Perfectionism and the Athlete


Recently, Alison Bowen wrote an excellent article for the Chicago Tribune entitled, ” The overachieving generation: As millennials strive for perfection, anxiety and depression increase”. It’s a great read – you can find it here.

While it starts off talking about a therapist, who as a boy quit the swim team due to  his own unrealistic standards, the article quickly shifts to the larger issue of children in general who expect perfection, and suffer from anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts when they can’t reach it. It’s this drive to “achieve” as opposed to striving to improve that’s causing the problems. They view failure to achieve perfection to mean they’re a failure. There doesn’t seem to be any credit given for effort or progress.

In my classification system, I consider perfectionist swimmers to be outcome-oriented. The outcome is more important than the process and the situation. Getting 4th at a tough meet would be viewed as a failure. Getting 1st at an easy meet would be viewed as an expected success. In fact, just getting slower in practice can sometimes be seen as a failure of their body to handle the practice.  And stroke correction can be problematic, as it can sometimes be taken to mean they are failing at performing the stroke properly. As you can imagine, this view of themselves can be harmful and counter-productive.

The perfectionist attitude is quite different than the class of swimmers I call grinders and competitors.

I view grinders as being goal-oriented. They are capable of challenging themselves in every competitive and training situation. Getting tired or slower in practice is irrelevant, as it’s all part of the process of eventually attaining their goal. However, grinders often don’t like technique work, as it’s viewed as too easy. They’d rather just get out there and grind.

There’s another type of swimmer I think of as competitors, and they are process-oriented. Typically they just love to practice and love to compete. They have no problem in losing to swimmers who are faster, as it’s all part of being an athlete. They typically love and want to improve in anything you throw at them: technique work; dives; turns; swimming feet first; mixing strokes for their arms and legs. It’s all good. and it’s all fun. The only potential negative is that they don’t always have that drive to take them to the next level.

But back to perfectionists again. There’s one type of set that perfectionists hate. And it’s also the type of set that can help them to overcome their fears of failure. I’m talking about the descending pace time set that continues until they fail. Here’s an example.

     4×50 on 1′, 4 on 55″, 4×50 on 50″, 4×50 on 45″, etc. until they miss the pace

There’s no way around failure with this set. You swim until you fail. I’ve found that perfectionists tend to give up far before their body hits its limit. And that’s simply because they fear that inevitable feeling that will occur when their body fails them. So it’s better to fail early and voluntarily than fail for physical reasons.

Now this is where I’m going to climb high upon Mount Stupid, and provide you with my simplistic explanation. It really doesn’t matter what pace time they fail at, they will inevitably feel they should have made that pace time.

Which leads me to the next step of addressing that fear. When I change the set to be 25s on a descending pace time, I could a totally different result. Specifically, the set I use is Nx25 on 35″ with the pace time dropping by 1″ every 25. (As a coach you really have to be on the ball to call out the start times!)  You can think of it as a swimmer’s beep test. And my theory is that swimmers, or at least my swimmers, don’t know their 25 times well enough to easily determine if they should have made a particular pace time. (I’ve been told that the term for this is obfuscated currency.) The pace time for a 25 has less meaning for them, and therefore lessens the fear of failing simply because they don’t know what pace time they should be able to make.

The key here is that once they get used to missing a pace time, we’ve started the process of addressing their fears. And now we can make some real progress.


As you may have gathered, I’m definitely not an expert in this field. I’d love to hear from others as to how they handle perfectionist swimmers/athletes.


One thought on “Perfectionism and the Athlete

  1. Very good article. Seeing this phenomenon in the professional world as well…can be frustrating for us 1960’s GenX’ers!

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s