Price of perfection: Athletes obsessed with avoiding failure risk burning out

ESSEX, United Kingdom — If you play sports, you’ve probably always wanted to score the game-winning goal or hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth. However, new research suggests that at a certain point even the most dedicated athletes should remind themselves it’s only a game. Researchers at the University of Essex and York St John University report athletes who constantly strive for on-field perfection and obsess over failure are at an increased risk of burnout.

Across a variety of both team and individual sports, the team assessed over 250 athletes during this project. Included sports ranged from football and hockey to golf and weightlifting. The analysis showed athletes deemed hyper self-critical competitors are more likely to deal with psychological difficulties than others. Such athletes typically react very negatively to even minor mistakes or failures on the playing field.

More specifically, the study concludes perfectionistic concernsor an obsession and excessive reaction to perceived failures — had a strong connection to athletic burnout. Researchers defined burnout as an athlete experiencing a lowered sense of accomplishment, extra exhaustion, and falling out of love with their sport.

What’s the harm in a little competitive spirit?

Well, study authors explain that an intense fixation on failure can lead to such individuals viewing any achievement or success as “not good enough” or inadequate. Overly critical athletes also tend to be more stressed and anxious in the lead-up to big games or competitions, potentially creating a self-fulfilling failure prophecy.

“Most people have come across the term burnout, with a lot of research focusing on the reason why it develops. There are many studies that have shown if an individual pursues perfection, whether that be in work, sport, or school, it can lead to burnout,” says study leader Luke Olsson, from the University’s School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences, in a university release.

“However, our study was able to determine one potential explanation as to why this is the case in sport, which suggests that the stresses of pursuing perfection can lead those to mentally disengage with their sporting activities.”

Adopting a ‘kinder mindset’

All participants in this study had been competing in their sport for over eight years. The average age of the participants was 21 years-old. Some were college athletes, while others played on the international stage. Study authors measured each athlete individually for signs of excessive stress, perfectionism, and burnout.

What can perfection obsessed athletes do to help mellow out a bit? Study authors suggest meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, or working on a “kinder mindset.”

“There is a need to prevent athletes from experiencing burnout. In the case of our research, the athletes themselves should be wary that pursuing perfection and being overly self-critical is likely to be doing more harm than good,” Mr. Olsson concludes. “I believe athletes may be better served by being less self-critical which should allow them to celebrate successes in performance and embrace failures as an opportunity to reflect and improve rather than beat themselves up.”

The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology.

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