Player Development

Are You a Perfectionist on the Soccer Field?

Learn how to control perfectionism and engage in healthy self-criticism of performance on the field.

by Sarah Stratigakis

Sarah is a Senior at the University of Michigan studying Sports Management. Sarah plays on the soccer team for the University of Michigan and the Canadian Women's National Team.

As coaches and parents, it’s challenging to see your player or kid get so down on themselves over their performance on the field. In some cases, players even start to shut everyone out, go internal, and feel unworthy. It’s important to note that these are common coping mechanisms and occur amongst athletes from the youth to the pro levels.

We athletes have an addiction and obsession with perfection. Even though we know perfection is unattainable, we continue to strive towards it.

4 Steps to Overcome Unhealthy Perfectionism Around Athletics

Step 1: Take Action

Trying to be perfect often means worrying about making a mistake, being judged, not being good enough, and afraid of not being the best. This hinders playing ability as you stop taking risks or stop trying new things, such as not taking that shot on net or not trying that new move to beat a defender, for fear of missing or losing the ball.

Not trying is worse than making a mistake as you limit your growth and possibilities. It’s beneficial to make mistakes because mistakes show you are really learning. So take that shot and try that scissor move, or else you’ll never know what you’re capable of. If you don’t take action, someone else will!

Step 2: Focus on the Process

The athlete who has attached their identity and self-worth to achievements, especially at a young age can lead to a very slippery slope. This deep-rooted attachment to being result-oriented is unhealthy as it’s inevitable to fail. The goal to achieve perfection and high unpredictable goals can leave one feeling unworthy.

When you focus on the outcome, you prevent yourself from becoming fully immersed in the process. When you are playing in a game and thinking about all the things outside of your control, like what your parents might say or what the score might be, you are not fully present. This affects your productivity as your energy is going towards a projected yet unpredictable result, instead of using your energy to focus to improve, hone your skills, refine your form and so on. Strive for progress rather than perfection.

By focusing on the process, it does not mean you are settling for less or lowering your expectations. You should still be pushing yourself to the absolute max and accepting when you inevitably fall short. This acceptance will lead to a more satisfying life, as you wholeheartedly know you did everything you possibly can and are proud of yourself no matter the result. There is a major difference between being obsessed with progress and being obsessed with perfection.

“You’re allowed to be a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously”

Sophia Bush

Step 3: Awareness and Self Talk

As athletes, it can start to feel natural and instinctual to have a negative inner voice saying “I suck”, “I can’t do this”, “Why am I so bad” and so on. These ingrained thoughts are absolutely detrimental to your game and personal well-being. So it’s important to be aware and identify your thought patterns, and from there, condition yourself to reframe thoughts in a more encouraging and positive light. You will still acknowledge your mistakes (don’t just sweep mistakes under the rug), but try to foster a growth mindset of wanting to learn and be better the next time.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • If your inner voice was being projected on a jumbotron that everyone in the football stadium could see, would those thoughts be positive or negative? Would you be embarrassed or proud of it?
  • If your teammate was having the same thoughts as you, what would you say to them? How would you view that teammate? Would you be as hard on your teammate as you would yourself? – Kally Fayhee

By imagining yourself in these situations and circumstances, you can gain perspective and stay more grounded. It’s important to remember you are your own biggest critic. Once you acknowledge these thoughts, you can start managing and anticipating them, and begin to develop better responses when you are experiencing failure and setbacks. That inner voice is a skill that you have to work and develop like a muscle.

Step 4: Appreciation

As perfectionist athletes, we tend to ignore the 99 % positive and focus on the 1 % negative. We have rules and beliefs about how things are supposed to be, and when we don’t meet our expectations, we suffer. Trade expectations for appreciation. The mind can sometimes get conditioned to look for flaws in your game, therefore, engaging in gratitude practices can really shift that narrative to focus on the strength in your skills, your achievements and your accomplishments. You can apply gratitude to your life through;

  • Journaling. Every day, write down three to five things you are grateful for such as health, friends, family, shelter, sunshine, pets, laughter, something rewarding or fun you did that day, and the list goes on. In relation to soccer, write down what you did well at practice or in your game, wether it was making an amazing through ball pass, making a clean tackle, having the courage to speak up in the team huddle, making an effort to build a connection with a teammate you don’t normally talk too and so on. We tend to overlook whats going right in our lives, so this commitment to pen on paper, every day, makes you notice good things as they happen and pushes you to want to pursue more good things on and off the field.
  • Gratitude Meditation. This practice is a conscious effort to appreciate the things in your life and what makes you feel good. An example of a straightforward exercise is to simply sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, stay focused on your breathing, and then think of one or two things you are grateful for presently. This practice also teaches athletes to strengthen their focus on the present task at hand while releasing all tensions, fears, distractions, and so on that negatively impact their success.
  • Saying Thank You’s. Tell the people in your life how much they mean to you. We tend to take things and people for granted and expressing our thankfulness to others more mindfully is important. It can be as simple as saying “Thank you mom for driving me to soccer practice tonight.” It’s important to verbalize the little things as it can go a long way and make someones day. Making this conscious effort to be more thankful will change your entire perspective, bringing more joy into life and into your game.

“Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have”

Lord Buddha

Read more on this topic: 5 Strategies For Building a Winning Mindset on the Soccer Field

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