adolescent girls

The Pressure of Being a College Athlete

Recently I read the book What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan that recounts the life and suicide of college athlete, Madison Holleran. I found it fascinating and couldn’t put the book down. Many of the comments that Maddy made throughout the book were reminiscent of what I’ve heard as a high school counselor- the pressure to perform, the allure of a name brand school, feeling trapped and unable to quit something that you don’t love doing anymore, etc. Reading this prompted me to dig deeper into research done specifically on perfectionism and college athletes.

Elison and Partridge (2012) published an article in the Journal of Sport Behavior that looked at the relationships of shame-coping, fear of failure, and perfectionism in college athletes. Their study found that female athletes tend to employ internalizing forms of shame coping (attacking self and withdrawal) more than males. One of the key highlights of this article for me was when the researchers said, “if shame is elicited by devaluation then shame and fear of failure can be lessened by reducing athletes’ perceptions that their shortcomings make them less worthy as a person” (2012). This got me to thinking how relatable that statement is to what I often see in terms of grades and personal value. Many students attach their self-worth to their grades. “If I get a B or a C, I am not a good person or unworthy” is often the negative self-talk going on inside their heads.

So how do we as parents and educators help? First, consider how you viewed your own success and failure? Did you tie your grades or success to your self-worth? If not, it’s important to share that with your child. You might say, “you know what I got lots of B’s or lots of C’s and while I might have wished they would’ve been A’s I also knew I tried my hardest.” You might also engage in a deeper discussion about personal values and how sometimes values aren’t measured by grades or trophies; they’re measured by how we treat people.

Know of a child or teen struggling with perfectionism or negative self-talk? I’d be happy to help!

Combatting Perfectionism

Let’s talk for a moment about perfectionism and the rise of perfectionism in our society today. What exactly is perfectionism? The simplest definition is the fear of making mistakes or the belief that making mistakes is unacceptable. Perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators- why is that you ask? Well if you have to make sure it’s perfect, then you might avoid the task altogether.

Having spent ten years in a school, I heard over and over again students who would re-write essays two, three times before turning it in because they had to make sure it was perfect. These students turned assignments in late because their first one or two attempts weren’t good enough. This example also demonstrates how perfectionists internalize feedback and how a grade less than an A signals a value judgement made about them. More often than not, if a perfectionist receives a “C” on an assignment, she’ll say “I’m not smart” or “I’ll never succeed” whereas a healthy response to receiving a “C” would say “I should ask my teacher where I could improve for the next time.”

What I’ve noticed over the years is that anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand. A perfectionist has “what if” statements that control his mind. “What if I fail this class?” “What if I fail all my classes?” “What if I don’t graduate?” “What if I don’t get into college?” These thought processes create a spiraling effect where a student goes from fearing failing a test to that one test suddenly affecting the rest of his life.

So how can we as educators and parents help?

  • First, take a moment to notice in yourself if you are okay with making mistakes. When you make a mistake at home or at work, how do you handle it? Do you internalize it and allow it to make a value judgement? Model for yourself and for your children that making mistakes is okay. This is HARD work especially in a society that celebrates curated social media profiles and says, “Look everyone else is doing it so much better/easier/faster.”

  • Second, poke holes in the “all or nothing” thinking. If your child says, “if I fail this test I’ll never get into college,” poke holes in those fear statements. “I’m hearing you say that you are afraid this one test will affect your future and I’m wondering about the other assessments in your class that provide opportunities for you to show your knowledge in other ways.” You might also offer a moment of perspective taking and ask, “can you think of a time when you were afraid to take a risk? how did that work out for you?”

  • Third, adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s work talks about fixed versus growth mindset. What is a fixed mindset? Perfectionism is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset says, “this feedback will help me improve in the future” rather than “mistakes are to be feared.” Growth mindset encourages us to take feedback and apply it to what was presented/turned in versus internalizing feedback as a judgement on ourselves.

Interested in learning more about how changing thought patterns can affect perfectionism? I’d be happy to help!

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Summer Reading Recommendation #1

In a previous post, I recommended 5 books for parents and guardians to read over the summer. For the next 5 weeks, I’ll be highlighting a takeaway from each one of those five books. First up is Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Dr. Lisa Damour. As a past educator at an all-girls school, I used this book a lot when working with parents and found the organization of chapters related to developmental tasks particularly helpful. For example, the second chapter titled “Joining a New Tribe” looks at the changing friendships that occur. As I say this how many of you are thinking of seventh grade? 

Today I want to highlight Chapter 3: Harnessing Emotions because here Dr. Damour describes one of my favorite metaphors: the emotional hot potato. Think of a really bad day that your daughter had recently. Something didn’t go her way- it could’ve been at sports practice, in school, with a friend, etc. Whatever it may be, she described the event to you in painstaking detail and what was your reaction? Did you take the emotional hot potato from her and say, “I’ll talk with your coach” or “Let me email your teacher?” Or did you say, “Wow that sounds _____________ (insert reflective feeling here- frustrating/embarrassing, et.), how do you want to solve it? What’s your next step?"

The developmental task here is for students to build their own toolbox of coping strategies. The parent/guardian role moves away from problem solver and moves towards coach. Understanding that you have more life experience and can offer up different solutions is key and yet the work to be done is your child’s, not yours. Questions such as “What have you tried?” or “What’s your first step towards solving the problem with friend/teacher/coach?” empowers your child.

To read more of Dr. Lisa Damour’s resources from Untangled go to: https://www.drlisadamour.com/untangled/

Interested in hosting a book discussion at your child's school or community group? Let me know! I've facilitated parent workshops around this book and countless others!

 

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman