When it comes to parenting young athletes, many strategies have been shown to help improve their
engagement and experiences. However, not all young athletes are the same. Some young athletes
may display perfectionistic tendencies, which can have a negative impact on the quality of their
engagement in sport.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is about the unrealistic expectations that people can have for themselves and for
other people in their life. There are several forms of perfectionism:
- Some people expect themselves to be perfect (self-oriented perfectionism).
- Some people expect other people to be perfect (other-oriented perfectionism).
- Some people think that other people in their life, like a parent, coach, or teacher, expect
them to be perfect (socially prescribed perfectionism).
Over twenty years of scientific research has shown that everyone is perfectionistic to some degree.
Some people have high levels of perfectionism. Other people have low levels of perfectionism. Most
people are somewhere in between.
How does perfectionism affect young athletes?
Dr Sarah Mallinson-Howard and colleagues have shown that perfectionism undermines the potential
for sport to be a rewarding experience for young athletes. How it does so, depends on the
perfectionistic tendencies they have:
- If young athletes expect themselves to be perfect, it won’t mean they work hard and
perform better. Instead, it can mean they will experience lots of unnecessary anxiety and
- If young athletes expect others to be perfect, it can impact negatively on their relationships
(e.g., friendships) and they will feel less supported when they need help.
- If young athletes believe that other people expect them to be perfect, they can feel
unhappy, stressed, and lonely. This is the worst form of perfectionism.
What can parents do?
If parents are concerned about their child’s perfectionistic tendencies and would like to help them
better manage their expectations and feel supported, here are three handy tips:
1. Encourage and support your child to feel good about things other than how they perform in
sport (or elsewhere), such as being a kind person.
2. Reward your child’s efforts even if things don’t go well (or perfectly). Mistakes are part of
learning and should be accepted.
3. Emphasise to your child that sometimes things just need to get done. Things can’t always be
perfect. You can learn a lot by just doing things (rather than trying to do things perfectly or
putting things off when they are unlikely to be done perfectly).
For further guidance and information, please see these documents for parents and check out the
video in this blog.
Whilst all young people are perfectionistic to some degree and certain parenting strategies may
help, if you are at all concerned that your child is having problems with their mental health (e.g.,
they are upset all the time) talk to them about it and arrange to see their GP.
Dr Sarah Mallinson-Howard is Associate Head of Sport and Senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise
Psychology in the School of Science, Technology, and Health at York St John University, UK. As
Engagement Lead for the Motivation, Performance, and Well-being (MPaW) Research Group at York
St John University, her research focuses on understanding how perfectionism influences the
engagement and experiences of athletes, in particular young athletes, and how perfectionism might
best be managed by parents, coaches, and athletes themselves.