't win or perform well in a particular game or practice, they'll still feel like they've done their best and will be able to move forward with confidence. As parents, we can avoid coaching or criticizing our kids for making the mistake in the first place, which only increases their anxiety. Instead, we can help them set realistic goals based more on effort and attitude that don’t overwhelm them if things don’t go exactly as planned.

We can teach resilience. We can help our kids learn to bounce back from adversity – and it is a learned skill. We do that by showing our kids our own vulnerability and mistakes and sharing what we learned from them, how those mistakes made us feel, and what we’ll do differently next time. Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is show our kids empathy when they make mistakes or feel frustrated. Remind them mistakes are part of the learning process for everyone, encourage them to celebrate what they’ve learned through trial and error, and try, try again. Celebrate the small victories along the way.

We can help them learn to let it go. The first step is understanding that letting go doesn't mean giving up or failing; it means learning from mistakes and moving forward with a new perspective. When our kids learn how to let go, they'll find that even if things don't turn out exactly as planned or hoped for, there are still opportunities available for growth, development, and maybe even success. Practicing mindfulness will help them let go of their negative thoughts and feelings so they can focus on what matters most – their performance in the moment.

We can praise the process. If we make it clear to our kids the process is more important than the end result, our youth athletes will learn there are more ways to measure success beyond the scoreboard and wins/losses. It also helps them adopt healthy habits like practicing regularly, showing up on time, and staying focused so when Game Day comes, there isn’t any fear associated with performing under pressure. They’re ready because everything has already been practiced beforehand.

We can stop comparing. We’ve heard the saying “comparison is the thief of joy.” As parents, we can stop comparing our kids to other players and robbing them of the joy of their individual growth and personal success. Comparison can lead directly towards perfectionism, which puts players in a position where they are focused on themselves instead of enjoying being a part of something bigger than themselves – the team.

We can – and must – talk about mental health. A healthy relationship with sports is important to our kids’ mental health. We want them to be happy and healthy. That includes encouraging them to compete in a way that’s good for them. No one wants to – or can, really – eliminate competition from sport, but we can encourage healthy competition. It’s important they know they aren’t alone out on that lacrosse field. Helping our kids recognize every player has strengths and weaknesses will help them play better as well as keeping their self-esteem high when they lose a game. We can teach our kids about their emotions and help them recognize that feelings of being nervous are normal. What we don’t want is for nervousness to escalate to fear, anxiety, or worry about how others will perceive their performance.

Talking it through and letting kids know we are there to support them, regardless of mistakes and certainly regardless of outcome, is an important piece of the mental health puzzle.

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