Having a perfectionist child is challenging in any arena, but perfectionism in youth sports is especially difficult.
Signs of a perfectionist
They tend to:
- Set high performance standards that can’t possibly be met
- Be motivated by fear of failure rather than by desire for success
- Base their self-worth on accomplishments
- Believe that anything less than perfection is not good enough
Do you see your young athlete anywhere in there?
Before I say more about how to help your child temper his perfectionistic tendencies, let me say that being a perfectionist athlete is not all bad.
These are the athletes who work at something and persist until they get it right. They don’t need much critiquing because they already know what they did wrong. They can be leaders if they are strong personalities, simply by modeling a good work ethic.
So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Instead, parents should focus on channeling their athlete’s perfectionism, rather than changing it.
Dealing with the perfectionism
Channeling your child’s perfectionism means you recognize this personality trait and look for ways to help them use it for their good and the good of others, instead of using it to torture themselves.
- Give them permission to be average for a day. Make it fun. Tell them they can leave their bed unmade and not pick up every single chore. Just one day, mind you…wouldn’t want it to become a habit!
- In the competitive environment of sports, perfectionism thrives, so look for activities outside of sports where you child is not graded or judged and where the process is praised more than the product.
- Challenge them to take risks by thinking outside their structured perfectionism box. Encourage them to play sandlot ball or pickup basketball just for the fun of it–no buzzer, no score board, no stats. When they show some spontaneity and willingness to try something you know they don’t feel comfortable with, affirm their bravery and effort.
- Give them permission to make mistakes. You don’t have to say “I give you permission to make mistakes,” but when they do make a mistake, which they inevitably will, let it slide and don’t make a big deal about it.
- Don’t feed the monster. Perfectionism grows when it’s encouraged. If you’re perfectionist son won’t quit hitting at the ball park until he’s hit 10 home runs, let him know that time is up for batting practice and he’s done a great job. In the game or practice, help your child focus on what he did right, as well as where he needs to improve.
- Understand that firstborns are more likely to be perfectionist. Parenting expert Dr. Kevin Leman explains that firstborn children are often perfectionists because parents tend to treat them differently from their other children. Because parents are more structured with their firstborns, those children usually desire more structure. (Of course, that theory is blown apart in our family because my youngest is the extreme perfectionist of the family!) The good news, Leman says, is that many CEOs and presidents of companies are firstborns. Since they were often left in charge at home over siblings, it’s natural for them to be in charge at work. In the sports arena, those kids are often leaders on the team.
- Deal with your own perfectionism. Is it OK for you to not always have control over situations (playing time, your child’s performance)? Can you handle a messy house when you’re too busy to clean because you’re on the go to games and practices? Show your child what it means to accept less than perfect. It really is OK.
- Apply humor. Gentle joking, teasing, or just plain silliness when appropriate can lighten the mood and get your child to stop thinking of himself. Imperfection is not the end of the world. And that means you have to set the example by learning to laugh at your own mistakes too.
What message are you sending?
Although you may not be pressuring your child to perform perfectly as they play sports, re-examine the messages you are giving to your young athlete. Even if you tell your child that playing time or first-place trophies don’t matter to you, if she constantly hears you brag how many points she scored or how many home runs she hit, a perfectionist child may feel anxious if she doesn’t perform up to par. Your child needs to know that your love is unconditional, and not based on how well she does in sports.
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