Getting over perfectionism

Illustration by Stuart Briers

After months of diligent training, Theresa Hailey was perfectly on pace for her time goal when she reached the halfway mark in a marathon. But by mile 18 she had faded significantly and she crossed the line over six minutes outside her target. She was ecstatic.

Why? She had missed her goal, but she had still run a PB and was almost immediately plotting her next assault on her missed target. ‘I have a tendency to find the positives in everything I do,’ she says. ‘Even a one-second PB would make me happy.’

Hailey’s response was ‘healthy, productive and satisfying’, says Jeffery Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, US, who has worked with elites in many sports, including distance running. It’s also not what most of us do. We are much more likely to beat ourselves up for not achieving goals. All too often, in fact, we demand more even when we do achieve our goals, wondering if we might have done better. Elite runner Alan Webb refers to this as the ‘never-satisfied syndrome’. ‘[It] is common among runners,’ he says, ‘especially high-level runners’.

Partly, that’s because there’s a confusion between satisfaction and complacency, something most runners want to avoid. We are always thinking that we could have trained a little harder, or given a bit more on race day. This belief that we have never quite squeezed 100 per cent out of ourselves mentally and physically is key in driving us to improve.

But just as Hailey notes that any PB is reason for celebration, there’s a difference between perpetually beating yourself up and our desire to improve. Not only does the former mean you’ll look back on your running and realise you were never happy, but always striving for too much can be counterproductive. Yes, it can be a key element to success, but ‘it is the main cause of most injuries – and then lack of success,’ says Webb.

Being too self-critical can also isolate you from valuable support. Running coach Bob Williams says that what he really wants is for his runners to enjoy and appreciate what they are able to do. ‘It’s hard to coach someone who is never satisfied,’ he says.

One of the big traps for runners, says Simons, is thinking the only thing that matters is the result. He likens this mentality to watching a game of, for example, football or tennis and only caring about the score. The enjoyable part of watching the game is the experience of living through it, he says: ‘You can read the score in the paper.’

When we race, of course, we are the game and what’s needed is to shift from thinking only about the outcome to focusing on the drama of the entire event: from training to race-day preparation, strategy and everything else that goes into a race. In doing that, says Simons, it’s good to recognise we have chosen a sport that can be cruel. In tennis, rugby and many other sports, you win or lose. In running, you’re up against a clock and coming up a second short of a goal time can be heartbreaking.

We need to shift our focus from seeing each race as a punishing and awful test that we can’t possibly pass with a perfect score, to focusing on the race experience. ‘You can still try to achieve something, but the achievement is taking what you’ve got from training and appreciating the drama and the narrative of the particular race,’ says Simons.

To put it another way – and please pardon the psychology-speak – you need to shift from outcome-oriented thinking to mastery-oriented thinking: a realisation that you are the runner, not the clock. ‘It’s always great to have a marker, like, “Yes, I made 1:40,” but if that’s the only thing you’re after, you’re probably going to be disappointed,’ says Simons.

To help the process of immersing yourself in the race rather than the outcome, coach Tom Cotner asks his runners to assess their races afterwards, mile by mile, in writing. ‘You cover what worked and what didn’t, and what sorts of things you need to work on,’ he says. He urges his runners to keep these evaluations in a race diary, so they can remind themselves of what strategies and tactics were effective for them.

Cotner recalls one woman who liked to send him long emails describing her races. ‘One day I got a five- or six-paragraph account of the race, and she never mentioned two things: her time or her place,’ he says. ‘She was so into the racing part of it that those things were secondary.’

This type of mental shift, however, is difficult for runners who tend toward perfectionism. ‘It’s OK to be a little obsessed, trying to get everything right and taking care of the loose ends,’ says Simons. ‘What we’re talking about is neurotic perfectionism. This person wants things to be truly perfect, sparkling and fantastic. And anything less is awful.’

This, he says, is why so many runners aren’t happy with PBs. ‘As soon as the perfectionist sees something more might have been possible, it is shameful not to have achieved it,’ he says. The irony is that always striving to be faster can actually make you slower. Perfectionists don’t do as well because some part of them knows that perfection is impossible, and that creates a dissonance in the brain. ‘They get so worried about the absence of perfection that they will not do what they need to do,’ says Simons.

But you can also get into trouble by thinking too positively. Studies show that certain types of positive thinking, especially visualisation, can improve your performance, particularly in skill-based sports. But more recent research, led by Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (Current), has found that too much positive thinking can actually get in your way.

Oettingen’s work began with a surprise result published in 1991 in Cognitive Therapy and Research, in which she and a colleague found that dieters who most strongly fantasised about success were the ones least likely to succeed.

Subsequent studies found similar results for people seeking other goals, from achieving academic results or getting good jobs, to improving their love lives or recovering from hip replacements.

One reason the dreamers often failed, she says, is that they tended to invest so much effort into positive-thinking their way to success that they forgot to do the real work. That, she wrote in The New York Times Sunday Review, ‘fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it’.

Runners, of course, aren’t likely to get lazy and forget to train. Most of us realise that the only way to achieve our goals is by hard work. Oettingen’s not a runner, but she is an expert in goal achievement. The first stages, she says, are to identify your wish, then to let yourself fantasise about the outcome you desire, because such fantasies do have a role in propelling yourself towards it. But then you should change gears and look at the obstacles standing between you and your goal. That way, she says, you will understand what you must do to overcome them.

She calls this process ‘mental contrasting’, by which she means contrasting your goals with the obstacles you will need to overcome. Doing so, she argues, will force you to deal with the reality of whether you have the time, energy or talent to do what you want – a discovery that can save you a lot of grief later on.

‘If people would do that,’ she says, ‘they would know what they really want, which would give them more satisfaction than blindly running after more and more.’

For runners, what this translates to is realistic goal-setting. ‘It’s the key to not being disappointed,’ says US elite runner Ryan Vail. It’s also important to have backup goals. Vail always has an ‘A’ goal and a ‘B’ goal. ‘The ‘A’ is always quite lofty but not unrealistic,’ he says, ‘while the ‘B’ is the bare minimum that I would be satisfied with. ‘I don’t usually talk about my ‘B’ goal. I just keep it in the back of my mind and try to focus on the ‘A.’’ But, he notes, ‘I hit my ‘B’ much more often than I hit my ‘A.’’

If you take this approach, you have to realise that missing the ‘A’ goal isn’t a failure. ‘If it’s not worth striving for and falling short, then it’s probably not worth striving for,’ says Simons. Studies of history’s great achievers, he adds, show that the one common denominator – besides achieving great things – was the tremendous number and scope of their failures.

In part, this is because you often learn more from a failure than you do from a success. ‘I think logically,’ says Hailey, an engineer. ‘It’s like writing a [computer] program. There will always be things you miss, and things you can learn from that make you better prepared next time.’

But also it’s because sometimes you just want to throw yourself out there after a lofty goal. The 1980s marathon great Dick Beardsley, who crossed the finish line of the first London Marathon hand in hand with Inge Simonsen as joint winner, has said that some of his greatest successes came from doing exactly this… even if on some occasions he failed miserably.

If you are faced with such a decision, give yourself the freedom to risk without fear. As Cotner says, ‘go for it. If it doesn’t happen, there’s no failure.’ And when there is a positive to draw from the outcome, celebrate it. Don’t let a constant drive to achieve put you in danger of achieving less. Or rob you of all the joy you should be experiencing along the way.

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