The Pitfalls of a Perfectionist!

‘Perfectionism is the 20 tonne shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight’ – Brene Brown

The question could be asked: are there beneficial gains to being a perfectionist? During my early years of competition I certainly believed so. I truly thought that if I put exceedingly high expectations on myself with very little room for error, and gave myself a bit of a hard time for performing below what I thought was possible, I would push myself to achieving more. If I could turn back the hands of time I would certainly change my perspective on that! On reflection it did nothing more than create tension, frustration and an obstacle to achieving my goals, not to mention taking the fun and enjoyment out of the whole process.

Often perfectionists can be found focussing on what needs to be fixed, perceived flaws, what could be better or what went wrong. Certainly positives are gained from being intrinsically driven and wanting to achieve the best from oneself, however, when based primarily around self criticism and judgement with little support or reflection and acknowledgement of the positives, progress and enjoyment can be thwarted. It tends to create a never ending loop of toil, hardship and tension with very little time, if any, to enjoy the fruits of your labour. From a coaching perspective I have often worked with pupils who have strived and achieved successfully in various areas of their lives either in other sports, careers etc, and they then give themselves a particularly hard time and feel extremely frustrated if they find the road to golfing success a little bumpier. Unfortunately where golf is concerned, the harder you try, the more you berate yourself for things not going to plan, the greater the tension develops and the worse it gets! The perfectionist hits, by his or her standards, a poor shot, and so it begins, ‘What happened in my swing?! What do I need to fix?! I can’t believe I did that, It was ok but I know I can hit that shot so much better.’ From here the downward spiral continues.

This may raise the question, ‘How can I get the best from myself if I don’t push to extremes and expect the very highest of standards?’ It doesn’t mean that having a sloppy approach to things or setting low standards is the way forward. It simply means that if we constantly give ourselves a hard time about what went wrong or what needs fixing without room to acknowledge the positives or see the areas to improve as simply an opportunity to grow it creates a build up of frustration, tension and potentially a less enjoyable path to our desired destination. From here it can only unfortunately lead to a negative spiral on the golf course, physical tension will impact the golf swing technically and we will generally not always make the best decisions tactically from this state of mind either. Being aware of, and acknowledging your strengths and seeing perceived weaknesses as merely areas for growth will provide a much more fruitful experience and end result leading to increased confidence and enjoyment of your game. Golfers who give themselves an extremely hard time, and when they reach a certain goal, spend very little time, if any, acknowledging or praising their achievements or things that went well, simply plough more energy into achieving more and more, ultimately neglecting the one reason they took up the game, to have fun!

It makes no difference how many peaks you reach, if you did not enjoy the climb’ – Oprah Winfrey

Acknowledging your strengths with praise creates confidence. Acknowledging areas that need development, with encouragement and support, also assists in alleviating tension and provides a positive progression forward. Continually berating yourself for your perceived flaws does not. Getting the best from yourself comes from a state of ease, self-confidence, belief and enjoyment in the process. The more we focus on the enjoyment of the process whilst embracing the opportunity to grow versus the fear of making a mistake or falling short of external end results the greater the opportunity of fulfilling our potential.  The good shots feel effortless, they are rarely a result of tension, effort or hardship. Be easy on yourself and remember, as simple as it sounds, the better you feel, the better it gets, the worse you feel the worse it gets!

‘Spend more time smiling than frowning and more time praising than criticising!’ – Richard Branson

How mind-set affects success

In her work on motivation, achievement and success, the American psychologist, Carol Dweck, researched and developed the ‘fixed mindset’ v the ‘growth mindset’ concept. People with a fixed mind-set believe that their intelligence is fixed. They base any activities that they carry out on whether their intelligence will be shown at an advantage. They will base it on whether they will ‘feel smart’.

People with a growth mind-set believe in change, growth and the opportunity in learning from their mistakes without being hard on themselves. They are curious about life, what it has to offer and what can be learnt. They believe that intellectual ability or intelligence can be developed with passion, study and education.

Dweck carried out an experiment where 400 children were split into two groups and given various tests and puzzles to carry out. At the end of the tests the two groups were given praise. One group’s praise was relayed to them as ‘you were good at that.’ The other group received praise, worded slightly differently as ‘you made a good effort’. In short the second group were praised on their levels of effort rather than their intelligence. Interestingly, when the groups went on to do further tests, Dweck found that the group praised for being good at something chose the easier options (they wanted to remain in the boundaries of their perceived intelligence and wanted to remain ‘looking smart’). The group who received praised based on their effort went on to complete and succeed in much more difficult tests.

Dweck continued her research by providing an 8-week course for another two groups of students. One group were taught their studies in the usual way. The other group were taught their studies but in addition, were also taught the principles of a growth mind-set. This second group were frequently taught that the brain is like a muscle that can continue to grow. New brain connections can be developed over time and taught to believe in the growth of new skills. Importantly they were also taught that ‘nobody laughs at babies.’ In other words, it’s ok to admit to mistakes and to believe that they can be overcome. Dweck found that the students who were taught using the growth mind-set made significant improvement in their grades by the end of the experiment.

The fixed mindset generally places very little room for error with regards to their performance and any mistakes that are made are taken extremely personally with a ‘must try harder’ attitude. There is a fear of being judged and not being good enough. Embracing the principles of a growth mindset, an approach that admits to mistakes and believes they can be overcome, learns from errors and overcomes challenges rather than avoiding them. Striving to achieve for their own intrinsic drive tends to allow them to achieve more, be happier and feel inspired. This approach would certainly aid any golfer that has the tendency to be self critical.

Adopting a growth mindset on the golf course

  1. Learn to hear the voice of the fixed mindset

‘I’m normally good at any sport I take up, I knew it was a risk taking up golf, people will laugh at me thinking I had talent, If I fail partly it is as bad as being a complete failure, people will think bad of me if I make a mistake.’

  1. Recognise that you have a choice in how you interpret what you perceive as setbacks
  2. Talk back to it with a supportive and growth mindset voice.

Dweck’s research findings demonstrated that students who were taught using the principle of a growth mind-set is strongly linked to optimal performance whether that be in the classroom, board room or golf course!

Release the chains of perfectionism and most importantly, go easy on yourself!