Perfectionism and sport: Achieving success the healthy way

January 22, 2003

Every athlete dreams of the perfect performance, but how that perfectionism is attained is critical, says a University of Alberta researcher. Dr. John Dunn, a sport psychologist at the U of A, researches motivation theory and found that athletes who perceive undue pressure from parents and coaches will suffer in the long run.

Dunn studied 174 teenage football players to investigate the idea of perfectionism in sport. He created a tool that measured several components of perfectionism, such as perceived parental pressure, setting personal goals and feelings about making mistakes during competition. Dunn found that two types of perfectionism exist: adaptive (healthy) perfectionism and maladaptive (unhealthy) perfectionism; in other words there is a healthy way to try to excel and a poor way.

Dunn found that the key components to an athlete with an adaptive motivational pattern are the ones who set moderately high personal standards and recorded low perceived parental pressure, concern over mistakes and perceived coach pressure. In contrast, athletes who had high personal standards and high perceived parental pressure, concern over mistakes and perceived coach pressure had the most maladaptive motivational patterns in the study.

"Maladaptive perfectionists can still achieve high levels of performance but these people are motivated by failure and by fear of messing up," said Dunn, the lead author in a paper just published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. "With that negative motivation comes anxiety and stress. That person is often drained and rarely feels a sense of satisfaction of doing well. In the long-term, that person is at risk of burning out."

Currently, many parents and coaches set standards that many athletes are actually unable to meet, said Dunn. "We want to challenge athletes, but we want the standards to be achievable," he said. "If we don't, we run the risk of the athletes not achieving the goal and they will never find satisfaction in anything they do. We want them to come back more and more but if there is no satisfaction in the sport, they won't."

Dunn cites athletes like Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods as examples of healthy perfectionists. Looking at their practice behaviour and the pure joy they receive from their sports shows they have their heads on straight and are motivated by positive factors.

"Tiger Woods may not have shot the best round of his life to win a major tournament, but when he is asked, he is still happy he won," said Dunn. "A maladaptive perfectionist would not be able to enjoy that victory because he would be concentrating on a missed putt."

Dunn's other research projects include the examination of the relationship between perfectionism and anger in high-performance male youth football and hockey players and between perfectionism and body image in Canadian female figure skaters.
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The U of A in Edmonton, Alberta is one of Canada's premier teaching and research universities serving more than 30,000 students with 6,000 faculty and staff. It continues to lead the country with the most 3M Teaching Fellows, Canada's only national award recognizing teaching excellence.

University of Alberta

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