As is true with any new sport or subject in school, a steep learning curve exists when trying something for the first time. When the failure rate is inevitably high, children can easily get caught up in their mistakes and develop a perfectionist mindset, which is defined as “the setting of excessively high standards of performance in conjunction with a tendency to make overly critical self-evaluations.” Indeed, with this setting of excessively high standards and concern over mistakes, perfectionist children actually may burnout sooner. In fact, over 70 percent of children drop out of organized sports before the age of 13. Burnout is a mix of pressure and stress the rises from personal / situational factors, and it can often be identified before it occurs by a series of recognizable processes: high demand by overloaded training, pressure by others to win, insomnia or fatigue, and decreased performance and withdrawal.
In order to prevent burnout in young athletes we need to understand how perfectionism actually works so that we may use it proficiently. Perfectionism is not as simple as one may think. Studies have shown that it consists of five dimensions: high personal standards of performance, concern over mistakes, parental expectations, parental criticism, and doubts about actions. Sometimes, perfectionism can be helpful. In fact, the adaptive dimension of setting high personal standards has been positively correlated with higher GPA. However, other dimensions of perfectionism predict maladaptive outcomes. For example, a study of Division III female varsity athletes found that concern over mistakes was highly and positively correlated with failure orientation. Specifically, athletes who paid close attention to the mistakes they made were more likely to experience disappointment, negative affect, difficulty concentrating, and increased pressure. Concern over mistakes was also significantly negatively correlated with self-confidence and the ability to recover from mistakes. Perhaps most concerning is that athletes who exhibit higher concern over mistakes may feel more threatened to take risks. As competition increases, risk and failure are a necessary step of improvement, so it is to the athlete’s benefit to take the leap.
While the research on maladaptive perfectionism and negative outcomes is robust, parents can still guide and encourage their children to develop a healthy mindset around competition. Studies have shown that authoritarian and harsh parenting styles significantly correlate with childrens’ concern over mistakes (one dimension of perfectionism). Therefore, we need to be cognizant of how we talk about failure. Below, we present a short guide to communicating effectively with your child about competition:
Maintain an open line of communication with your child – regardless of failure or success. Constructive feedback after wins and losses will take some of the sting and weight out of the feedback when your child loses.
Similarly, always include what they’re doing well. Feedback does not have to always be about changing a behavior.
When giving feedback, focus on their effort. This will help your child develop a growth mindset and learn that they can improve by practicing and putting in effort.
Work collaboratively with your child to set goals that focus on learning new skills, and building competence rather than achieving an outcome. Developing a learning goal orientation has been associated with higher career satisfaction and increased psychosocial support.