Perfectionism and Burnout: There’s More to it Than You Think

Burnout—as an athlete, this word carries with it associations of apprehension and dread. We hear warnings about the phenomenon from coaches and teammates alike, and we see its effects when the most hard-working, success-driven athlete—whom we would least expect to quit—suddenly decides that they no longer want to compete. The emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion which comes with prolonged exposure to stress and pressure is all too common in high-level athletics. This leaves many of us asking: what puts us at risk for burnout, and more importantly—how might we be able to avoid it?

Motivation is a key player in any athlete’s drive to compete and perform. Aside from looking at whether or not an athlete has a high level of motivation, though, we need to consider the type of motivation which fuels the athlete. And, as it is fundamentally linked to motivation, we must evaluate whether the athlete is perfectionistic in nature (Barcza-Renner, Eklund, Morin, & Habeeb, 2016). Now, you might be thinking, “Well, if an athlete is highly motivated, that means they’re more likely to be a perfectionist, and these factors put them more at risk for burnout.” Not quite. Burnout risk depends on the source of a person’s motivation, and the motivation source characterizes the form of perfectionism which is likely to be manifested in their mindset. In other words, ‘being a perfectionist’ in some cases equates to having a high risk of burnout, and in other cases it does not. By looking at the source of an athlete’s motivation, we can identify whether their perfectionistic tendencies are working for or against the likelihood of both their success and adherence to sport in the long run.

There are two primary forms of motivation: autonomous and controlled. Autonomous motivation is essentially synonymous with intrinsic motivation, in which one performs an act simply for the sake of performing the act and the pleasure they take in doing so. Controlled motivation, on the other hand, can be found in athletes who have fewer self-determined reasons for participation and whose behaviors and decisions are contingent upon external sources (e.g. rewards, punishments) (Barcza-Renner et al., 2016). When a perfectionistic athlete is autonomously motivated, their perfectionism is intrapersonal; they have an inherent, compulsive striving towards perfection. This is referred to as self-oriented perfectionism. On the contrary, an athlete driven by controlled motivation who exhibits perfectionistic tendencies can be said to have socially prescribed perfectionism. The standards which this athlete strives towards are perceived to be externally imposed by someone whom the athlete respects and desires to please (Barcza-Renner et al., 2016).

Just as being highly motivated does not make you a perfectionist, being a perfectionist does not necessarily put you at a higher risk for burnout. If you are an intrinsically-motivated, or self-driven, individual (i.e. you are driven by autonomous motivation), then being a perfectionist is not likely to be a contributing cause to future burnout. But if you are a perfectionistic individual whose motivation is based upon external sources (i.e. you are driven by controlled motivation), then it is likely that you are predisposed to experiencing burnout somewhere down the line in your athletic career (Barcza-Renner et al., 2016).

Understanding the difference between autonomous and controlled motivation is key in beginning to protect oneself from experiencing future burnout. If you are not autonomously motivated, and you are able to recognize that your perfectionistic tendencies are fueled by external sources rather than your desire to do things for their inherent pleasure, then you have taken the first step in working to avoid burnout. The next step would be to change this. Knowing that your motivation source may be harmful isn’t enough. You need to work to redefine success as enjoying what you do—not because you are fulfilling someone else’s standards or goals, but because you yourself are feeling fulfilled. After all, in the face of adversity, it is our will to hold onto what we love which ultimately gets us through.

–Kylie Burgess

Barcza-Renner, K., Eklund, R. C., Morin, A. J. S., & Habeeb, C. M. (2016). Controlling coaching behaviors and athlete burnout: investigating the mediating roles of perfectionism and motivation. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 38, 30-44.

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