Jess Stratton: Let Go Of The Pressure Of Perfectionism

Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit

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Jessica Stratton - Old Saybrook (CT) High School, Class of 2019

University of Delaware graduate

Note: Jessica Stratton is a Registered Nurse. Any advice she provides in this column is a result of a long career in cross country and as a distance runner. If you or someone you know needs help, please seek a clinical nutritionist or professional.

We need to embrace our mistakes, failures and flaws because they show us how we can grow. 

                        Are you aiming for perfection in every aspect of training for your sport?

                        Are you your own biggest critic?

                        Do you often always feel like you could be doing more?

                        Do you get frustrated with yourself when you don't perform well on a day-to-day basis?

                        If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you are like me. You are a perfectionist.

                        In this article, I want to address my personal findings with perfectionism in sport, as well as tie in research on this subject, to argue that being imperfect actually makes you a better athlete and aiming for perfection can actually be harmful as you try to reach your potential.

                        It makes sense and it is easy to want to be perfect at our sport. But we can sometimes falsely believe that the pursuit of perfection is going to lead us to our potential -- which it is not. Perfectionism is the voice that reminds you what you aren't doing enough of, what you aren't doing well enough, what you could be doing more of, what your weaknesses are and what you're missing.

                        When framed from this perspective, how does this voice sound to you?

                        It sounds negative and mean, right?! And if we are aiming to perform well, this voice that is constantly critiquing us is going to end up doing more harm than good.

                        Of course, it's important to reflect on what we can improve upon throughout our training. But perfection takes self criticism to a whole new level that hinders our ability to embrace our failures and mistakes and use them as an opportunity to grow closer to our potential.

                        So, it is important to understand what is at the root of our perfectionism. Are you overcompensating for a fear of not being enough? Are you afraid that your failures or mistakes will define you? Do you lack trust in yourself?

                        When looking back on my career, I can see exactly how my fear of not achieving my goals manifested into perfectionism. I used to become hyper-focused on details that I told myself mattered so much and that would set me apart from others; I ultimately lost sight of making sure I did the basics, like getting a good night's sleep.

                        This developed into a fear that if I didn't execute every detail of my training to perfection, I wouldn't reach my potential or perform how I wanted to. But keeping up with these standards you set for yourself can be incredibly draining, strip the joy from what you're doing, and make you lose sight of the big picture goal. It actually makes it harder to reach your potential, and can make you feel stuck.

                        So how can we manage the perfectionism that is in most of us athletes and use it to our advantage?

                        • We need to master the art of discipline. Most people know it takes discipline to achieve big goals. But discipline can often times be mistaken as trying to achieve perfection in every area. This is impossible. Flaws are inevitable, regardless of the most unwavering discipline. So we need to choose what is important enough to be disciplined about. Make a list of the top three to five most important things to be consistent with and everything else can happen when it happens. Know that if it doesn't happen, it is okay. Harping on it will drive you farther from where you want to go. So loosen up on some things, it leads to greatness you could never imagine.
                        • When do we need to be great and when do we need to be good enough? Deciphering this is really hard. But setting the expectation to be great 100-percent of the time when striving to achieve a lofty goal could also set yourself up to for disappointment. Working hard at something comes with giving ourselves grace and building our confidence by gaining "little wins." There has to be days where you decide that the effort you put in that day was good enough, and that consistently being good enough with some occasional greatness is so much better than losing confidence trying to expect too much. Give yourself grace.
                        • We need to stop hyper-focusing on the details and build the foundation. Ask yourself what is crucial to my performance? What can't you go without? Often times we put so much pressure on ourselves to execute the details that it breaks the foundation.
                        • We need to embrace our mistakes, failures and flaws because they show us how we can grow. This is one of the most important mindset shifts for a perfectionist to embody. It's so hard to ask somebody to be happy that they made a mistake. But people who seek growth aspire to see every mistake, failure or flaw as an opportunity to grow. In order to gain mastery at something and escalate progress, we need to see challenges as growth and have an open mindset about how our mistakes and failures play into our success. Adopt a growth mindset.

                        • We need to realize that our performance does not define us. When you look at other people, you don't judge them from one interaction, one performance, or one instance in time. So why would you judge yourself in this way? Knowing this helps us build trust that we're going to show up when it matters and not rely on what we do to build confidence.

                        Overall, letting go of the pressure of perfectionism will help you get closer to your goals. After reflecting on my own career, I realize that I would have benefited a lot from taking some of the pressure off of myself and trusting that I was doing enough. I am a perfectionist my nature, and it sometimes got in the way of me reaching my potential. So if this is you, I hope this helps you and you remember that you are doing amazing. Give yourself credit.

                        Jessica is a 2019 graduate of Old Saybrook (CT) High School and a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, where she was a four-year member of the cross country and track programs. In the spring of 2023, she was named on the CAA's Commissioner's Honor Roll. This is a monthly series where Jessica writes about important and wide-ranging subjects involving young and developing runners.