#107: Helping The Athlete Who Struggles With Perfectionism

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Most female athletes exhibit some level of perfectionism. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how much. 

As moms, we are aware of the difficulties that our daughters face. And it’s difficult not to be concerned. I get a lot of questions from parents about how to help their athletes be less critical of themselves and focus on the positive rather than the negative.

Although perfectionism is a very normal thing that we see in athletes, sometimes this points to a deeper struggle. There are some underlying negative reasons why perfectionism pops up. 

So, today we’re going to uncover the underlying reason why this kind of perfectionism is popping up, what you can do for your athlete daughter, and how you can help her as she struggles with thoughts of trying to be perfect.  

The Signs of Perfectionism

Maybe you’re noticing some things in your athlete, but you’re not sure if this is just something that is coming up for normal reasons or if it’s pointing to perfectionism. 

Here are the signs we should watch out for when it comes to perfectionism.

Sign #1. Setting unrealistic standards

All athletes likely have goals for themselves. They’re all working towards something that they want to achieve. They want to be good at their sport. They want to play to their potential. 

But athletes who struggle with perfectionism set standards and goals that are beyond what would be considered healthy goal setting.

These athletes set objectives that are typically outcome-oriented. They are preoccupied with scores and statistics. They expect that they will not make mistakes and this is just very unrealistic because we know that making mistakes and recovering from them is a part of every game they play.

And one of the reasons they struggle with mistakes and failures is that they don’t always know how to recover from them, and they associate their identity with those mistakes and failures.

They believe that if they don’t beat themselves up, they aren’t working hard enough. And they are frequently preoccupied with fears, failure, and the disapproval of others. They regard mistakes as proof of unworthiness. When they are criticized, they become extremely defensive. As a result, when they receive feedback, they interpret it as criticism. And it’s jolting them to their core because they believe something is wrong with them.

Sign #2. You’ll see some procrastination

These are the athletes who typically do not want to start anything new or try a new skill, especially in front of others, because if they are not perfect at it, it is not worth the try. They are dealing with feelings of worthlessness.

Anxiety is frequently at the root of perfectionism. It’s a lot of worrying and obsessing over what other people are thinking.

Underneath the signs of perfectionism

The behavior and what we see outwardly from our athletes, whether it’s not being able to recover from mistakes, dealing with pressure, or trying to be perfect, is always a window into what’s going on beneath the surface.

And underneath all of this perfectionism is a struggle with emotional regulation. When they are struggling, they are unable to access positive feelings about themselves.

So when they are failing, when they’re not doing something perfectly, when they feel like they’re missing the mark, they are highly associating all of that outward outcome with their self-worth. 

As moms, we often hear ourselves saying things like, “Remember all the good things that you did” or “everyone makes mistakes”. 

We’re trying to reason with them logically because it’s true, everyone does make mistakes. But for perfectionists that are tying their identity with their behavior, logic doesn’t help because they don’t know how to manage those emotions that are coming out for themselves. 

That’s why it’s so important that you help them separate who they are from what they do. 

According to Dr. Becky Kennedy, “Perfectionism steals the child’s ability to feel good in the process of learning because it says that goodness can only come from successful outcomes.”

Improving the athlete’s relationship with perfectionism

Our goal here isn’t to extinguish perfectionism. Our goal is to widen the range of where our athletes can feel good about themselves. We want them to be able to live a little bit in that gray area so that they can feel good about themselves also while they’re struggling in the learning process. 

And we want to help them improve their relationship with perfectionism. It’s the same thing we talked about in our free training for sports moms, where we say we want athletes to improve their relationship with anxiety and nerves, not just get rid of anger, anxiety, and nerves before a game, because they’re useful and important to performance. We want our athletes to see that anxiety, see those nerves, and improve their relationship with it. So that they know how to navigate it and can use the good parts of it instead of being crippled by the bad parts of it. 

The same thing is with perfectionism. There are components of perfectionism that are good, like hard work and having a goal. We want to harness these traits without collapsing under the pressure of perfectionism and this worry about what other people are thinking. 

Strategy #1. Be aware of where you’re placing your praise and your recognition when you’re talking to your daughter

Most perfectionists were raised in environments where they were praised for behaviors such as following instructions, getting good grades, having a nice appearance, and achieving. As a result, these athletes are reinforced with the notion that their identity and goodness are derived from their achievements.

What we want to do is help our daughters separate who they are from what they do and ensure that they know we love them regardless of their performance or what they do in public.

Strategy #2. Think about how you can model imperfection in your life

You are the closest and most influential example of confidence in your athlete daughter’s life. More is caught than taught. You can say all the right things all day, but if you are not modeling those things, then it still won’t work.

So, try new things you’re not good at and teach your daughter how to react appropriately to every mistake you make. We want to demonstrate to them a real-life example of doing things we’re not good at, struggling, and rising again.

You can also normalize conversations with your daughter by simply allowing her to express her thoughts and feelings to you. Such as what she learned from her mistakes and simply normalizing struggles and progress.

Strategy #3. Let your daughter process her feelings and don’t try to fix them

If your daughter comes up to you and says all these negative feelings and things, don’t stop her, don’t try to fix it. Let her know you’re listening and you understand. Validate her emotions, and let her feel that it’s okay to not be okay. By doing so, you’re helping her process her emotions 

The underlying reason for perfectionism is an emotional regulation struggle. And so she’s dealing with these emotions and she’s not knowing how to sort through them. You can help her by letting her speak and with you letting her know that you understand her and that it’s okay to feel what she feels.

Strategy #4 Help her identify that perfectionist voice in her

Our brain is complex. And if you are familiar with the internal family systems, it’s a therapy technique that identifies that we have multiple parts to us. Those parts take over at some point; they’re louder and quieter at times.

Help your athlete identify this “perfectionist voice” in her. This voice can sometimes be really loud whenever we start to make mistakes. So, help her identify that this is just a part of her and it’s not her as a person. Recognize that voice, and tell that voice to tone down. 

You can guide her to tell that perfectionist part of her things like,

“You know what I see you, I hear you, but I don’t need you right now. Thanks for trying to keep me safe, you can be quiet now. I got this.”

It’s a strategy that works, but it might seem a little odd at first. 


It’s important to recognize the signs of perfectionism in your daughter such as; setting unrealistic standards and procrastination. These signs point to a deeper  emotional regulation struggle. Athletes have these underlying reasons behind perfectionism that could affect their goals and impact their self-worth. They only feel good when they’re winning and achieving.

One of a few strategies that you can be doing to help your athlete with perfectionism is to be aware of where you’re placing your praise and your recognition when you’re talking to your daughter. This will help build self-confidence and self-worth outside her sport, or the outcome of her games. More than just talking about normalizing imperfection, show them how you model imperfection in your life. Lastly, you can help her recognize that perfectionist voice inside of her and tame it. 

It’ll be great if your daughter knows what to do and has the right skills to be able to manage her perfectionism. To better support your athlete’s needs you can provide opportunities for her to learn through mental game training. That’s what we do inside the Elite Competitor Program. We have a whole training section on perfectionism, where they learn how it shows up for them in their lives, where it shows up most loudly, how they can recognize it, and how they can use the good parts and help shift some of those negative parts. 

As a mom, your goal is not to get rid of perfectionism, but to help your athlete use it to her advantage.


Helpful Links:

  • Join our FREE training for Sports Moms – How To Strengthen Your Athlete Daughter’s Mental Game So She Believes In Herself As Much As You Do.

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