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Posted: December 4, 2012  :

(IAWR) Athletics: The Antidote to Perfectionism: Being an Excellentist

Originally posted on the IAWR website on August 7, 2012 .

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., C.Psych., CC-AASP

Maggie is a passionate runner. Energetic, competitive, single-minded, and skilled. At 16, she's already made a name for herself, received funding, and is being scouted by prospective schools. It doesn't hurt that she brings this same drive to her academics, is popular, and has a supportive family.

Everything's perfect, right?

Well, not so fast.

The most obvious problem is that she's recovering from Iliotibial Band Syndrome (more easily remembered as ITBS). It's a common and nasty injury among runners, one that requires rest and patience---two skills that Maggie has a difficult time mastering.

And now, a few months later, as she shifts back into her regular running schedule, like peeling the layers of an onion, a new "injury" has emerged: fear.

Fear of re-injury might be expectable: After all, Maggie's embarking again on an activity that caused a lot of pain. What's to prevent the same thing happening again?

But underlying that concern is a more pervasive anxiety, one that has been with her for years. Ironically, in many ways it has driven her to be her competitive best. As we "unpack" this anxiety, it turns out to have a different name: perfectionism.

Maggie says, "I've always had to be the best---at everything. I'm either the best or I'm a complete failure. The night before a race, I have trouble eating. I can't sleep. My whole body shakes the next morning. I can't focus. Somehow, though, I pull it off."

The double edged sword of perfectionism has struck again. On the one hand, it's really important that Maggie be intensely focused on her sport. It helps keep her motivated to practice. Her internal drive means that she truly wants to do as well as she can, for its own value (as well as the rewards she experiences from others' recognition). On the other, though, the medical hiatus has given her time to reflect: Is running with this much stress really worth it?

This break from competition has given Maggie an opportunity to stand back from her usual pattern. She can appreciate its costs---and she is eager to find a different approach.

What if, I ask Maggie, what if you saw yourself as striving to be excellent rather than perfect? Excellent is something that you can really work on; perfection is an all or nothing final goal. And furthermore, even if you were to be perfect one moment, it doesn't guarantee that you'll be perfect another time.

Maggie's face lights up. I can see her body relax. My idea has clearly struck a chord.

So I invent a word: Excellentist. What would it be like to be an Excellentist rather than a Perfectionist?

We draw up a list of what it would mean if Maggie were an Excellentist at running. Maggie's words---this is a true story, though I've "masked" some aspects of her identity for reasons of confidentiality---are in italics:

1. Strive to be my best --> Excellent rather than perfect --> Go at it without being so nervous --> Increased ability to focus--> Instructional

Maggie understands, immediately, that this conceptual change decreases the pressure that she places on herself. If she were an Excellentist, she further realizes, she could direct her attention differently. She would be able to absorb her coach's instructions, rather than be pushed by the non-stop demand to produce a perfect outcome.

2. Could reward myself --> Notice what worked well --> Acknowledge myself for that

An Excellentist can also be positive and supportive rather than hyper-critical.

3. Acknowledge the fear--> Let it just be there along with everything else It's a sensation rather than something to protect against --> Fear is an adrenaline rush-->it's exciting

Being an Excellentist wouldn't necessarily take away all feeling---but Maggie wouldn't need to guard against the possibility of negative feelings.

I mention a couple of books Maggie might find helpful. One is a book whose title alone invites one to read it: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. The other, by positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, may help lighten her up: The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

If she wasn't afraid of fear, Maggie realizes, she could re-frame it entirely, and remember that the bodily sensations that a person interprets as fear are the same as those one can interpret as excitement.

4. Motivation --> "Excellent" is empowering--> It's something I choose to be (vs. perfection=I have to be)

Maggie feels energized rather than depleted. As an Excellentist, she recognizes that she can be engaged by choice rather than driven by demand.

5. Sensation --> Feel the wind sweeping my hair --> Smell the air

Maggie is someone who experiences the world kinesthetically. Being an Excellentist frees her up to relish the sensations she experiences. It broadens her world.

6. Fun/Pleasure/Enjoyment/Satisfaction--> Feel brilliant --> The beautifully oiled machine --> This is brilliant--> I am brilliant

I had asked Maggie: What do you feel, at an emotional level, if you are an Excellentist? Can you tap into a sense of fun, pleasure, or enjoyment? They were the words that occurred to me. For Maggie, though, those words are too frivolous. She decides the best term was "Satisfaction." She can relish the sense of her body responding---like a well-oiled machine---knowing just what to do and how to do it spectacularly well. This in turn gives her a sense of identity, one that is not egotistical or narcissistic but revels in capacity.

To my mind, Maggie's list was itself brilliant. Her newfound attitude allowed her to articulate to herself the major principles of mental skills for optimal performance. As a reader, you may want to think about what this sort of linguistic shift might mean for you in your area of performance.

As we tune into the London Olympics, we can ask ourselves: What can I be an Excellentist at?

Dr. Kate Hays offers sport, performance, and clinical psychology through her Toronto-based practice, The Performing Edge. Author of five books on these subjects, she founded and co-directs the Psyching Team for the Toronto Marathon. Like "Maggie," she too is a passionate runner---but does so for re-creational purposes. More information, including contact information, is available @ ThePerformingEdge.com.

© 2012 Savvy Runner Inc.

Bennett Cohen and Gail Gould are the Founders and Presidents of the International Association of Women Runners. For access to resources to help you reach your goals for running and racing, visit www.IAWR-Connect.com..


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