Monday night, Saints QB Drew Brees completed 29-of-30 passes as New Orleans dominated the Colts, 34-7.
His completion percentage of 96.7 set the NFL single-game mark for quarterbacks with more than 25 attempts. He also happened to set the all-time NFL passing touchdown record, moving ahead of Peyton Manning into first place with 541. It was an incredible performance.
After the game, though, Brees’ mind was on his incompletion.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he told ESPN, “you always think about the one that you missed. If I just set my darn feet and throw it to the running back, it’s 30 for 30, so that one may haunt me for a little while.”
Brees’ focus on the negative is a sign of his intense perfectionism. It’s a trait that can set high achievers apart. But it can also bring them down. Here’s how obsessing over perfection can impact athletes, both positively and negatively – and what athletes should do about it.
An obsession with perfection can lead to high achievement: Athletes obsessed with perfection tend to get closer to it. They’re focused on improvement. They’re motivated. They will grind and work to be the best – to be perfect.
These are the characteristics most athletes associate with perfectionism, which is why it tends to be painted in a favorable light.
An obsession with perfection can lead to mental health problems: Michael Phelps’ story is instructive. Regarded by many as the all-time greatest Olympian (and certainly worth of inclusion in the greatest-athlete-ever debate), Phelps achieved incredible things because he was obsessed with perfection.
When he retired, though, he couldn’t fulfill his obsession – and he became depressed to the point of becoming suicidal. (He’s since become a spokesman for mental health.) Athletes who are compulsively perfectionistic in sports performance will struggle when sports performance can’t be their central role.
An obsession with perfection can impede performance: On the other hand, an obsession with perfection can hinder athletes during performance.
Perfectionism involves a compulsive focus on what can be improved. This means dwelling on past mistakes. Athletes who obsess over perfection, but who aren’t mentally equipped to deal with mistakes, will be derailed when things go wrong. Great performances will unravel quickly.
So what should high achievers do?
High achievers tend to be perfectionistic; the danger is in obsession. Here are some things they can do to combat this.
Recognize compulsion. Most athletes don’t understand that when they need perfection, it becomes a harmful compulsion. The first step in combatting this harm is to recognize it.
Set limits. Reflecting on mistakes is natural, but it has to be capped. Former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith famously instructed Michael Jordan to set a time limit for dwelling on the negatives of a performance in order to maintain his productivity and health.
Focus on process over results. At its core, an obsession with perfection is an obsession with results. Athletes should focus on the elements of performance they can control. The process ultimately gives the most satisfaction.
Mental training can help, too. I can help athletes to manage perfectionistic tendencies with clinically proven techniques. With training, athletes can use their desire to be great to their benefit and minimize its harmful tendencies.
It’s what Drew Brees has done; after throwing his first incompletion in the first half, he immediately settled back in to complete 22 passes in a row. It wasn’t perfection. But that will only bother him for a little while.
This week’s post is the latest in a series of guest columns by Donovan Martin, who heads Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Donovan Mental Performance. Donovan and his team are doing exciting things to help athletes bring their very best to the court, diamond or gridiron. We introduced Donovan in November on our Friday Wrap, and he’s addressed topics like the mental side of being a kicker, how two great teams prepare for a showdown and why some teams always win and others always lose in this space.