Runners who strive for perfection will likely improve. But according to new research, runners who wear an ideal of perfection like a lead bib number are significantly more likely to get injured. An abstract presented at the June 2018 American College of Sports Medicine conference found that perfectionist runners were 17 times more likely to become injured than those who didn’t get as hung up on mistakes and unattainable personal standards. We spoke with four sport psychologists to find out how perfectionists can harness a high-achieving mindset to stay healthy and fuel better performances.
Why Perfectionists Get Injured
By definition, perfectionism is a “personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.” To measure perfectionist traits, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh researchers employed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale-2, a 42-point assessment of perfectionist cognition based on six factors: “concern over mistakes, organization, perception of parental pressure, perception of coach pressure, doubts about action, and personal standards.”
The university’s cross-country team hosted the experiment. Each of the 34 collegiate runners completed the MPS-2 at the beginning of competition season. Their injuries were recorded over an ensuing eight-week period. The runners who became injured had high personal standards—as any competitive athlete would. But they also indicated a high level of concern about mistakes and doubt over the actions they took.
Being devoted to the craft can become unproductive if a runner pays too much attention to gaining a competitive advantage at all costs, says Los Angeles-based sport psychologist Sari Fine Shepphird, Ph.D. “A periodized training program that’s effective involves taking time off sport, giving the body a chance to recover,” she says. “A lot of perfectionists struggle with that. They feel like they need to be doing something every day. Otherwise, they’re missing out or giving the competition an advantage.”
Acknowledge minor injuries.
Psychological research indicates that positive emotions broaden our attentional focus, meaning we can observe and address more of the things happening around us when we’re in a positive mind state. As a perfectionist experiences negative emotions from failing to live up to a perfect ideal of the self, their attentional focus narrows. For this reason, perfectionist runners are more prone to overlook minor injuries, Shepphird says. For example, signs of sprains and hairline fractures that lead to more serious, season-ending injuries.
The physiology of perfectionism could contribute to injuries, too, says sport psychologist Benjamin Strack, Ph.D., of Newport Beach, California. “Perfectionism can create excessive muscle tension,” Strack says, adding that it can also slow recovery once an injury has occurred. “I see a lot of athletes where it’s not [them being] injury prone, but the recovery rate post-injury [is] where perfectionistic styles can creep in and get in the way of recovery pace.”
The Underlying Problem With Perfectionism
Perfectionistic traits aren’t totally negative. In fact, perfectionists tend to be high achievers. “People who have that personality in them are drivers. It’s part of what contributes to their success,” Strack says. “In our society, we see perfectionism with a kind of bravado around it.” The problem with outright perfectionism, though, is that it stunts our growth when we encounter obstacles that reveal our imperfections.
“Perfectionism sets up expectations that are often unrealistic,” says Sara Hickmann, Ph.D., performance coach for the San Diego Chargers. “Then you have frustration and negative emotions that come as a result.” A coach who demands an undefeated record, for instance, is likely setting up their athletes for failure. A parent who projects their own athletic dreams onto their child could socialize the child to believe that nothing short of perfect is acceptable.
For some, perfectionism is genetic, says Arizona-based performance coach Howard Falco. “Athletes that are perfectionists by nature have a lower tolerance for imperfection,” he says. “They tend to block information that can be used to improve skill. They’re trying to protect the idea in their mind that they’re perfect.”
The narrowing of a runner’s focus at the onset of negative thoughts can also impact performance. A 2009 Journal of Sports Sciences study found that trained runners require less oxygen when focusing on external factors rather than the run itself. A similar Psychology of Sport and Exercise 2016 study of untrained runners revealed that running economy improved when runners focused on a video meant to redirect their attention rather than focusing on breathing or the running movement itself. “Inexperienced runners can also profit from directing their attention externally,” the researchers concluded.
Rewiring a Perfectionist’s Brain
The key to achieving in a healthy, non-perfectionist way is changing the perception of the self, Strack says. “If you come across a certain way, and that way is perfect, it’s riddled with anxiety because you can’t achieve that,” he says. “Perfectionists tend to discredit achievement. It becomes a vicious cycle of anxiety-driven behavior.” A growth mindset, however, applies all the drive of a perfectionist to the process of striving for perfection, rather than the end goal itself. Here’s how it’s done.
Integrate process goals and outcome goals.
“Too often, the outcome goal is the only goal,” Hickmann says. “It’s the weight an athlete can attach around their neck.” Outcome goals are still important, but use process goals to achieve them. If your outcome goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, focus not on the qualifying time, but on the training, sleep, and dietary goals that get you to the desired time.
Reset goals as necessary.
Starting a training season with lofty goals is great. But it’s equally important to recalibrate when life hands you a setback. “It’s a cognitive flexibility issue,” Strack says. “A perfectionist mind can’t reset. Become more flexible and able to adjust goals to where you’re at.” You may feel like you’re giving up, but resetting means you’re better prepared to train at a high level for your own ability. This tends to yield better performances.
Accept your imperfections.
Imperfections are nothing but areas of improvement. Failing to acknowledge them means leaving a lot of opportunity on the table. “If you say [imperfections] shouldn’t have happened, you won’t get the information you need,” Falco says. “Strive for perfection, but don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t execute.”
Use positive self-talk.
What you say to yourself in training and competition can get you out of a downward spiral. “If you can bring the mind into the present and focus on executing rather than on the outcome, you’ll more likely get the outcome you want,” Shepphird says. Remind yourself that you’ve got this, the pain is temporary, and a rough day doesn’t wash away months of hard work.
Focus on things you can control.
A perfectionist who finishes in second place will overlook the fact that they ran a PR. “You want to minimize time, energy, and attention spent on things you can’t control. Spend the most mental energy on things you can control,” Shepphird says. Don’t worry about the weather, the course, or who else showed up to the start line. Focus only on running your best race.
Visualize past failures.
Failures can haunt the habitual perfectionist. Rather than shying away from them, Shepphird recommends flipping the script. “Change the memory by seeing yourself in greater control, staying relaxed and at the moment,” she says. If the wheels fell off in the last mile of your previous race, visualize a version of that race where you paced yourself better and pulled off a killer finishing kick. Bring that version to the start line next time.
Find your optimal arousal level.
In sports, optimal arousal means an athlete’s individual level of excitement that yields the best results. Non-perfectionists often need higher arousal levels to perform at their best. But perfectionists can typically skip the caffeine and take a few deep breaths, Hickmann says. “We usually dial it down for perfectionists because they’re already amped up and high-strung,” she says. “I work with them to understand that you can’t be at that high level of arousal indefinitely and still do well.”