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Using Sport Psychology Skills to Improve Martial Arts Training:

Challenging Perfectionistic Demands

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"A person with perfectionistic demands hates failure of any type. They will often avoid challenges
that they determine as too difficult rather than take the chance of failing."
The following article is part of a series of articles that focus on the practical application of sport psychology skills to martial arts training. For a more in-depth look at the research upon which this article is based, please read: Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review

One concept that I will revisit frequently in these articles is the importance of our cognitions, or thought process, to performance. The thought process can make or break an athlete no matter how capable he or she is physically. This article will focus on the perfectionistic thinking style and how it affects performance. Our culture tends to cultivate perfectionistic thinking. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the specific nature of the self-talk.

Researchers make a distinction between a perfectionistic demand and a perfectionistic desire. The difference between these two concepts is not in the behavior but in the thinking; in particular, the thinking regarding negative outcomes. For instance, two individuals could have high expectations of success and attempt to achieve a task as perfectly as possible. However, the individual with the perfectionistic demand would feel like a failure. He or she would mentally berate himself and feel incompetent and worthless. Whereas, the individual with the perfectionistic desire would assess the situation differently: “I tried my best and can feel good about my performance. I will learn from this experience and improve in the future.”

A person with perfectionistic demands hates failure of any type. They will often avoid challenge that they determine as too difficult rather than take the chance of failing. When my son competed in chess tournaments, he preferred to draw an expert or master level chess player as an opponent even though he was likely to lose to them. When I asked him why, he said he could learn more losing to them than winning against someone at his own level. I not only learned how smart my teenage son was but I realized this was a very important life strategy. Seek out people who are better than you and learn from them. Don’t dread a better opponent. See it as an opportunity to learn and improve. In the martial arts I’ve often heard of people who remain at the brown belt level rather than be promoted to black belt because then they can win at tournaments. These people are losing the big picture. They are making winning more important than learning. Therefore, they will never be true champions.

Much of our perfectionistic behavior comes from concern about what others might think of us. A maxim from the Tao te Ching states “If you care what people think, you will be their prisoner.” In other words, you allow others to direct your choices, your behavior, your life instead of living according to your own values and desires. As a result you are trapped in a life that is not your own. To take control of our own lives we must take risks which means that we will make mistakes and experience failure along with our successes. However, those failures are frequently more valuable than the successes because we are taught not to fear failure. One of the times from which I learned the most in kata competition was when I completely forgot my kata. I learned that the world didn’t end and that people didn’t treat me any different than previously. Ultimately, that failure contributed to my success in future competition because I learn to think differently about competition which decreased my nervousness and improved my performance. Instead of catastrophizing about the possibility of making mistakes and what people might think, I was able to focus on enjoying my performance.

So how do you change perfectionistic demands to perfectionistic desires? The first step is awareness. You have to recognize destructive self-talk before you can change it. For some people, this step may be easy and they could count off a list without hesitation of negative perfectionistic statements that they use during practice or performance. However, others may not have any awareness of their self-statements. If this is the case, you may try deliberately focusing during practice on what you are saying internally to yourself. If you still have difficulty, ask a partner to observe your nonverbals such as facial expressions or intonations of disgust. When they see anything that may indicate an internal self-statement, they should stop you and ask what you are thinking.

Once you have determined your self-statements, write them down so you can examine them. As yourself the following questions:

  • Is this a negative statement?
  • How does it make me feel?
  • Do I feel worse using this statement or better?
  • Does it encourage me to keep trying or do I want to give up?
  • Does it cause a heightened negative intensity such as nervousness or anger?
  • Or does it cause increased positive intensity such as excitement or eager anticipation?
  • Does this self-statement benefit or harm me?
  • Do I want to keep using this self-statement?

If you determine that the self-statement is not beneficial and you don’t want to keep using it, then you need to develop an alternative self-statement to replace it. For example, instead of saying “Why can’t I get this? I’m so stupid,” you can say “As long as I keep trying, I’ll keep improving.” Or instead of saying “What will people think if I make a mistake?” you can say “I am doing this for me and every mistake that I correct will help me perform better.” Ask others for ideas regarding self-talk that they have found helpful.

Once you have created a list of self-statements, you then need to work at replacing the old negative thinking. The key to changing thinking is repetition. The more you tell yourself something, the more it will begin to become automatic. You can do this by reviewing your list frequently throughout the day. You can choose a single statement to use while practicing. You can even tape your statements and listen to them while you are doing something else such as cooking. The overall goal is to increase the beneficial self-talk which reduces the effectiveness of the harmful self-talk. The end result should be a corresponding increase in performance.

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