Challenging Perfectionistic Demands
The following article is part of a series of articles that focus on the practical application of sport psychology skills to martial arts training. For a more in-depth look at the research upon which this article is based, please read: Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review
One concept that I will revisit frequently in these articles is the importance of our cognitions, or thought process, to performance. The thought process can make or break an athlete no matter how capable he or she is physically. This article will focus on the perfectionistic thinking style and how it affects performance. Our culture tends to cultivate perfectionistic thinking. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the specific nature of the self-talk.
Researchers make a distinction between a perfectionistic demand and a perfectionistic desire. The difference between these two concepts is not in the behavior but in the thinking; in particular, the thinking regarding negative outcomes. For instance, two individuals could have high expectations of success and attempt to achieve a task as perfectly as possible. However, the individual with the perfectionistic demand would feel like a failure. He or she would mentally berate himself and feel incompetent and worthless. Whereas, the individual with the perfectionistic desire would assess the situation differently: “I tried my best and can feel good about my performance. I will learn from this experience and improve in the future.”A person with perfectionistic demands hates failure of any type. They will often avoid challenge that they determine as too difficult rather than take the chance of failing. When my son competed in chess tournaments, he preferred to draw an expert or master level chess player as an opponent even though he was likely to lose to them. When I asked him why, he said he could learn more losing to them than winning against someone at his own level. I not only learned how smart my teenage son was but I realized this was a very important life strategy. Seek out people who are better than you and learn from them. Don’t dread a better opponent. See it as an opportunity to learn and improve. In the martial arts I’ve often heard of people who remain at the brown belt level rather than be promoted to black belt because then they can win at tournaments. These people are losing the big picture. They are making winning more important than learning. Therefore, they will never be true champions.