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Dealing with pressure to perform. What can you learn from champions?

‘I'm afraid of making mistakes’ or ‘I’m a perfectionist’. More and more pupils, students, soccer players, teachers and others are expressing themselves in this way. Perfectionism is the pursuit of perfection and is becoming more and more common, with all its consequences. While wanting to do something perfectly is not necessarily a bad thing. It does raise questions however: Can you achieve perfection? How do you deal with striving for perfection? And what can you learn from champions, those who are best at what they do?


After studying psychology, I worked in the youth academies of PSV Eindhoven and Willem II Tilburg for a couple of years. Especially as a teamcoach and mentor. I have been working at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in HRM and Psychology since 2020 with teaching (sports & performance) psychology, supervising and coaching students and developing education as my responsibilities. With the coaching agency Bauer & Van de Looij, together with Martijn Bauer, we guide individuals and organizations in how they can get the best out of themselves, and each other. In coaching people we have experienced a number of lessons to be helpful for people, young and old, man and woman, we coach and have coached. Their challenges: pressure to performance, dealing with mistakes and perfectionism. That's why I share these lessons with you; hopefully they help you too.


What is performance?

"Performance knows no compromise, it's either good or it's bad."

Toon Gerbrands, former CEO of PSV Eindhoven


Everyone has an urge to perform, the so-called achievement motivation. Of course this motivation differs per person; one person might be more ambitious and wants to deliver great performances, while another is satisfied with more modest achievements. What performance means is personal for everyone. However, in my experience in coaching young people in particular, performance and perfection seem to be synonymous. For many of them, the definition of performance is: 'Making no mistakes'. That is very similar to the definition of perfection. Because perfection, according to the dictionary, is: 'Absence of errors or defects; perfection.’ Does performance equal perfection? And to what extent is perfection necessary in performing and achieving goals?


How common is perfection in champions?

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

Vincent Lombardi, former American Football coach


According to the dictionary, a champion is a ‘(sports) Person or team that has beaten all competitors.’ A champion is the best in his or her discipline and generally speaking it’s only one person or one team. Hockey and soccer are two popular team sports in the Netherlands. How common is perfection among teams that became champions?

Viewed over a period of 10 years, men's hockey champions won an average of 15 to 16 of their 22 league matches in one season (70.2%). That number is somewhat higher for women: their champions won an average of 17 to 18 league matches out of 22 (80.2%). The play-off games after the competition are not included in this. In the men's premier league soccer, the champion won an average of 24 to 25 league matches out of 34 (72.6%). Those are averages taken from 2000-2020. In all those years, no champion has won every league game in one season.


What about England’s Premier League champions? From season 1992-1993 until 2021-2022 the average champion won about 66% of their league matches in one season. They drew 22% and lost an average of 12% of their league matches. Also in England, no champion won all it’s league matches in one season, although a couple came close. Both Manchester City (2017-2018 & 2018-2019) and Liverpool (2019-2020) won 32 out of 38 matches (84%). Strikingly, one champion managed to remain without a loss in one season. In the 2003-2004 season Arsenal didn’t lose a single league match and won 68% and drew 32% of their league matches.


So both in The Netherlands and England there hasn’t been a champion having won all their league matches in one season. How about rugby teams? James Kerr wrote, in his book Legacy, that New Zealand's rugby team, the All Blacks, are the best performing rugby team in the world with a winning percentage of 86%. Perfection does not appear in the statistics of champions in team sports. Does it happen with individual champions?


An article by De Volkskrant shows that Rafael Nadal is the tennis player with the highest winning percentage (83.3%). Novak Djokovic (83.1%) Björn Borg (82.4%) and Roger Federer (82.1%) follow. An (older) article from NU.nl looked at Federer's winning percentages per season, in the period from 1999-2013 (see image below). The numbers are slightly higher for the ladies when looking at the highest winning percentage in one season. An article from the NOS shows the top 3: Martina Navritalova (1983: 98.85%), Steffi Graf (1989: 97.73%) and again Martina Navritalova (1984: 97.5%) have the highest winning percentages in the women's tennis of all time. The most successful Olympian ever with 28 medals, swimmer Michael Phelps, won 23 of his 30 swimming matches at the Olympics. That's a win rate of 76.7%. Even the statistics of individual champions show that perfection does not exist. Ever?



In the 2021-2022 season, Dutch soccer team Ajax Amsterdam won all six group matches in the Champions League. The winners of a tennis grand slam tournament, such as Wimbledon, have to win all their matches in that tournament in order to claim the title. From 2001 to 2011, Michael Phelps won every 200-meter butterfly in every World and Olympic Games he competed in. Carl Lewis (long jump), Alfred Oerter (discus throw) and Paul Elvstrom (sailing) won gold in their discipline at four consecutive Olympic Games. These are examples of perfection.


So perfection does occur, at times. But even if results are perfect, then the question rises whether the (technical) execution was perfect. Tennis champions don't win every point, every game and every set. In the six CL group matches won, Ajax lost the ball couple of times, not every attack led to a goal and the opponents scored one or more goals.


You can win a match despite losing points to the opponent. How about education? A diploma is not necessarily worth less with an imperfect grade average. Grades are being discussed less and less during job interviews, according to the online career network magnet.me. Even companies can, in general, continue to exist despite a missed deal. So not only does perfection not occur often, it also turns out not to be necessary for achieving goals. Of course, the higher the level you aim for, the more ambitious your goals, the smaller the margin of error becomes.


Lesson 1: Perfection is rare and not necessary for achieving goals.

Can anyone become a champion?

“Just remember that everybody wants to be a champion, but not everyone is willing to prepare to be a champion.”

Jamy Bechler, leadership consultant and former basketball coach


Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson wrote about the principle of unequal distribution in his book 12 rules for life. According to that principle, success is unevenly distributed. Peterson gives an example from the animal world with the lobster. The strongest male lobsters obtain the best habitats and can mate with almost all females during a mating season, the rest of the males, the majority, cannot and are out of luck. This principle is also prevalent in our world: only a few composers, like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, composed almost all the music played by modern orchestras, a handful of writers sell most books and society’s top 1% has as much money as the bottom 50%.


That principle of unequal distribution is, logically, also reflected in champions. In fact, it’s part of the game for there are (almost) always more contenders than there can be champions. For example, of the 20 teams in England’s men's Premier League soccer, only one team becomes champion in a single season. In the Dutch hockey league, 12 teams participate in both ladies' and men’s league, of which only one team becomes champion. Taken a broader view, there’s only one person of all 17 million Dutch people who can become prime minister or national coach, even though (social) media sometimes suggest otherwise. Why is succes distributed unequal? For one reason because becoming a champion is not easy, it requires a lot of effort, qualities, sacrifices, and even luck. Therefore it is not for everyone.


However, maybe you can’t become a champion, but you can act like one. The dictionary gives a second definition of champion. A champion is: 'One who fights for a good cause, one who defends the interests of something'. Anyone can do that. Not everyone can become a champion, but every person can fight for a good cause and defend certain interests. This touches on what Simon Sinek writes in The Infinite Game. He argues that in many contexts, such as business, the challenge is not to win. According to him, the challenge is to stay in the game, to participate as long as possible and to fight for a good cause. Anyone can act like a champion.


Lesson 2: Not everyone can become a champion, but everyone can act like a champion.

What is it about becoming a champion?

“Being a champion is not about how hard you can hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and still get back up fighting.”

Anonymous


Several things are important if you want to become a champion, but for now let’s only focus on the lesson regarding perfection. The better the performance, the greater the chance of that coveted (first) place. But champions, as a rule, do not perform perfectly, and they don’t even have to. Therefore, "not making mistakes" as a definition of performance, held by many young people especially, is incorrect. Because champions do make mistakes: from losing points, games or matches to the opponent, apparently that's all part of it. It's not so much winning every point, but dealing with losing a point or conceding a goal. That's in line with what Paul Assaiante, the winningest coach in college sports, says in Michael Gervais's Finding Mastery podcast: 'It's not about perfection, it's about dealing with imperfection.' That goes for champions in sports, but also for champions in business according to Adam Grant in this TED talk.


Lesson 3: It's not about perfection, it's about dealing with imperfection.

How does a champion deal with imperfection?

“Don't waste your time striving for perfection; instead, strive for excellence - doing your best.”

Lawrence Oliver, former actor


In this video from a few years ago, Roger Federer, who won 103 (!) titles in tennis, shares his goal. ‘Almost every time I step on the tennis court today, I can rewrite history in some form. And all I can do is do my best. Then it will be fine.' But not everyone takes it like Roger Federer, not even Federer himself when he was a little younger: ‘I made quite a transformation from a screaming, racquet-throwing, and swearing brat on the tennis court to the calm man you know today,’ he says in the same video.


When you believe you are not allowed to make mistakes, every mistake you make can cause your emotions to distract you, your performance to worsen or you not daring to take on the challenge. You choke after making a mistake, in fear of making another one. You quit and give up. Is that what you want? If not, there is an alternative. You can (learn to) deal with it in a different way, as Federer also did.

One way to deal with a goal conceded, a set lost or an exam question you don't know the answer to is by focusing on giving your best, in every situation. Again and again. After all, you can't do more than you’re best. It may be important that you are clear about what 'doing your best' means for you. John Wooden said: ‘Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.’


Lesson 4: Focus on doing your best in every situation.

What characterizes a champion?

"Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection."

Kim Collins, former Olympic athlete


What characterizes top leaders in business? That’s one of the questions psychologists Bennis and Thomas answer in their book Geeks & Geezers. Their answer? Top leaders are avid learners, all the time. That also characterizes Dutch soccer coach Louis van Gaal: he always wants to keep learning and is open to innovations. The more you learn, undertake, and do, the better your ideas, products, and execution generally become. This is reflected in the image below; the more pieces of music composers produced, the better their pieces of music became (see image below from Adam Grant's TED talk).



Learning leads to mastery and often to better performance.

But getting better, of course, takes time and energy. And focus. How do you keep focus on your own learning process in a world where people are constantly being compared with one another? Comparing yourself to someone else can be helpful, because it puts things into perspective. For example, if you believe you are the very best in a discipline, it's good to see that there are others who are even better than you so that you don't get haughty. Conversely, when you’ve performed bad it can help you on top seeing others did even worse. But comparing with others is dangerous. Because others are not like you. Among other things, their genes, their upbringing and their experiences are different from yours. In addition, the other person's goal or intention may differ from yours.


Comparing yourself with others is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. So you better stop comparing yourself to others. Compare yourself with yourself, as former soccer player and now soccer coach Van Nistelrooij does: 'I don't get impatient when I look at others. They also make choices based on their feelings, just like me. I like working on my own trajectory.'


In Modern Wisdom Podcast 307, Jordan Peterson explains from minute 25 how you can focus on your own development and what effects that has. The bottom line is that people like to work towards something and experience more positive emotions when they do not compare themselves with others, but instead compare themselves with themselves. This leads, for example, to more enthusiasm for personal progress. It also stimulates the ability to encourage yourself to take new steps in your development, without depending on others. And when you keep taking steps in your development, you are capable of a lot. Or Peterson’s words: 'Incremental improvement repeated is virtually unstoppable.'


So, whatever goal you pursue, however ambitious, big, or small, compare yourself to yourself. Where were you yesterday? Last week? Last month? A year ago? And where are you now? What made you come closer? What does that development mean to you? And who or what do you need to take the next steps in your development towards your goal? These are questions you can ask yourself so that you focus on your development.


Lesson 5: Focus on your development towards your goal.

Conclusion

“Champions are not the ones who always win races - champions are the ones who get out there and try. And try harder the next time. And even harder the next time. "Champion" is a state of mind. They are devoted. They compete to best themselves as much if not more than they compete to best others. Champions are not just athletes.”

Simon Sinek, author and inspirational speaker


It is not my intention to tell you that you should or should not strive for perfection when performing. That's up to you. It is my intention to share these lessons of champions with you so that you can hopefully benefit from them in your personal context, for example when you experience pressure to performance because you are afraid of making mistakes. The lessons at a glance:

Lesson 1: Perfection is rare and not necessary for achieving goals.
Lesson 2: Not everyone can become a champion, but everyone can act like a champion.
Lesson 3: It's not about perfection, it's about dealing with imperfection.
Lesson 4: Focus on doing your best in every situation.
Lesson 5: Focus on your development towards your goal.

To conclude...

Do you have an example of someone who does perform with perfection? Or do you have more statistics or stories of people who act at a high level, but do not reach perfection? Feel free to share it with me, I’d appreciate it.


Do you find this a valuable piece and are you a coach, teacher or manager? You may also find my free e-book in which 21 coaches, teachers and managers share their lessons with you inspiring. Next to that you might be interested in my leadership book 'The coach makes the difference’. In this book you are invited to (re)think your vision on leadership, talent, motivation and selection. And you will be challenged to create a performance culture in which the person comes first. The book will be out somewhere in 2023.


If you're curious about the sources I've used in this article, see below. But first this video to end with: 'Even kings make mistakes.'





References


Peterson, J.B. (2019). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Penguin Books Ltd.

Sinek, S. (2019). The infinite game. Penguin Putnam Inc.

Bennis, W.B. & Thomas, R.J. (2002). Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Harvard Business School Press.

Kerr, J. (2013). Legacy: what the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life. Constable.

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