I came across an article which speaks to the issue of student perfectionism. In it the author focuses on students who are not satisfied with anything but being perfect. Does this sound like any volleyball players you know? I certainly have had my fair share!

Anything less than perfect is failure

You’ve seen it, right? A player gets frustrated and angry with themselves because they don’t play the ball perfectly. That just leads to further “failures”, which feeds back, creating a downward spiral. And chances are, many of the reps they aren’t happy with are ones we’d call good. It’s tough to watch and can be a real challenge to deal with.

There’s an interesting quote in the piece: “This tendency to be satisfied with nothing short of perfection is akin to the fear of failure…”

This brought to mind the fixed vs. growth mindset discussion, as outlined in Mindset by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read that book, I strongly recommend it. In many cases, the fixed mindset is driven by a fear of failure. That can lead to either perfectionism or to not being willing to try new things or otherwise challenge one’s self.

Changing the mindset

The focus of the article is on trying to get students (athletes in our case) to change their focus away from be perfect and toward more useful mindsets. The author suggests four “swaps” that can/should be attempted. This is something Hugh McCutcheon has talked about. Here are the four mental adjustments suggested in the article:

Can you swap out progress for perfectionism?
This is a healthy trade off. What if our report card was continual improvement, not perfection? It’s a game that’s challenging but winnable. Ask them: Are you OK with who you are, but becoming the best version of you?

Can you swap out excellence for perfectionism?
Excellence is a fantastic goal, because we all can excel in some area of strength. Help students find and focus on their gift, and remind them: You can get fired from a job, but you cannot get fired from your gift. Find your gift and you’ll always have work.

Can you swap out comparison to others for comparison to you?
If we must play the comparison game, it’s safer to compare your performance today to one of your former performances rather than someone else’s. This way growth, not perfection, becomes a win. Striving for growth resolves the performance trap.

Can you swap out conquering others to adding value to others?
If life has become about competing with and conquering other people, why not shift your perception of others. What if your “report card” was about adding value to people, not being better than other people? Suddenly, we can all make straight A’s.

Admittedly, that last one might be a bit tricky for us. In fact, it might run counter to some of the work we’re trying to do to make our players and teams more competitive. 🙂

Creating a forward focus

For my own part, in training I try to short-circuit the perfectionist spiral by not giving the players an opportunity to fixate on that last rep. The time you tend to see that kind of feedback loop is when a player is doing successive reps. Think one player passing or digging X number of balls in a row. I’ve seen all kinds of non-productive reactions to “bad” reps – cursing, stamping, slamming the floor, etc.

In order to prevent that sort of thing, I like to use drills and other exercises where the player is forced to immediately do something else. A very basic example would be doing a pass-to-hit type of drill where after receiving serve the player must attack a set ball. This serves not only to blunt the hypercritical reaction (hard to scream and yell when you need to go transition to attack), but encourages the player to quickly move on to the next thing, which is what they’ll need to do in a game.

You can do the same thing in a game context. It’s simply a matter of introducing another ball immediately after a rally ends.

Admittedly, these sorts of things done in training may not directly address the larger perfectionist issue at the individual level. They primarily seek to limit its impact. To the extent, though, that they make the player aware of their responsibilities in a team context, they can help to do some of the swapping outlined above.

For more on the subject of perfectionism, check out this episode of the Sport Psych Show podcast.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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