No athlete plays just to win, but let's be honest – we don't play to lose. Every game, we want to be at our best, and better than our competitors. The problem is, sometimes your top competitor is yourself.
Seeking perfection in sports, or anywhere in life, is a dead end. As a collegiate athlete, and now as a sports psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, I can think of many times I wanted to be the best, but the obsession had the opposite effect.
Many of the students I work with face the same challenge. In response, I came up with the acronym P.E.R.F.E.CT. to address sports-life perfection, and how to turn self-focused distraction into a performance boost.
P - Positive Self Talk
Are you your best friend or your worst enemy? It's human nature to react negatively sometimes, but self-destructive thoughts lead to anxiety, and that can get nasty. Catch yourself when you're negative and shift focus to what you're doing right, at any level, and an achievable target to improve your game.
1) Take inventory of your thoughts: What are they, and what situations or feelings are dominating them? You may need to shift focus away from only bad news, or a past poor performance.
2) Identify words and phrases that help you be great. What pumps you up and helps you feel confident, or relaxes you? What word or phrase reminds you of an important technique? Top athletes do this all the time – identify key phrases and use them before, during and after performances or in times of stress. Eventually they become second nature.
E - Embrace Adversity
Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "There's nothing to fear but fear itself," and as it turns out, that's kind of true. Whatever happens to us rarely matches the severity our minds think up. Be honest, has the outcome ever matched your fear? If you're reading this, the worst-case scenario didn't pan out. Take control of that worst-case scenario. Would you survive? Probably. Would your life end up being OK? Probably. Would it be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and not ideal if a worst-case scenario happened? Yes. But would you lose your life because of it? You might lose a game maybe, but your life, no.
1) Practice being comfortable with the uncomfortable. We often run away or self-medicate ourselves through discomfort. Get used to feeling uncomfortable. Adversity gets a lot easier when you learn how to handle discomfort.
2) Approach instead of avoid. Scared of making that call? Pick up the phone. Anxious that you won't hit your best time in that race? Sign up.
3) Given your worst-case scenario, would you ultimately end up fine a year later, or five years later? The answer is yes.
R - Reverse Engineer
We all set goals from the view at 30,000 feet, so it can be difficult to break that into targets to hit each day. For example, to become a better runner, you have to identify what a better runner does and how a better runner looks and acts. Once you identify those general traits, continue to reverse engineer until you can break them down into specific behaviors, and do them.
1) Imagine an external observer with a checklist and binoculars watching your every move: What would that person see that immediately reveals you're working towards your goal?
2) Consider the positive steps your role model chose to reach success, then do the same.
3) Deep dive to identify small but important actions that hit incremental targets. Through small steps your goals will be achieved.
F - Focus On the Now
If you're always seeking perfection, you'll be burdened by anxiety, and that's a distraction. Anxiety hits everyone, and it comes from worrying about the future or regretting the past. Connect to the moment to keep the "What if's" at bay, and prevent them from disrupting your head and your game.
1) Connect with your breaths. Every breath is in the present and anchors you to the here and now. Plus, exhaling triggers physical changes in the body that force you to relax.
2) Be your own best distraction: Focus on all your senses. What do you see? Smell? Hear? Awareness is awesome! With distraction, your anxiety will fade.
3) Remind yourself of What's Important Now (W.I.N.). You might have a lot of things to do, but what’s the one thing you have to do right now?
E - Evolve
Guess what? You're more than an athlete. You're more than wins and losses, or your weight, or your IQ. You're a human being. Often we stress out because our sense of self is wrapped into our athletic performance. So when we fall short, not only do we feel like we failed our sport, we feel we failed as a human being. No more! Time to evolve. Feel free to be upset when you don't perform well, but don't let that affect how you value your worth as a person. That’s going too far.
1) Ask yourself, "What else do I bring to the table, besides being an athlete?" No matter how deep you dig, the answer is actually a lot more than what you'll come up with. Recognize that.
2) Shoot for the moon, but even if you miss, realize you're a badass!
C - Chill Out
Sports culture pushes intensity, but we all need time to rest. That can be five minutes of breathing, a day off from training, a month-long vacation or a one-year sabbatical. Build your rest into your training to avoid burnout, injury and stress.
1) One of the best ways to relax is through belly breathing: Slow inhale through the nose, expanding the belly first, followed by the chest. Hold the inhale in the body for about four seconds. Then slowly exhale out of the mouth. Rinse and repeat.
2) Go on a vacation. Seriously. Do it. NOW!
T - Talk it Out
As human beings, we're social animals. Nobody goes through life completely alone, even if sometimes we feel that way. Interact with, and reach out to, the people in your life. If you are facing some tough struggles, don't think you'll solve them alone. Bring them up with a coach, a counselor or another professional you can vent to. Venting can be extremely effective at releasing the negative emotions tensing your body, cluttering your mind, and weighing down your heart.
1) Go to lunch with a friend, call someone who knows you well, and reach out to more of your contacts. No one person will be available for you every time, but your network is always there, for a crisis or for catching up.
2) Call a counselor or psychologist. We don't bite. Plus, we usually can find a way to approach your challenge from an angle you've never considered.
The more competitive we are, the more we focus on perfection. The more we focus on perfection, the further away we get from it. Only by gaining control of the moment, allowing our minds to decompress and staying connected to our social network can we keep our heads and our hearts in the game. As you move away from that perfection obsession, and broaden your targets, you'll find yourself getting even closer to your ultimate goals.