The perils of perfectionism in sport

12th January 2017

Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence

Vince Lombardi

This quote from legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi (winner of 5 championships within 7 years with the Green Bay Packers), illustrates how a lot of athletes approach the concept of ‘perfection’ in their sports. Striving for perfection pushes elite performers to ever greater heights, even whilst acknowledging that the achievement of perfection is ultimately unattainable.

perfectionism in sportMany leading sporting stars are known to have perfectionist tendencies. Two of the UK’s biggest stars of recent years, footballer David Beckham and rugby player Jonny Wilkinson, were both notorious for their obsessive attention to detail in their training, preparation, and routine, for example.

For these top athletes, this compulsive quest for perfection can help push them to the very highest levels of their sports.

Beyond the bright lights and glorious victories however, this obsession can also have a negative side – both Beckham and Wilkinson have spoken about their issues outside of sport, with their perfectionism sometimes verging on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and spilling over into other areas of their lives.

As a spokesman from the charity OCD-UK said:
“To people like Beckham who are considered perfectionists in what they do, that sort of mindset can be a benefit to their sporting careers to a degree, but for the vast majority it is a seriously debilitating condition”


Of course, these are extreme examples, and true obsessive-compulsive disorder is a serious psychological condition requiring therapeutic intervention. The concept of perfectionism within sport is a very interesting one however, and an issue that can affect players of all standards to a lesser or greater degree – both positively and negatively.

A lot of squash players do seem to be especially susceptible to some of those perfectionist tendencies.

Whether it be anger after matches when things haven’t panned out exactly as they had envisioned, or frustration between rallies where their opponent has come out on top due to an error, or even in some cases irritation DURING a rally with poor shot selection or technical execution, it’s not entirely uncommon to see a squash player exasperated that their technique and tactics aren’t going how they had planned.

The fast, frantic nature of squash makes it inherently unsuited to the ideals of ‘perfection’ however – particularly for the standard club player. Perfectionism in a sport such as squash is entirely unrealistic at just about any level, and can very likely become a negative burden if obsessed over too much when on court – leading to frustration in the short-term, and decreased enjoyment and self-motivation in the long-term.

Perfectionists may believe that they have a good attitude, with their work ethic, diligence, commitment, and attention to detail, and indeed these elements can all be very beneficial. The flip side of this, however, is the high demands and expectations that often come along in tandem with this.

Attentive and meticulousness may be useful attributes in training, but when this passes over into matches the unwelcome phenomena of ‘paralysis by analysis’ can occur, where every shot/action is over-thought leading to tension and anxiety – entirely unwelcome traits in a sport such as squash where rhythm and flow are so important.

perfectionism in sportAnother related issue with perfectionists in sport is the huge pressure they often place upon themselves.

Setting aims and goals is great, but with perfectionists, these targets can become too much of a fixation. This can lead to a poor competitive attitude, where too much pressure is created within a player’s mind – this ‘fear of failure’ can be crippling, causing them to play scared and develop a ‘play not to lose’ mindset where they’re disproportionately afraid of making mistakes, as opposed to just trusting in themselves and their abilities and adopting a more productive ‘play to win’ approach.

Perfectionists are also much more likely to see failure in an unhelpful, objective way.

This means that their view of their performance can often be severely distorted – if they don’t win, regardless of circumstances, it is seen as a failure. This is because they struggle to see improved performance (e.g. losing a close 3-1 as opposed to a quick 3-0) as a success, and they rarely take mitigating issues (e.g. injury, work stress, lack of sleep) into account.

As Vince Lombardi’s quote rightly points out – Perfection is unattainable. For elite all-time great sporting stars such as Beckham and Wilkinson, it is, of course, possible that their very best efforts may approach the borders. But pushing themselves to the extreme is their job – their perfectionist streaks leaking into other aspects of their lives and the associated negative repercussions that come along with that were understood and accepted almost as a form of ‘collateral damage’. For the majority of people though, this is not a healthy mindset.


So what can you do if you’re the perfectionist/over-analytical type?

Esteemed sport psychologist Dr Patrick Cohn talks a lot about ‘playing in the present’, and recommends the following four tips to quiet the mind in competition:

1. Remind yourself that practice is complete at the start of competition. Rely on what you have already learned in practice. Stop “practising” your mechanics in competition.

2. Adopt a functional mindset instead of trying to be perfect. This is super important for perfectionists that think they have to be perfect in competition. A functional mindset is what tennis coach, Brad Gilbert, calls winning ugly —Just get the job done and don’t worry about how it looks or feels.

3. Avoid “fixing” what may not be broken. Instead of analysing what went wrong on the last mistake and how to fix it—during competition—move on to the next play, move, or shot and trust your ability.

4. See the ball—hit the ball. We use this saying for softball and baseball players who tend to overthink. React to the input from your eyes. Simplify the number of cues you need to perform. Don’t think about every single tip your coach has told you.

For more from Dr Cohn on perfectionism check out this dedicated episode of his excellent podcast here. There’s a very good article here from the Competitive Edge website that’s also well worth a read. And for more on sports psychology specific to squash, check out our blog archives.

And remember… Nobody’s perfect!


Gary Nisbet  

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

Sign up to the SquashSkills newsletter

Get world class coaching tips, straight to your inbox!