The Perfect Storm: Understanding the Role of Perfectionism in Practice and Competition

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but often it is better neglected than abused. The intensity of wrestling draws many highly motivated athletes, and this motivation translates into a desire for perfection. While the pursuit of perfection is a vital ingredient to success, especially in the practice room, it can condition athletes to react poorly to setbacks, complications, and anything but an ideal performance. Needless to say, ideal performances are very hard to come by in a sport as variable as wrestling. A healthy understanding of the pursuit of perfection is the difference between engineering success, or failure in the minds of athletes.

The Confidence/Expectation Dynamic

Dr. Patrick Cohn

It is important that wrestlers occasionally meet their expectations, otherwise their confidence will ultimately suffer. Being a perfectionist, while extremely important to practice and technical development, can make reaching goals in live wrestling and match situations extremely difficult.

One characteristic of this is what Dr. Patrick Cohn refers to this as a “Triple Whammy”, where the athlete feels disappointed by any exchange that doesn’t feel good, look good, and produce the desired result. This inevitably stultifies learning, produces frustration, and most importantly, degrades the athlete’s enjoyment of the sport.

At the core of this issue is the dynamic between expectations and confidence. Higher expectations have the potential to be distracting, negatively impact confidence, and ultimately don’t necessarily do anything to increase the quality of an athlete’s performance. On the other hand an athlete who has no expectations and high confidence, is less distracted, and free to focus on his or her current situation and what has to happen next.

“Winning Ugly”

9401603-largeSome individual sports have very few variables compared to wrestling. Figure skating, gymnastics, archery etc., are all sports where the athlete can count on almost identical circumstances each time they compete. Under such circumstances the pitfalls of being an ardent perfectionist are not as great as they are in wrestling, where even if you have a known opponent, virtually no two matches ever look the same to a spectator or feel the same to the athletes.

This variability means that having the tactical and mental flexibility to make changes mid match, is essential in wrestling. This flexibility is completely at odds with the desire for perfection. If one mistake or curveball can take a wrestler out of his comfort zone or beyond his imagination for an entire match, the inevitable adversity of wrestling will be difficult to handle. For this reason, wrestlers have to be willing to “win ugly.”

To foster this ability, wrestlers should condition themselves to strive for what Dr. Cohn calls a “functional mindset”. This mentality dictates that athletes accept their situation, and focus on using the available tools to achieve the victory however they can. This includes accepting injuries, incorporating knowledge of opponents, and looking at all the other circumstances that affect a match with a realistic as opposed to an ego driven perspective. It’s alright to “just win.”     

First Things First

One important step to separating the pitfalls of being a perfectionist from the benefits is to always focus on the next point. focus3Perfectionism can make setbacks out of anything, and the most important tactic when dealing with a setback is immediately acting to make forward progress. Previous expectations, the potential consequences of the impending result, and public perception are all distractions that fight for athlete’s attention and degrade performance. Replacing them with an “in the moment” frame of mind and functional mindset, are the keys to righting the ship achieving a peak performance.

Focusing on the next point is only part of the attitude needed to achieve the psychology of a great athlete. Mental preparation is every bit as much of a discipline as physical conditioning, and needs to be worked on just as regularly.

To help develop a functional mindset, make a list of three “ugly” wins, preferably ones where adversity produced an opportunity for a famous performance. After that, try to think of three times the desire for perfection frustrated you.

For more information on this aspect of athletics, watch this interview, and visit the Peak Sports home page, click here.  

For more resources on Advanced Practice Planning, click here.



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