Whether an athlete is participating at youth level, professional level or is retired, athletes are vulnerable to psychological distress. Psychological distress is more likely to occur for those who are deselected from clubs, become injured, or experience adverse life events. Personality may be a determining factor for how athletes experience these situations. One personality characteristic related to psychological distress, both inside and outside sport, is perfectionism. Perfectionism is a trait or disposition reflecting a powerful need to be perfect (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). A number of different models and measures exist. However, arguably, the most complete theoretical model of perfectionism is Hewitt and Flett’s (1991) multidimensional model of perfectionism as it provides the most comprehensive account of perfectionistic behaviour available. This model differentiates three forms of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented.

Self-oriented perfectionism (SOP) includes a requirement of the self to be perfect, other-oriented perfectionism (OOP) includes a requirement for others to be perfect, and socially prescribed perfectionism (SPP) includes perceptions that others require perfection of oneself. Individuals can vary in terms of whether they are higher in all three dimensions of perfectionism (SOP, OOP, or SPP), or just one or two dimensions (Hewitt et al., 2017). While it is apparent that SOP, OOP, and SPP are underpinned by different motivations, all dimensions can impact well-being and performance, and are related to a number of psychological difficulties. Mainly, both SOP and SPP are characterised by self-critical appraisal in response to imperfection and a tendency to be cognitively preoccupied with failure (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Consequently, people higher in perfectionism have been described as chronic over-thinkers and “perseverating perfectionists”, due to their tendency to engage in repetitive, maladaptive thinking about not reaching perfectionistic standards or about the need to attain standards in the future (Flett, Nepon, & Hewitt, 2016).

Those higher in perfectionism are likely to engage in ruminative thoughts unique to perfectionism (i.e., perfectionistic cognitions). Flett et al. (1998) recognised that perfectionism involves a salient cognitive component in which those higher in perfectionism are likely to experience frequent perfectionistic cognitions. Perfectionistic cognitions are the automatic thoughts reflecting the need to be perfect. Although more of a state-like manifestation of perfectionism, perfectionistic cognitions represent a stable feature of a perfectionist’s mental experience (Flett et al., 1998). This mental experience is characterised by ruminative self-statements about the self-imposed pressure to be flawless such as “Why can’t I be perfect?” and “I should be perfect” and can be measured by the Perfectionistic Cognitions Inventory (PCI; Flett et al., 1998).

Research has found that frequent perfectionistic cognitions predicted burnout in youth rugby players (Hill and Appleton, 2011). In addition, the experience of frequent perfectionistic cognitions has implications for the experience of pre-competition emotions in youth soccer players (e.g., Donachie, Hill, and Hall, 2018; Donachie, Hill, and Madigan, 2019). That is, frequent perfectionistic cognitions predicted unique variance in anxiety, anger, and dejection beyond trait perfectionism (SOP and SPP) in youth soccer players (Donachie, Hill, and Hall, 2018). These findings were replicated longitudinally whereby perfectionistic cognitions mediated the relationships between SOP, SPP and general anxiety and anger plus multidimensional anxiety and anger at within-person level. The findings imply that athletes higher in SOP and SPP experience more anxiety and anger when the frequency of perfectionistic cognitions increases in the lead up to competition.

As perfectionistic cognitions appear to have implications for the emotional wellbeing of athletes, Donachie and Hill (2020) examined the effectiveness of a self-help intervention in a sample of soccer players. The soccer players were randomly allocated to a self-help intervention group or a control group. The results suggest those in the self-help group benefited from the intervention; the self-help book (“When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough”) was effective in reducing perfectionism. More specifically, it was found that the book may be useful in reducing SPP, perfectionistic cognitions, and negative pre-competition emotions (anxiety, anger, and dejection). The results therefore suggest self-help may be useful for helping athletes manage perfectionism and perfectionistic cognitions.

Tracy Donachie