Perfectionism in sport

“Perfectionism is an unwillingness to accept any standards or condition that is other than absolutely faultless and free from defects” says Ellis Cashmore in Sport and Exercise Psychology: The Key Concepts.

(Picture of Nadia Comaneci. Credit: Dave Gilbert)

Perfectionists are characterised by “striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations” argues Dr Joachim Stoeber in The Oxford Handbook of Sport and Performance Psychology.

To most people, this would seem a ready-made description of an Olympic level athlete. In fact, research has shown that perfectionism is a common characteristic among high level athletes.

Despite striving for perfection, very few athletes will reach this Holy Grail. One athlete that did reach perfection was the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci who scored the first perfect 10.0 on the uneven bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

For most athletes though, perfectionism can have both positive and negative aspects. According to Dr Stoeber, the positive aspect of perfectionism (perfectionistic strivings) is associated with self-confidence, hope of success, and performance in competition.

In contrast, Dr Stoeber adds that the negative aspect of perfectionism (perfectionistic concerns) is associated with competitive anxiety and fear of failure. So watch with awe as athletes from across the world strive for perfection at this year’s Olympic Games. 

The latest sports psychology news and features, during the Olympics and Paralympics, can be found on our Going for Gold website.

Once there you can take part in our online experiment, which gives you the chance to walk the path of a judoko preparing for a judo bout.