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Sports Perfection: 'Just Do It' Right

Athletes May Become Healthy or Unhealthy Perfectionists

WebMD Health News

Jan. 24, 2003 -- The drive for perfection in performance is a common motivator for most athletes, but researchers say perfectionism in sports may come at too high a price for many. A new study shows there are healthy -- and unhealthy - ways to motivate athletes to excel.

Researchers studied a group of 174 elite male Canadian football players and found that several factors, such as personal standards, concern over mistakes during competition, and perceived parental and coach pressures, can affect how athletes feel about their performance and themselves.

The study identified two major types of perfectionism in sports: a healthy one (adaptive) and an unhealthy one (maladaptive).

Athletes with a healthy motivational pattern set moderately high personal goals for themselves and report low levels of perceived pressure from parents and coaches. They also readily accept their mistakes and express little concern over them.

In contrast, an athlete with an unhealthy motivational pattern has high personal standards and perceives high levels of pressure from their parents and coaches, and expresses great concern over mistakes made during competition.

The results appear in the December 2002 issue of the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Researcher John Dunn, PhD, a sports psychologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, says Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods are two famous examples of healthy, adaptive perfectionists. They are aggressive in achieving their goals, but it's also clear they derive great joy from their sport, which serves as a powerful motivator.

"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," says Dunn, in a news release. "A maladaptive perfectionist would not be able to enjoy that victory because he would be concentrating on a missed putt."

"Maladaptive perfectionists can still achieve high levels of performance but these people are motivated by failure and by fear of messing up," says Dunn. "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."

He says it's good to challenge athletes, but it's also important to give them goals and standards that are achievable. Otherwise, athletes risk never achieving those goals and never find satisfaction in anything they do.

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