As an endurance athlete, it’s perfectly normal to hold yourself to high standards—to want to get out there and perform your best and get better every time. It’s part of the thrill of sport—putting in the time and effort training, so come race day, you see all that hard work pay off.
Practicing for stellar performances can definitely be motivating, but when you take it to the extreme, it can actually have the opposite effect and mess with your self-confidence and derail your ride plans. What is the extreme? Perfectionism, something that many driven athletes wrestle with when it comes to their training and race day performance.
To help you recognize a perfectionist mindset and how to move beyond it so you can actually perform at your best—and continue loving your sport—we spoke with psychology experts to give you the knowledge.
What Perfectionism Actually Means
“Perfectionism has been defined in a couple of different ways, but the one most prevalent is an individual’s commitment to extremely high standards of performance,” says Meghan Byrd, Ph.D., assistant professor of kinesiology, sport and exercise psychology at Georgia Southern University and member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “Even if you do something good or great, there’s always something you feel that you could have done better or differently.”
There’s an old saying, “Good is the enemy of great,” Byrd adds. “Perfectionism is the enemy of great as well.” Perfectionism leads people to hold themselves to extremely high—often unrealistic—standards, and if they can’t meet those, they are hypercritical of themselves, and maybe even quit trying altogether.
This mindset can suck all the fun out of a sport. It may even lead you to push yourself so hard that you end up injured.
Signs of Perfectionism
So, how can you recognize if you have a perfectionist mindset? First thing to pay attention to is how you’re talking to yourself.
“When people notice that they are very critical of themselves, when they focus on mistakes, when there becomes a preoccupation with things they could do better, these are signs of perfectionism,” Byrd says.
Another tip-off: You’re having more bad days than good days, says Deborah N. Roche, Ph.D., sports psychologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. It’s tricky, because endurance sports can leave you drained and make it harder to combat negativity, she adds. But if you feel mental exhaustion that’s been going on for more than just a couple days, or it’s more consistent—say, you’ve have a couple bad days every week for the last month or two—it can be a sign that perfectionism is taking its toll.
Perfectionism can also lead you to no longer find joy in your sport. “It feels like a job,” Roche says. “Nine out of 10 times we started our sport because we loved it and it was fun. If you’re dreading it, it’s a good indicator to take a step back and kind of assess what’s going on.”
This mindset may also manifest as you feeling too overwhelmed to start because you're afraid you won’t do as well as you’re capable of doing, Byrd says.
Finally, ruminating on your past performances and picking apart everything you did is another big sign that you’ve fallen into a perfectionist trap. Maybe you went out for a big training ride or competed in a race, and find yourself constantly thinking for days about the things you could have done differently, Byrd says. This might include how you could have pushed a little harder here or ate something a little something different there—that’s a perfectionist’s line of thinking.
How Perfectionism Can Mess With Performance
The things that are good about perfectionism—a drive to work harder and be better—are also what hold people back, Byrd says. Holding yourself to unreasonable standards sets you up for a mental roadblock: When you can’t meet them, you might feel so burnt out you are compelled to quit, or you may push yourself so much harder that you get injured, Byrd says. “People may skip taking time off to recover because they have these super high, unreasonable standards.”
As Roche adds, perfectionism “is this double-edged sword because in a lot of ways it’s what makes someone very good at their sport, but by the same token it can be defeating because you’re trying to get something that you just can’t achieve.” Continually being disappointed in yourself can mentally bog you down.
And as any cyclist knows, half the battle is mental. When perfectionism leaves you feeling negative, self-critical, and defeated, it’s going to be so much harder to motivate yourself to perform at your best, to get back out there and try again, leaving past performances in the past.
Perfectionism can also overlap with feelings of anxiety or depression and imposter syndrome, Byrd says. Imposter syndrome is this worry that you’re not as good or qualified as you’ve somehow led other people to think, and that everyone is somehow going to figure you out. When you’re so focused on being perfect, it can let these feelings of doubt creep in, Byrd says. This can further ding your confidence and belief in yourself, which can hinder how you actually end up doing when it comes to performance.
How to Overcome a Perfectionist Mindset
Dismantling a perfectionist mindset takes time. Byrd and Roche recommend keeping the following tips in mind to overcome it so that you can perform your best—and get back to loving the sport.
Challenge your thoughts
It’s too easy to slip into self-criticism. Byrd recommends paying attention to those thoughts when they come up, and challenging them. Think about where the criticism is coming from, and how you can speak more kindly to yourself instead, she says. For example, when you finish a race and automatically think about the one thing you did wrong, stop yourself and refocus your thoughts on the thing (or things!) you did right. Pat yourself on the back for the good, and then keep any criticism you have constructive.
On that some token, try to catch yourself when you’re making comparisons. “Sometimes perfectionists will engage in a lot of comparisons,” Byrd says. Whether that’s to your own past performances or to others, it’s important to acknowledge that you’re caught in a comparison trap and remind yourself that it’s not productive, that you’re riding your own race, and you just have to focus on you, in the now.
Byrd suggests setting boundaries for how long you’ll allow yourself to dwell on a mistake. It’s perfectly normal to reflect on your performance, but it’s important to not let it consume your thoughts. So recognize what happened, think about how you can improve next time, and then move on—as soon as you can. Try to limit yourself to just a few minutes of rumination, or take a full day if you must, but then it’s time to let it go.
Measure success on a larger scale
“I don’t look at small bites when we’re talking about success because it takes more than a few months,” Roche says. “I like to go back a year to see how you’re doing.” You may not be able to see improvements from month to month, since it’s natural for your performance to vary. But over the course of a year, your successes will be more apparent. “Also, generally, you will get better in a year,” Roche adds.
Speak to yourself the way you’d speak to someone else
The truth is, other athletes are never as hard on you as you are on yourself, Roche says. And you would never be as hard on others as you are on yourself. So, shift your thinking. Think: “If my training partner or friend came and said these things I said to myself right now, what would my reaction be?” Roche suggests. “You’d never hold anyone else to the same standard and make them feel less than if they didn’t achieve it, so why are we doing that to ourselves?”
It’s important to have some self-empathy and compassion when we are performing, Byrd says. Acknowledge that if you can’t do something great or perfect at first, it’s perfectly okay and to be expected. “We need to give ourselves permission to learn and grow,” Byrd says.
Lean on your community
“Sometimes you’re so entrenched in your mindset that it’s hard to have objectivity,” Roche says. That’s where your trainer or physical therapist or someone else on your team or in your corner can help. Lean on them for feedback, and know that you’ll get a more objective opinion on your performance that’s not clouded by the weight of your own self-pressure and criticism.
This can also help with imposter syndrome, Byrd says. “The chances of you fooling everyone who supports you versus you actually being qualified? It’s in your favor.” Other people can provide some reassurance that you’re perfectly capable and doing a great job, even when your own self-doubt tries to tell you otherwise.
Reframe your idea of perfection
“Sometimes we think of perfection as an outcome or tied to some reward,” Byrd says. “That’s where some of this burnout comes from.” Reframing how we think about success can help. That might mean taking pride in simply showing up for the majority of the workouts on your training plan versus nailing every workout exactly as it’s laid out.
“It’s not an outcome, it’s something we strive to work towards. If we are looking at the perfect outcome, we miss the process. And that’s the fun part about biking,” Byrd says. “Perfection robs us from living in the experience.”