Perfectionism and its role in Athlete Wellbeing and Help Seeking

Perfectionism and its impact on wellbeing

Many believe that personality contributes to the way people perceive stigmas and their level of openness towards seeking psychological help (Miller, 2008).  Perfectionism is a facet of personality which may have both positive and negative consequences however; most research only focuses on its negative effects (Saunder, 2009). A broad definition of perfectionism is an ‘individual who displays a very high ambition for exceedingly high standards but also experiences harsh self-criticism’ (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990).

One might argue that in sport being a perfectionist is positive because of their desire to achieve, high motivation levels and always looking to improve or better performances (Saunder, 2009) However, it is because of those high standards; sometimes maybe unachievable standards, that they experience a lot of self criticism and low self esteem when targets aren’t met. Therefore research has found high co morbidity with mental health issues; typically depression, anxiety and eating disorders (Egan et al, 2010).

The difficulty with perfectionism is that it carries many admired characteristics as well as negative, Hill et al (2010). For example, the pursuit of high standards would be a very positive trait to carry particularly in sport where the focus is often on self improvement. However, on the other hand perfectionists also tend to have a preoccupation with harsh self criticism which may impact on wellbeing and therefore is associated with psychological imbalance (Hill et al, 2010)

Within sport the term ‘burnout’ is often used; in performance terms it would be characterised by experiencing physical and emotion fatigue, a reduction in their feeling of accomplishment and feeling undervalued (Raedeke and Smith, 2001). Raedeke and Smith also recognise the interplay between burnout and psychological effects, i.e. wellbeing; explaining that individuals at burnout stage may also experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, with perfectionism being a key contributing factor. Jowett et al (2013) found that perfectionist athletes have a very high motivation and drive to succeed and avoidance style of coping. Therefore, seeking help or admitting they need support would lower self esteem and be an admission of weakness contributing to them trying even harder. In time, this potentially leading to burnout – or in this case, further mental health issues.

It is believed that certain personality traits are key contributing factors in the development of burnout and psychosocial distress experienced by athletes (Hill et al 2010). Hill goes on to explain that these personality factors can influence the athletes appraisal process and encourage a vulnerability to experience high levels of anxiety and pressure (Hall et al, 1998) Perfectionism for example can be associated with negative cognitions surrounding achievement and performance
therefore lead to further negative thoughts, increases in anxiety and decrease in wellbeing, what is interesting now is evidence suggesting that perfectionism may act as a predisposing factor to athletes developing burnout during their athletic career (Hill et al, 2008).

Perfectionism and its Role in Help Seeking

Alongside the role perfectionism appears to play in athlete wellbeing, it is also interesting to consider what role it may play in athletes then taking up additional support, or in this case, counselling.  Endler and Parker (1994) describe how there are two methods of coping, problem focused coping and avoidant coping. The two methods are set within the management of stress and attempt to explain the various ways individuals may perceive and effectively then manage their stress. Problem focused coping would be a more pragmatic and analytic approach where the cause of stress is identified followed by a series of steps of how to overcome, these are then practiced. So in effect this is an active coping approach.

Avoidant coping is exactly as it sounds, an individual who either acknowledges the stress exists and so is in denial, or loses interest or the motivation to combat it so they lower their efforts to overcome and simply allow the stress to take hold. Using these approaches to coping and it is interesting to link them back to perfectionism because how they interplay in an individual could be very different. On one hand there is the ‘problem focused’ person who may recognise they simply cannot manage alone and due to their perfectionist traits of self improvement and wanting to get better actively take up support. Or, the avoidant approach where although carrying the desire to improve the individual feels that the uptake of support is an admission of weakness therefore refuses to acknowledge the problem exists and may almost live in denial of the problem. What is interesting is that using the motivational factor of self improvement in perfectionist athletes we can see that there are still different approaches to how these individuals then choose to improve their situation and as with anything it is still up to that person whether or not they choose to engage in the help provided.

In terms of perfectionism and wellbeing, whilst for sport perfectionist traits are useful and desirable the constant striving for better and harsh self criticism when perfect performances aren’t obtained can have a real impact on physical health through over training and disordered eating and also psychological health of low self esteem and depression (Egan et al, 2006). As for the role of perfectionism and help seeking, what Endler and parker (1994) go on to explain is that is very much depends on the individual and the type of coping style they adopt. For some, perhaps those more open and self aware the use of an expert may be seen as a way of self improvement and reaching those goals, for another though it may be an admission of weakness and confirmation that they are struggling therefore an isolated and more self problem solving approach would be used (Endler and parker, 1994).

So, do you know your athletes? Are you able to identify which athletes have perfectionist traits? Do their perfectionist traits benefit or hinder them? Is support available and normalised so all athletes feel comfortable enough to access?

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