Being a perfectionist might sound like a positive trait, but for a young athlete, it can be deadly. Athletes who suffer from maladaptive perfectionist tendencies are at a high risk for anxiety, depression, burnout, and even suicide. And unfortunately, with social media, commercial opportunities for younger athletes, and pressure to perform from all angles, it’s easy for athletes to fall victim to a negative perfectionist mindset.
As an athletic trainer, though, you may be in a unique position to identify and address this issue. Athletes might be more open and honest with you than they might be with a coach or a parent, and you can help them find a healthy balance of striving for progress while not falling into the trap of perfectionism.
Here, TrueSport Experts Michele LaBotz, MD, a sports medicine physician, and Kevin Chapman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, share a few warning signs that perfectionism is taking a dangerous turn and explain what you can do to help.
Maladaptive versus striving behaviors
Sometimes, perfectionist tendencies can be fairly benign—but in many cases, perfectionism can be a dangerous trajectory. “Striving for perfectionism is basically intrinsic motivation that an athlete has to do as well as they can,” says LaBotz. “There’s initial disappointment when they don’t meet their expectations, but they don’t really beat themselves up. Where perfectionism is concerning is when it’s maladaptive. Athletes dealing with maladaptive perfectionism can’t cope when their performance isn’t perfect. That can lead to some severe mental health consequences, from burnout to suicide.”
“Athletes tend to set incredibly high standards for themselves, and having high standards is essential as a high-level athlete,” adds Chapman. “But when the failure to meet those high standards leads to negative social, emotional, or even physical consequences, that’s when perfectionism becomes a problem.”
Look beyond the surface
It’s easy for athletic trainers and coaches to assume that the athletes they work with are doing fine, especially if on the surface, things seem to be going smoothly. They’re getting good grades, setting personal records, showing up with perfect attendance—but the outward appearance that everything is fine doesn’t always reflect what’s going on under the surface, says LaBotz. “An athlete may appear to ‘have it all’ on the outside, but it isn’t necessarily reflective of how they feel inside. Those of us who care for these athletes should not make assumptions based on what you view the athlete’s life to be like.”