The Perfectionism Cycle

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If you love cycling, then you may have come to love many of the behaviors, habits, and goals that come along with enjoying and improving in the sport. Better. Optimal. Perfect? Is that drive always the best thing for performance or happiness?

Altea - Sapin - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - trainer Adriaan Helmantel - Simon Geschke (Team Giant - Alpecin) pictured during photoshoot Team Giant - Alpecin in Altea, Spain - photo Anton Vos/Cor Vos © 2016
Searching for perfection

Sprint drills. Cadence work. Hills.

Periodized training. Calories. Hydration.

Recovery. Core work. Stretching.

There’s so many tasks and things to work on and improve in order to maximize your cycling performance.

In my experience working with athletes, and in particular endurance athletes, efforts to improve often morph into the pursuit of perfection. Despite the impossibility of it, many who enjoy pushing themselves to improve get drawn to the flame of the “perfect” time, race, or performance.

On one hand, this aim can drive athletes to be their best, work hard, and progress. On the other, it can detract from enjoyment, overshadow other priorities in life, and even have a negative impact on performance.

Basically defined, perfectionism is the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection”*. In turn, a perfectionist pursues flawless outcomes – something which, in many cases, may not even be possible. In order for the perfectionist to ‘accept’ an outcome, it must be possible for there to even be such a thing as “perfect” in the first place.

But what if a “perfect” performance isn’t even a thing? For example, when a sport performance is based on a time, what is the “perfect” time? If the performance “could” always be shorter, or faster, that’s a set up for chasing an unattainable goal.

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Primoz Roglič looking for bike perfection

The Perfectionism Cycle

la passione winter 2021 cycling apparel

As you read this, what’s your internal reaction? Does part of you nod, familiar with the haunting relentlessness of pursuing perfection? Does another part push back, exclaiming, “Hey! Working hard and pushing myself to be my best isn’t bad! It’s my secret weapon!” Well, according to the literature on perfectionism, both “parts” of you have a point. Perfectionism can be draining, overwhelming, and negative, but it can also be a positive force for hard work and self-improvement.

Perfectionism can be viewed as a personality strength in athletic contexts (Hill, Gotwals, Witcher & Leyland, 2015). As you might imagine, dedication and intense pursuit of success bode well for those in pursuit of a lofty, or in the case of cycling, a fast, goal.

Joachim Stoeber, professor of psychology at the University of Kent, describes perfectionism as a “double edged sword” (2014). On one hand, perfectionism can be motivating. It can help us to feel determined, to fight for our goals and make the sacrifices necessary to progress in our training and competition performance. On the other hand, perfectionism can fuel our inner critic. It can keep us focused on our shortcomings and blind us to any progress we’ve made along the way. So, in order to maximize the benefits of any perfectionistic tendencies you have, and minimize the drawbacks:

Strive for perfection – but don’t waste time ruminating about past imperfection. 

Researchers of perfectionism have described healthy and unhealthy subtypes of perfectionism (Flett & Hewitt, 2005; Stoeber & Otto, 2006). Sometimes referred to as ‘healthy perfectionism’ and ‘neurotic perfectionism,’ clear themes have emerged. Striving for perfection means to focus on the process – cadence, breath, form, and other parts of the here-and-now. The striving perfectionist uses his energy to move toward the goal, as opposed to worrying about the outcome.

In contrast, the ‘neurotic perfectionist’ ruminates on past performance that was imperfect. He judges himself harshly, talks down to himself, and ends up feeling defeated, deflated, and less-than. He gets ‘stuck’, and not only does this lead to feeling bad, it has deleterious effects on future performance!

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Set goals

How to Strive for Perfection

  1. Set goals. Don’t shy away from your aspirations – but be intentional. Specifically, I recommend setting a goal, and being as detailed as possible. Identify a timeline for your goal, and check in with a friend, riding-buddy, or professional about it – is this realistic?
  2. Line yourself up for a 99% chance of success. If and when life gets in the way, be flexible and adjust your goal so that you can stay on track with progress and continue to move forward. Any thought process or goal that keeps your focus on the past and makes you feel bad about yourself is a total waste of your time.
  3. I cannot stress this enough: when you get down on yourself, and get stuck there, you are wasting your time and your energy, and you are not gaining anything. When you do have a setback or a failure, remember it’s just data and use the information to adjust your goals, reframe your intention, and keep it moving.

How Not to Ruminate Over Imperfection

Researchers and optimists agree: getting down on yourself for not being “good enough” is useless. Over the years, I’ve heard clients tell me they think it is productive to beat themselves up or shame themselves after a “failure”. Some describe this as punishment, or penance for imperfection. Punishment is significantly less effective than reward. Reinforcing what you do correctly will keep you on track in the long run; punishment may have some temporary, short-term benefits, but those will quickly lose their power, forcing you to either get meaner with yourself, or abandon your goal altogether.

Break the Perfectionism Cycle

If you get stuck with perfectionistic concerns, here are some quick tips:

  1. Turn the page: Remind yourself you’re wasting precious time and energy! Re-focus on the next opportunity to work toward your goal.
  2. It’s just information. Falling short of your goal doesn’t mean anything about your worth, your value, or your capacity for improvement. It’s just a data point that is relevant to that particular performance. Process it, consider how it can inform future goals and performances, and then move on. 
  3. Lighten up: There are many benefits to being a perfectionist… so maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks. If you’re getting all bent out of shape about being 10 seconds shy of a PR, or 3 pounds shy of your goal weight, simmer down. You’re missing out of feeling strong, healthy, happy, and fabulous, all because you’re off by a few digits.

Citations

Flett, G.L. & Hewitt, P.L. (2005). The perils of perfectionism in sports and exercise. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 14-18.

Hill, A.P., Gotwals, J.K., Witcher, C.S. & Leyland, A.F. (2015). A qualitative study of perfectionism among self-identified perfectionists in sport and the performing arts. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 4, 237-253.

Stoeber, J. (2014). Perfectionism in sport and dance: A double-edged sword. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 45, 385-394.

Stoeber, J. & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 295-319.

*Merriam Webster Dictionary

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