A top eventer turned sports psychology consultant shares some thoughts on why perfectionism is both an athlete’s best friend and worst enemy.
Abigail Lufkin is a former CCI4* eventer who is now a sports psychology consultant and clinical social worker based in the Los Angeles area. You may remember seeing Abigail ride around Rolex on horses such as Lighter Than Air, Cameo or Jacob Two Two. She was a member of the 1999 Pan Am Team and was shortlisted for the 1992, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. We’re pleased to bring you a series of articles from Abigail about adapting your mental game to promote success in eventing. Have a question or topic for Abigail? Please submit it to [email protected] and be sure to check out her site at www.abigaillufkin.com. -Visionaire
All of the athletes I have in my practice identify as being perfectionists. Webster’s defines perfectionism as, “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” I think of myself as a recovering perfectionist.
When we first learn a sport, perfectionism helps us. It drives us to arrive at the barn at 5 a.m. and to stay until 7 p.m. It encourages us to get back on after we fall off, to take lessons and clinics, to constantly strive to be better. Perfectionism provides us with a source of energy, a fuel that optimizes our learning process.
There is a tipping point however, when the perfectionism begins to become an impediment to our development as a rider and competitor. We can all agree that being perfect is not humanly possible; it simply is not how we are wired. And yet being perfect is all that many athletes will accept from themselves and others.
This leads to frequent disappointment, blistering self-criticism and frustration. Instead of our mistakes being a tool for our learning, they become another example of our failure. We lament the dropped show jumping rail all the way around the course, causing us to have two more down for which we will then bash ourselves further.
It comes down to the question, “if I am not hard on myself, if I am not mean to myself, how will I ever be any good?” But let me ask you, does thinking that you are not good enough, that you are incompetent, does that help you achieve your goal of becoming a great rider and competitor? The response to this question is invariably, “no.”
In fact, the idea that nothing less than perfect is acceptable leads to all kinds of negative emotions that simply aren’t helpful to competitors. The research shows that athletes consistently have their best performances in a mindset of fun, enjoyment, excitement and relaxation. Perfectionism creates the opposite climate.
So what is the antidote? Just like learning a new physical skill, changing a mind state requires commitment and practice. It begins with the understanding and full acknowledgement that perfectionism got us a lot of places and we appreciate that, but now it has become a liability. When self critical, mean thoughts come into our heads, we must ask, “is this thought leading us closer to our goal?” If the answer is “no,” then you can imagine a road with a giant stop sign in the middle of it.
Next create a different road for your mind. Imagine what you might say to a friend in a similar situation and say it to yourself instead. Some examples that clients like are; “this is me getting better” or, “I did the best I could do in that moment,” or “mistakes are where I learn the most.”
It has been my experience that my drive and desire to do things well and to the best of my ability has not decreased. Instead letting go of the perfectionism (at least most of the time) has opened me up to try more things, has freed me to learn more and to see failures as a necessary part of my improving.
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