Perfectionism in Sport is Getting Worse – Here’s Why

06 April 2024

Mental Edge Newsletter

Helping You Gain A Mental Edge

Perfectionism in Sport is Getting Worse – Here’s Why

Perfectionism in young athletes keeps on steadily growing.  And unfortunately, I’m not talking about “healthy” perfectionism where athletes set themselves challenging goals that they work hard to try and attain.  Where they are always striving to be a better footballer, tennis player, golfer, cricketer…

I’m talking about the unhealthy kind of perfectionism where the following 9 signs become evident:

  1. Athletes are afraid of making mistakes.
  2. Athletes want to succeed so badly, they focus train too hard.
  3. Athletes view a success when they compete as a near “perfect” performance.
  4. Athletes are black and white, they see their performances as either good or bad. 
  5. Athletes worry a lot about what other people think about them and their performances. 
  6. Athletes are uptight and scared when performing in case they let their team-mates, coaches or parents down if they make mistakes. 
  7. Athletes try too hard and lose what playfulness, creativity and freedom looks and feels like on the pitch, court or course.
  8. Athletes sheer will and need to succeed makes them anxious and scared of failing.
  9. Athletes struggle to transfer their skills from training or practice to matches, tournaments and events.

What then happens to the perfectionist athlete

The perfectionist athlete who falls short ends up feeling a great deal of self-criticism and shame.  They also convince themselves that their self-worth is based on their ability to meet their very high and rigid expectations of themselves and other people.   This naturally is not a great place to be and, if this is you should raise some alarm bells.

Why is perfectionism so prominent in young athletes?

Some researchers believe there may be a genetic component however many also believe that this is linked to how we are brought up, educated and the environment around us.  Below are 7 reasons why this is often the case where I also highlight some useful solutions.

1. A cold and impersonal approach

It is common for some parents, coaches or teachers to sway towards a task orientated approach, lacking in care and warmth.  Falling into the trap of repeating messages that are fixed on getting better, improvement and are performance driven forgetting there is a person behind the athlete. 

2. Praising achievement

When the cold person does soften however and offers praise this is often focused on achievement.  Which the warm and loving person can also fall into the trap of doing especially when using social media as they share their pride and look for likes and positive comments.  Here are some examples of comments I’ve spotted on my feeds in the last few weeks from parents and coaches.

“Super proud of this one, who has just finished 5th against some of the best young golfers in the country.”

“Superb performance today with a 4-0 win against the leaders. Keeps us in the hunt.”

“Easter tournament only gone and won it! 8 games played, 6 clean sheets and only 2 goals conceded”

“Not at our best today, but a 3-2 win keeps us in the title race.”

“Following on from his debut last week, he started for the U23s tonight! Played the full game and got another assist! Well done son.”

“She’s only just gone and passed her driving test on her very 1st attempt! Buzzing.”

A better approach would be to focus more on the journey and process posting more about effort, bravery, curiosity, resilience, pride, assertiveness and kindness or other forms of self-expression whilst acknowledging achievements.  For instance:

“A great win today, buoy did our players give it their all, I was especially proud about the positive way they came back from conceding.”

“She may have finished 5th today, but that doesn’t tell the whole picture.  This girl spends 20-30 hours practicing hard each week, as well as training in the gym 3-4 times per week on top of her studies.  Her efforts haven’t been rewarded for a long while until today, it’s caused her lots of despair and tears but she’s kept going.  We’re proud of you.”

“Today we beat the leaders 3-0, I loved how brave our players were on the ball.”

“We may have drawn today, however the sportsmanship and respect shown by both teams was first class.”

3. Club or organisation communications 

An approach to support a more process driven culture and less emphasis on results and achievement, as some schools and clubs I’ve supported recently have done, is to not talk about results at all in their newsletters and updates and to keep their communication more about developmental goals or the fun side of sport.   

4. Rigid rules, structures and controlling environments

Enforcing rigid rules and structures is another great way to breed perfectionism, anxiety and poor problem solvers.  By offering athletes more control over their time and the way that they practice and train can aid their creativity and help them learn from mistakes therefore improving their decision making under pressure.

5. Criticism, punishments and fear

If you’re a coach, parent or teacher who regularly criticises, punishes errors, finds fault in different behaviours or uses fear as a mechanism you aren’t going to help your children, students or athletes.  They’ll likely be more fearful, anxious and indecisive as you’ll regularly activate their sympathetic nervous system which leads to automatic responses in their body such as; speeding up heart rate, increased blood pressure and sweating.  You could try a different approach looking out for strengths, improving relationships and offering constructive criticism in a positive manner.

6. Achievement based rewards

Rewards for achievement is another challenge to navigate, some children I’ve supported have been offered McDonald’s or bottles of prime if their team wins or they perform well.   They’ve been offered financial rewards for keeping clean sheets too, whereas semi-professional and professional athletes play for money and often get more money based on their performances and achievements.

Difficulties arise in this case especially where young athletes learn that their value rises and falls, in other people’s eyes as they exceed, meet or fall short of expectation levels.   The relationship between performance, self-worth and value is complex however it is certainly something that all parents, coaches and teachers should be aware of. 

7. Sport becomes a job


Where with my colleague Dr Alessia Bruno we discuss the downsides to perfectionism and how many athletes can get obsessed by their sports, training harder and harder, pushing themselves to the limit.  The result can then be burnout, playing in fear or a lack of enjoyment.

Enjoy tuning in!

Expectations in sport

Ep131 David Charlton – How to Deal with Self-Criticism using Self Compassion – FINAL PART

Ep142: Alessia Bruno – Is Striving for Perfection a Good Thing in Gymnastics?

Ep156: Ruth Chiles – There is Hope: How to Overcome Focal Dystonia

Ep170: David Charlton – How To Help Perfectionists With Their Mental Approach


Perfectionism Blogs

5 Ways To Create A Psychological Safe Sporting Environment

Are You A Rugby Player With Perfectionist Tendencies?

How to Trust Your Skills When You’re a Goalkeeper

How to Help Children Overcome Fear of Failure

How To Play Well When You Aren’t Feeling Great

Conversations with Kids – Dealing with Criticism


Perfectionism and Attitudes Toward Sport Psychology Support and Mental Health Support in Athletes in: Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology by Dean Watson and colleagues…

The Sport Psych Show: #146 Dr Andy P Hill – Perfectionism in Sport

The Sports Psychology Podcast: Perfectionism in Sports and Life with Dr. Patrick Cohn and Ella McCrystal.
Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse | Ted Talk with Thomas Curran
The Psychology of Perfectionism in Sport, Dance, and Exercise by Andy Hill

Kristin Neff Website on Self-Compassion


Soccer or Football Psychology Resources

Golf Psychology Resources

Cricket Psychology Resources


We’ve recently started a regular newsletter with tips and tricks for those interested in the psychology of football or soccer. Feel free to sign up today. 


David Charlton Sports Psychologist

Best Wishes 

David Charlton

Online Sports Psychologist | Mental Performance Coach who supports many highly motivated athletes, young and old, developing their skills or who are already highly skilled so that they gain a mental edge and get the most from their talent across the globe from USA/Canada to Great Britain and Ireland to UAE, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, using ONLINE Video Conferencing.    

Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence

Host of Demystifying Mental Toughness Podcast

Founder of The Sports Psychology Hub 

Author of The Mental Edge

With over a decades’ experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to transfer their skills from training to competitive situations, under pressure.

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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