On Chasing Perfection
By Laura King, CHt, NLP & Life Coach
1: the quality or state of being perfect: such as
a : freedom from fault or defect : flawlessness
When competitive riders think about the word “perfection” and the words “freedom from fault or defect,” some part of them, no matter who they are, knows that’s not possible. And yet, another part of them strives for it every day, in an unhealthy way. You know what I’m referring to. Their need to be better often translates into a need to be slimmer. Stately means thin, and they can never be thin enough. To make matters worse, some trainers add to the pressure through body-shaming and cultivating disordered thinking around food.
Riders young and not-so-young have so much external pressure. And for many, the internal pressure they impose on themselves is even more dangerous. We have an obligation to try to prevent their impulses and their self-talk from causing damage to their bodies, minds, and self-esteem (to say nothing of their riding and their careers).
But chasing perfection isn’t just about food. It’s also about imposing a standard that is unreachable in all respects. In my mind the only time we should use the word “perfect” is if it’s followed by “enough.” (I wrote an entire book on this topic called Perfect Enough!) How does this apply to training and riding?
First, we need to reframe how we teach and encourage mastery of skills. Encouraging expertise is realistic and helpful. We know what expertise looks like. It has elements that have been defined. And most important, it is what we are judged on. Most trainers would say that this is what they are doing already. But in my practice, I see far too many young women and even young men suffering from the plague of perfectionism. And some of their trainers have no idea how much damage they are causing because they don’t see themselves, so they cannot possibly see the negative effects of their words and actions.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a trainer who consciously intended to cause harm with their words or their training strategies. This isn’t about bad people, as there’s nothing I can do about them. But I can do something about trainers who are wonderful people and mean well and want the best for their students, but who are inadvertently causing harm.
Suspend all judgment for a moment—judgment of yourself and others. And see if you can just read the following few questions with curiosity. Just take in the words, for now, and see if they resonate with you at all throughout the day.
Do you think about how your words might be received?
Though we can never know for certain what the impact of our words is, and the same is true for our delivery, we can do our level best to communicate with compassion and kindness. Athletes look to their trainers to provide them with not only coaching, but also guidance with regard to the appropriate language for what they are trying to accomplish. Trainers have a responsibility to use language that, when internalized by riders, will uplift, inspire, and motivate. As with parenting styles, the old ways of shaming and ridicule (as well as physical abuse) have been shown to be ineffective, at best.
Reflect for a moment. If you were one of your students, would you feel pressured to be perfect?
If you think the answer might be yes, why is that? You are the only one who knows. Just remember that it is entirely possible that your words become their thoughts.
Do you know that you are what you think?
Maybe you do. But let’s consider this in the context of your words to your students. If your words become your students’ thoughts about themselves, do you see how deep your influence runs in the development of their self-esteem? Do you see how that could help or hinder their progress as well as how they think about themselves?
Do you ever talk about certain emotions being bad or negative?
Your students, you, and I, all have a range of emotions, none of which is bad. Not one of them. Reacting without processing certain emotions can easily lead to regrettable decisions and behaviors, but that’s different from emotions being bad. All that means is that there hasn’t been adequate training in dealing with difficult emotions. Such training involves noticing when the challenging emotion is arising, knowing what it is and allowing it to pass without engaging it. That’s not easy, particularly at first. But it’s necessary if we want to not become ruled by our emotions.
There is so much trainers can do to shift the conversation away from perfectionism and toward being the obvious expert whose skills include riding as well as knowing how to handle difficult thoughts and emotions. We all want the same thing for our students, and we need to be mindful that our influence is enormous and needs to be considered accordingly.