When we think of top athletes, we often think perfectionist. We picture an athlete working and working to hone a task or technique and never believing that they are good enough or have reached their potential. It doesn’t help that some of them describe themselves that way, voluntarily. In the pages of this website, World Champion Devon Kershaw and Paralympic and IPC World Championships medalist Oksana Masters have both said that they are perfectionists.
But is that really something to strive for? As the old saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good. Sean McCaan, the psychologist for the U.S. Biathlon Team, identified that endurance athletes have perfectionist tendencies.
New research shows that junior athletes who are major perfectionists are at higher risk of burning out from sport.
Published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science and Sports, Henrik Gustafsson of Karlstad University in Sweden along with colleagues York St. John University and Umeå University wrote, “junior athletes high in perfectionism may be at comparatively greater risk to burnout and that this may especially be the case when they perceive their parents to emphasize concerns about failure and winning without trying one’s best.”
Gustafsson and his colleagues had previously researched other sources of stress on the lives of junior athletes, like increasing school demands or dealing with heightened training loads as each season goes by. They also identified what leads to burnout in older, elite athletes: things like high expectations and lack of balance with other parts of life.
Gustafsson also works as a psychology expert for the Swedish Olympic Committee, including with cross-country skiers and biathletes. So he knows about the pressure of having a perfect result – and how a lot of that pressure can come from within.
“Because everyone is so well trained, nerves and psychological causes become decisive for the outcome of races,” he said in an interview before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. “Many participate in the Olympics only once. It is bad if it’s a big disappointment.”
Being emotionally and physically exhausted, as well as feeling like results do not show any real accomplishment or value, can lead to a loss of interest in sport, Gustaffson found. In a 2007 paper, he had found that burnout was not correlated to training load, so something else must be at play.
In the most recent study, the authors studied 216 Swedish junior athletes attending sport high school for sports like soccer, hockey, track and field, and swimming. They administered three questionnaires:
- the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire, which analyzes attitudes about athletic accomplishment, exhaustion, and the value of spending time on sport;
- the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which asks questions about self-set standards, attitudes towards mistakes and failure, and parental pressure towards perfection growing up; and
- the Parent-Initiated Motivational Climate Questionnaire, which asks how parents support learning and performance in terms of praise, reaction to mistakes, and the amount of effort required.
Overall, the Swedish athletes seemed quite healthy. They reported that parents emphasized the enjoyment of learning something new. They also said that as athletes they were only moderately concerned about making mistakes and set moderately high standards for themselves. As a result, they showed only low to moderate symptoms of burnout.
To see whether those which did score as a greater risk for burnout had consistent profiles from the other questionnaires, the researchers grouped the athletes according to four profiles ranging in perfectionism and parental pressure.
Athletes who reported a tough parental climate, with worry about mistakes and less emphasis on enjoyment of learning, and who were also themselves perfectionists, scored higher on the metrics of burnout than other groups in most cases.
Interestingly, even highly perfectionist young athletes could cope with the challenges of sport if they did not also face pressure from perfectionist parents. Only in terms of having a reduced sense of accomplishment – that is, feeling that their results weren’t good enough and that they weren’t performing up to their ability level – were they significantly more burnt-out than athletes who were only moderately perfectionist.
Indeed, having supportive rather than critical parents has been previously suggested as an essential part of the athlete-parent relationship.
“In sum, we would contend one of the primary characteristics of expertise in sport parenting is the ability for parents to consider sporting opportunities in the best interests of their child, and to be able to provide support that complements the demands of training and competition experienced by children,” wrote Chris Harwood and Camilla Knight in a review paper in Psychology of Sport and Exercise titled “Parenting in youth sport: A position paper on parenting expertise.”
To prevent burnout, Gustafsson and the co-authors suggest interventions in cases where parents put pressure on winning without also emphasizing enjoyment, or where they penalize or criticize mistakes too much.
That way, they might have a greater chance of sticking around in the sport for fun – or perhaps all the way to championship events like the Olympics, where they would receive another sort of advice from Gustafsson.
“Once [performance anxiety] slams them and becomes a problem, it doesn’t work to simply think positively,” he said in the 2014 interview. “More importantly [they need to have] the courage to practice and compete, and not to hope to avoid the unpleasantness. They must be prepared to accept that tiger of anxiety but not to feed it.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.