A perfect 10?

John Dunn helps high-performance athletes deal with perfectionism

Date published: 2008-02-25 12:49:19 PM

High performance athletes are no strangers to high expectations. Coaches, teammates, fans and journalists all want to see a perfect performance. But no one wants it more than the athletes themselves.

John Dunn, professor of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta, has set out to study perfectionism in competitive sports. He believes that while all athletes seek perfection, some do so in a healthy way and others in ways that can be damaging.

“Previous research shows that healthy perfectionists strive for perfection, whereas unhealthy perfectionists demand perfection. To put it another way: what motivates a healthy perfectionist is the drive to succeed; what motivates an unhealthy perfectionist is the fear of failure,” Dunn explains.

Dunn and one of his graduate students recently completed a study of collegiate athletes in the United States. They discovered that unhealthy perfectionists, both male and female, had lower self-esteem. He attributes this to the athletes' sense of self-worth being too closely tied to their identity and accomplishments as athletes.

“Athletic identity is wrapped up in performance,” says Dunn. “When athletes don't perform to their own standards, they don't feel good about themselves as athletes or as people. Unfortunately, for unhealthy perfectionists this happens most of the time.”

Conversely, athletes with high self-esteem are better protected from the consequences of failure. Their self-worth doesn't take a beating each time they make a mistake.

Dunn, who has worked with members of the national women's field hockey team, the Olympic biathlon team and several professional athletes, believes that while unhealthy perfectionists can achieve considerable success, that success comes at a high price.

 “Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it catches up with you,” says Dunn. “You can't stay at the top for long when you lack the intrinsic enjoyment of the experience.”

He hopes that his research with competitive athletes will help in the development of methods to identify athletes with unhealthy tendencies and of strategies that these individuals can apply to change their perspective.

“Lower standards aren't necessarily bad,” explains Dunn. “If athletes can learn to view mistakes as both inevitable and as opportunities to move forward, then their enjoyment and their well-being will increase—and that may improve their performance.”

John Dunn's research on perfectionism in sport is funded through SSHRC's Standard Research Grants program.