Sport psychologists work with lots of athletes who place excessive demands on themselves. For example, after the 1992 Summer Olympics, sports psychologists discovered some interesting results from reviewing the emotional reactions of all the medalists. Although the gold medal winners appeared the most content, the bronze medal winners actually seemed happier than the silver medalists. Psychologists concluded that the bronze medal winners were happy merely because they had medaled, whereas the silver medalists saw themselves as “losers” and agonized about “what might have been.”
It’s not uncommon in athletics to hear statements like “second place is the first loser” and “no one remembers who finished second.” However, the silver medalists forgot one important point: for their event at that exact moment, they were better than 6.7 million other people on the planet. Isn’t it interesting that they focused instead on the one person who was better than them?
Being hard on yourself can instill dedication, commitment, self-discipline and other qualities needed for great performance. But what happens when you are too hard on yourself and demand only perfection? Too often, athletes struggle when their pursuit of perfection mutates into a demand for perfection. To clarify: pursuing perfection and trying to achieve greatness is healthy, whereas demanding it only leads to fear, failure, and suffering.
You may ask, “why is demanding so much of myself a bad thing when it has gotten me this far?” Good question. But think:
- What happens when you set an unrealistic standard and fail?
- What happens when you don’t meet your perfectionist goals?
- Do you punish yourself?
- Are you overly critical?
Athletes lose their way when they focus too much on self-criticism and too little on ways to improve, obsessing about what they did wrong rather than celebrating what they achieved. The silver medalists quickly forgot how well they did and fixated on the one person who outperformed them.
If you are unsure whether you are being too hard on yourself, ask yourself a few simple questions:
- Are the demands I am placing on myself helping me to improve?
- When I criticize my performance, am I generating valuable information that can benefit me, or am I just ripping myself up?
- If no formula for perfection exists in my sport, what approach or technique works best for me?
Becoming masterful in a sport requires thousands of hours of practice. If you are making your experience miserable by being too hard on yourself, you are probably not putting in the time and effort you need to get to the next level. In fact, you may be thinking of quitting. Thus, if you consciously reduce the pressure on yourself and focus more on the enjoyment you get from your sport, you will improve your chances for development and success.