Combating Perfectionism in Pitchers: Signs and Parental Guidance

Written By: Nicole Denes

5 Signs of a Perfectionist Pitcher

Perfectionism is rampant in today’s youth culture, especially among girls and women; research suggests that girls and women tend to show more perfectionistic behaviors and thought patterns than boys and men (Kay & Shipman, 2014).

In my 20 years of experience working with young athletes, it is even more rampant within athletes that fall into the “specialized sport” category, and even more so among young pitchers; a “specialized position” within a “specialized sport.” The perceived (and real) pressures young pitchers can put on themselves beginning at younger and younger ages can result in negative and overly critical responses to mistakes or outcomes.

Overthinking, people-pleasing, and the inability to let go of mistakes are classic perfectionism at it’s best.  Most likely, everyone has experienced these behaviors to some degree, and your child probably has too. Perfectionism is essentially untrue, false, thinking patterns that the perfectionist believes to be true.  If you TRULY expect a perfect outcome, you are setting yourself up to never feel good enough.

Below are five signs of a perfectionist pitcher, followed by some quick tips for parents to help your pitcher overcome these damaging thinking patterns.

Early Success

The Perfectionist Pitcher is often an athlete that experienced success early.  Pitching came naturally to them, they were throwing harder and more accurately than other players at a young age, which most likely resulted in a lot of strikeouts, a lot of wins, a lot of recognition, and a lot of awards.  Somewhere along the way, this athlete started to believe they are capable of striking out everyone, that they can win every game, that they should get every tournament MVP – anything less is unacceptable.  This pitcher strives for perfection, which according to Hamidi and Besharat (2010) is not a bad thing, it is when the athlete negatively responds to mistakes and imperfections that can become damaging.

Highly Critical and/or Easily Stressed Parents

The “easily stressed” parent:

  • The parent that “blows up” 
  • Tends to shut down emotionally
  • Rescues their child when they struggle

Kids with easily stressed parents do whatever they can to maintain peace.  

They recognize changes in your mood, your tone, your attitude more than you realize and when a parent is affected by a child’s performance, the child begins to believe,  “When I pitch well, dad is happy. When I pitch bad, dad is not happy.” 

The “highly critical parent” can be critical of:  

  • Themselves. “I can’t believe I got a parking ticket. I am so stupid.”
  • Others. “You would have thrown a better game if your coach knew how to call pitches.”
  • Their child.  “You played awful today. That’s what happens when you’re lazy.”

Fill in the blank however you want, the message the athlete internalizes is that "__________________is not good enough,” a mentality that creates rigid or stubborn thinking patterns, where mistakes in any form are absolutely unacceptable.

All or Nothing

All or nothing thinking patterns are dangerous.  They are inaccurate beliefs that set us up for failure.  Here are some examples from the perfectionist pitchers I have worked with over the years:

  • High pitch counts against strong hitting teams 
    • “If I don’t strike them out, they’ll get a hit.”
  • Self-esteem is significantly effected if they are not clearly the ace on the staff/team.
    • “If I’m not the best, I’m the worst.”
  • Over identifies with the role of “pitcher” or “softball player” 
    • “I’d be nothing if I didn’t play softball.”
  • Experiences shame and/or embarrassment over losses or mistakes
    • “I don’t deserve to spend time with my friends after the way I pitched.”
  • Fear of letting others down 
    • “My dad has put so much time and money into my pitching, if I don’t get a scholarship it will all be for nothing.”

Pre-game Warm-ups are TOO LONG

I see this quite a bit.  Young pitchers spending over 30 minutes throwing pitches, working every drill, every spin, every possible thing they might work on in a lesson or a bullpen session. They are hyper-focused on the outcome of each pitch. It needs to feel perfect, look perfect, BE PERFECT before they feel game ready.  My response to them is simple:

  • How many times have you warmed up PERFECTLY, and had a rough outing in the game?
  • How many times have you had a CRAPPY warm-up, and threw lights out in the game?

Every pitcher has experienced both situations before.  Why? The pace, the approach, the MENTALITY changed from the bullpen to the mound.  Pregame warm-up is about the mental game, NOT being perfect with mechanics.

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda...

These three words are classic signs that you are dealing with a perfectionist.

  • “I could have done better…”
  • “I should be able to strike out at least 10 hitters this game…”
  • “I would have got the MVP if I wouldn’t have lost the game for us…”

These words create ADDED and UNNECESSARY pressure on the athlete and are flat out toxic.  They are the breeding ground for perfectionism, all or nothing thinking, and are essentially the refusal to accept or learn from a mistake.

3 Helpful Tips for Parents of Perfectionist Pitchers

Key Takeaways:
  • Practice self-awareness in your day-to-day life, model appropriate ways to respond to mistakes and talk to yourself, especially in front of your child.
  • Watch softball together with your child in a mindful and conscious manner.  Use this time to talk through ways the players can recover or learn from mistakes in a healthy way. Retrain her brain to view mistakes as helpful learning tools, rather than detrimental and threatening.
  • Keep the game in perspective. Place less emphasis and value on outcomes, accolades, and accomplishments.  Help your daughter set process-oriented goals and focus on the things she has total control over.

Combating Perfectionism Together

Thank you for reading, and I hope these tips help you guide your softball player into a healthy, yet competitive environment. Coaches play an important part in maintaining that environment. If you know a coach who might enjoy a few of these tips, keep them on the lookout for Combating Perfectionism: Part two. Next week, I will share three tips for coaching perfectionist pitchers.

Resources:

Appleton, P.R., Hall, H.K., & Hill, A.P. (2010). Family patterns of perfectionism: an examination of elite junior athletes and their parents. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, pp. 1-9. 

Hamidi, S. & Besharat, M.A. (2010). Perfectionism and competitive anxiety in athletes. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, volume 5, pp. 813- 817.

Kay, K. & Shimpan, C. (2014). The Confidence Code. Syndey, Austraila. HarperCollins Publishers.

Perfectionist Pitcher - Nicole Headshot
Nicole Denes Bio

Nicole Denes is a performance coach and licensed professional therapist in the state of Oklahoma where she works with professional, collegiate and amateur athletes to help them reach their highest potential.  She is a former pitcher for the University of Oklahoma and has been providing professional pitching and softball instruction for 20 years. She founded Be Complete Athletics in Oklahoma City in 2018, a facility that provides elite-level softball instruction and mental skills training in confidence, leadership, and mental game strategies to young athletes.

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