Combatting Perfectionism in Weightlifting

I recently observed an athlete perform 20 power jerks, 10 split jerks, 25 clean and jerks, 6 minutes of plank holds, and then finish by completing 120 dumbbell thrusters at 60% of bodyweight.  All of the athlete’s work was technically sound, and the athlete made no misses despite going up to 90% on the clean and jerks.

Even so, the athlete was not happy at the end of training.  The athlete bemoaned the fact that it took 15 minutes and 10 seconds to complete the thrusters, when it should have only taken 15 minutes.  The athlete denied himself the satisfaction of completing a rigorous workout by fixating on what he could have done better.

Perhaps you have this problem, too.

Do you regularly think . . .

  • Nothing good comes from making mistakes.
  • I must do things right the first time.
  • I must do everything well, not just the things I am good at.
  • If I can’t do something perfectly, there is no point trying.

Or do you often . . .

  • Have difficulty completing work on time because you are so concerned about getting one task done perfectly?
  • Refuse to take credit for doing well because there is always something more you could do?

If so, perfectionism might be something you want to work on.

Wesley Cravy, head coach of Pivotal Weightlifting Club in California and Applied Sports Psychology consultant, shares his insights on helping weightlifters who struggle with perfectionism:

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality style characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards accompanied by tendencies for overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.

Why is perfectionism so bad?

  • Striving for perfection can increase anxiety and decrease self-confidence.
  • Perfectionism can trap you in an unhelpful cycle of thoughts, physical sensations, emotions and behavioral impulses.
  • Perfectionists are often LESS successful than non-perfectionists because the fear of mistakes makes it hard to be creative, innovative or open to new ideas.

As a weightlifter, perfection is not realistic, nor is it necessary!  Technical proficiency makes it easier to lift a heavy barbell, but it is not evaluated in competition.  An ugly lift will get three white lights just as easily as a beautiful lift–assuming both lifts comply with the rules of the sport.

What can I do to control my perfectionism?

 Take a day-by-day approach.  Let go of the need to be perfect and simply strive to do better each day.

Keep a training journal.  At the end of each training session, take note of the positive attributes of your session. If it was a terrible day and 80% felt like 100%, record your resilience and ability to push through even though you were clearly fatigued.  In your notes, make positive comments on what you want to focus on when you revisit the training day the following week.

Be flexible and realistic.  You will rarely train under perfect circumstances.  When you can’t hit the percentages designated in the training plan, make adjustments and just keep working.  Time spent training will make you a better weightlifter regardless of whether you follow your training plan exactly.

Celebrate your victories.  Suppose your goal for a competition was to take home a first place medal.  You didn’t meet this goal, but you still went 6-for-6 or made a new personal best on one of your lifts.  Take satisfaction in your performance!

As a coach, how can I help my athletes who struggle with perfectionism?

Utilize Imagery.  Imagery is the use of images to visualize or enhance performance.  It activates the same neurophysiological pathway as physical exertion.  Imagery does not guarantee success, but it clinically shows an increase in performance and is used by professional athletes to immediately combat anxiety.

How do I use imagery with my athletes?

  1. Use imagery in training sessions.  Imagery is a learned skill and will not produce the desired result if applied for the first time in competition.
  2. As your athlete is performing a dynamic warm up, encourage the athlete to take 3 minutes to visualize the barbell warm up and any exercises the athlete will be performing that day.
  3. As the athlete enters the pre-competition phase, a nightly visual walk through of the event should be done. The athlete should visualize the upcoming event from warm up to last lift.  The athlete should see, smell, feel and reflect a confident positive analysis of the event. This is best done after a 3-5 minute breathing/relaxation technique. Once thoughts become cloudy, distracted, or negative, cease the exercise and use positive words to end the session.
  4. During warms up, both in training and competition, keep the visualization short–around three minutes.  You don’t want to completely eliminate the athlete’s anxiety.  Somatic anxiety is actually helpful to an athlete’s performance. Symptoms of somatic anxiety include experiencing butterflies, sweating, heavy breathing or an elevated heart rate.  Visualization is intended to combat cognitive anxiety, which includes negative thoughts, feelings of apprehension or nervousness.
  5. At competition, encourage your athlete to focus on the current task and only that.  The athlete should focus on visualizing the current lift.  When that lift is complete, the athlete must erase the last lift and focus completely on the next lift.

Take a problem focused avoidance approach.  When you see your athlete becoming overwhelmed, encourage the athlete to block out everything except for the task at hand.  This is especially critical at competitions when an athlete misses a lift.  You must help the athlete put the missed lift behind and focus on the next lift.  Focusing on the last missed lift will only facilitate a decline in performance.

Help your athlete keep perspective.  You know your athlete’s numbers and abilities.  Don’t let other competitors rob your athlete of feeling satisfied at a competition.  Enter the competition with a game plan.  Execute the plan.  And then leave satisfied, knowing that you accomplished your goals.

Cover Photo by Viviana Podhaiski of Everyday Lifters.