The Pressures of Perfection: What Parents and Coaches Can Do
10 weeks ago I set a goal for myself. The goal was to write and post a blog each week for the year. I knew this goal was lofty as I had never done such a thing before. I have never written publicly nor was I sure if I had 52 solid pieces of content in me. Well, 9 weeks in, I failed. I sat down on Sunday night to write Blog #9 and I was overcome with doubt, a sense and feeling that what I was writing wasn’t good enough, that it didn’t do the topic justice. Just a day later, guilt and frustration set in and of course some negative thoughts came with that feeling. “Not good enough,” and “you failed,” kept popping in, bringing up past memories of similar situations.
People tend to reflect heavily whenever they experience unpleasant feelings, and I certainly found myself thinking a lot. In my reflection, I realized that the very feeling I had was exactly the feeling most people have when they don’t achieve something that they expect for themselves or others expect for them. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, doubt, frustration tends to set in as a byproduct of failure. But in essence, I felt guilty that I wasn’t perfect. I expected perfection and I didn’t hit the mark.
Perhaps my expectation of perfection came from growing up in a culture that unknowingly reinforced it. My guess is that many of you grew up the same way; and in my opinion, it is now worse for our youth.
- People make fun of you if you look different in any way
- People are celebrated for the best grades. The better you did, the better the celebration
- People would shout your name with praise if you scored the winning goal, but criticize you when you fell short
- Boys are held to a standard of being strong, physically and emotionally. Any sense of weakness is quickly shunned and ridiculed. Pain must be tolerated or else someone will take your spot.
- Girls are held to a standard of perfection in every way: school, relationships, hobbies, beauty. To not be perfect in any of these risks being outcast from the group--the worst possible consequence.
- Kids are expected to achieve higher levels of success and competency at younger ages
- Other hobbies and interests are discouraged as elite athletics go year round, raising the stakes
- And many, many more…
Of course all of these are traps! There is no way for us to hold to the standard of excellence that is expected from others. Failure is inevitable. Maybe some of us are lucky to have a parent, coach, or teacher that really instills in us the power of failure and a growth mindset; but that certainly will not stop the constant comparison and judgment that comes from all angles (even more so in these days of social media). The ability to manage inevitable mistakes, failures, and a lack of perfection is missing in our culture today!
I come back to my intended blog from one week ago. I wanted to express my sadness that Katie Meyers, a standout soccer player from Stanford, had committed suicide. I wanted to share my sentiments on the difficulty it is to manage mistakes when the expectation is to be consistently elite. At the time, the right words were not easily found. It became clear though, two days later, after feeling the guilt of not being perfect and making my own mistakes, that I knew exactly the direction this blog should take.
It is not clear why Katie ended her life, but I will assume that she felt overwhelmed in some sense by what she perceived as a lack of perfection. I felt deep sorrow for her death. Likely because it was on the heels of a recent suicide from an up and coming college track athlete that I knew very well. Likely because all of it brought up my own struggles with mental health and fleeting thoughts of suicide when I was a college athlete. A clear theme among us, along with many other elite athletes, is that none of us told anyone about our struggles. To do so would have made us look “weak,” and top athletes cannot be weak.
My hope is that culture is moving in a direction that can still value the outcome of high achievement while emphasizing the process that gets us there. And I think everyone reading this will agree, that that process is filled with mistakes and failures, which is exactly what we need to grow and to live up to our potential.
What can parents and coaches do?
* Emphasize and create opportunities for rest
* Emphasize the process, not the outcome
* Expect consistent hard work and a good attitude (MOST of the time), not perfection
* Look for opportunities to reframe mistakes and unpleasant experiences
* Give unconditional love
* Model an appropriate response (learning) to failure and setbacks
* Encourage and model positive self-talk
* Instead of initial criticism: Allow time, listen, validate, empathize, ask how they think you can be helpful, and ask if they would like your feedback
I also call out to organizations, colleges, schools, clubs, etc., to be more proactive with the mental and emotional health of our young ones. To teach and utilize mental skills. To reinforce healthy relationships. To have a multidisciplinary approach to student-athletes who are at risk or are clearly struggling with a mental health challenge. There is an opportunity here not only to improve their confidence and performance in their athletic arena; but more importantly, for their life beyond.
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC
If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please call the US National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255, or text HOME to 741741 to speak to a crisis counselor, or go to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-someone-else/ for resources.