Perfectionism has been placed under the researcher’s microscope in recent years to determine whether this complex personality trait has a positive or negative influence on performance and well-being.

Some of the most controversial examples of perfectionistic individuals can be found in the world of elite sport. When Tiger Woods won his first Major at Augusta he was the longest off the tee by more than 30 yards. He was hitting wedges and nine irons into the par fives, and that is when talk of Tiger proofing Augusta started. He won by a record 12 strokes and immediately began the task of transforming his swing. Move to the centre court at Wimbledon and you will see the cameras fixed on Rafael Nadal’s eccentric on-court routine. In front of the chair Nadal is sitting on during breaks you will always see two water bottles (one chilled, one not). Every time play changes ends the bottles are lined up so the labels face the baseline of the side he is playing. As they are repositioned he takes a sip from both without fail.

Critics and fans alike have questioned whether these obsessive behaviours are the result of perfectionism gone awry or the secret to success. Is perfectionism, good, bad, or both? This is the question posed by many Sport Psychologists including myself. Recent research emphasises perfectionism as a double-edged sword. On the bright side, perfectionism has been labelled a hallmark of Olympic champions, characterised by extremely high personal standards and an insatiable appetite for success. On the flip side, when that drive to succeed becomes an obsessive need to avoid failure, the darker side of perfectionism can rear its ugly head.

Research has shown that an adaptive form of perfectionism is indicated by high personal standards for performance, neatness and precision, and persistent hard work and effort in one’s achievement striving. In this form, a perfectionistic individual exemplifies very similar traits to the “high achiever.” It appears that perfectionism becomes problematic when these seemingly motivational traits coexist with a tendency to be over-self-critical and extremely rigid in one’s performance pursuits such that anything less than perfect is viewed as failure. The combination of these traits forms maladaptive perfectionism. Unlike those exhibiting maladaptive perfectionistic traits, positive perfectionists aim high but seem to be more accepting of their limitations and limitations in their environment.

So what does perfectionism look like in the real world? We live in a society that praises perfectionistic striving and demands high standards and precision, in order to stand out from the rest. Take a closer look at your own experiences and there’s no doubt you have found yourself tied up in the perfectionism paradox at one point or another. For some of us, a healthy dose of perfectionism has fuelled our pain-staking efforts to put out a superior product on the job, or stay behind in training countless hours to refine a certain skill. Nevertheless, I am certain that as an athlete or a professional alike, you have found yourself doing anything you could in order to avoid writing that mid-year report. Not because you hate writing, but because you must produce a perfect piece, and you perceive failure before you begin typing. Instead of starting the project you organise your inbox, perhaps even dust off your running shoes. Many of us don’t realise that procrastination is a key indication of maladaptive perfectionism. When our intentions to deliver an excellent product is confused with a mistake-free product, we are left with doubts about our adequacy to get the job done, resulting in high levels of stress and ultimately, total avoidance of the task. Sound familiar?

So then, how does one maintain the perfectionist’s edge without crossing over to the dark side? What is the secret to finding a balance? For insight into preserving the bright side of your perfectionist nature, look no further than recent media releases of the world’s best athletes. In the ramp up to the London Olympics 2012, BBC news revealed the startling demise of swimming sensation Michael Phelps during his London Olympic campaign. After winning eight gold medals, in a week-long display of invincibility at the 2008 Games, expectations for the then 23 year old “Baltimore Bullet”, rose to nothing short of sheer perfection. Without the freedom to make mistakes, Phelps instinctual move was to avoid the pool at all costs, which he did successfully for almost two years from 2009-2010. Reporters declared Phelps’ come back to Olympic form a by-product of his revived competitive drive. However, when you peel back the layers of Phelps’ perfectionistic nature the truth behind his recovery is in plain sight. The 27-year-old explained, “Everything I’ve done, I’ve been able to learn from – mistakes I’ve made in the pool, mistakes I’ve made out of the pool”. Showing signs of freedom to be less precise and less self-punitive, Phelps tweeted a month before the Olympics, “My life, my choices, my mistakes, my lessons, not your business.” “Physically it’s been painful, but we’re taking steps in the right direction.” Adaptive perfectionists are people who derive a real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort and who feel free to be less precise.

Through the ebbs and flows in the careers of some of the world’s best athletes, we can learn the art of harnessing an adaptive style of perfectionism. Follow these steps in cultivating your own style of positive perfectionism:

1. Don’t be afraid to fail, challenge yourself and push your limits. After all, the most successful people in this world have failed more than anyone.

2. Pursue high standards, but accept the limitations in yourself, and your working environment, and allow freedom to make mistakes. Remember, mistakes are inevitable so there is no need to focus on “NOT” making errors. Instead, focus on what you want to see yourself doing well.

3. Recognise mistakes as opportunities to gain feedback to make improvements.

4. Aim high but set your expectations at the level you have been performing at in practice or training. Maintain realistic goals based on real facts about your performance standards.

High personal standards in achievement striving which coexist with these important thoughts and actions around performance has the potential to be a “perfectly positive disposition.”

Mental Notes Consulting has designed a program called, Faster, Higher, Stronger, which targets perfectionists and aims to hone the healthy high achiever! Email us to find out more about this program – info@mentalnotesconsulting.com.au.

Jay-Lee Longbottom | Psychologist MAPS