Aiming at a Bullseye: Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Control

By Kaitlin Young

Photo Credit: Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

I’m late writing this blog because I wanted to properly collect my thoughts before putting them on paper. Trying to be too perfect. Oh, the irony! Ha! So, I’m just going to start writing and hope that it turns into something coherent. Bear with me.

While having dinner with a good friend of mine, he shared an observation that sums up a challenge many fighters face. As a retired police officer and instructor, he has spent a great deal of time teaching others to shoot under duress. Problems occur, he said, when a person spends too long training with a bullseye. They need to do so for a short while, and then move to other, more realistic, targets. He went on to explain that when a person has focused on the bullseye for too long, they will only be able to fire two perfect shots in the amount of time they could have fired six or eight good shots. They will move too slow, trying to be precise rather than achieving the objective. In a real situation, two accurate shots cannot be relied upon to stop an assailant. One must be able to fire well, but do so in rapid succession.

In Martial Arts, We Call This “Fighting Pretty”

While one person may be “better” than their opponent, their opponent could be landing a bunch of mediocre shots that, while not pretty, are getting the job done. Meanwhile, they are looking for the perfect shot, in perfect stance, with perfect technique…and they are (usually) losing the fight. Sometimes, a fighter can win that way, but only when their technical prowess is far above their opponent or the other person isn’t really fighting, either. Similarly, it can’t be relied upon. They have focused so hard on the bullseye that they are missing opportunities for good shots all along. The desire to be too accurate is what slows them down, makes them second guess their instincts, and puts them a step behind.

What Causes This Counterproductive Perfectionism?

It’s tough to be sure about that. It’s multifactorial, and some struggle with it more than others. For certain, it is related to anxiety (most likely due to shame — or the fear of it) and the feeling that if enough factors can be controlled, this anxiety will also be controlled; shame will be avoided. Fighting stops being about winning and becomes about avoiding the loss and the associated shame, avoiding “looking sloppy” and the associated shame, or really any other manner of not performing as the fighter we believe ourselves to be.

Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.” – Brene Brown

When we watch someone fighting not to lose, it is BORING as hell (no judgement here, I’ve done it in the past, too). It makes for a terrible fight. If you are a professional, it can cost you money and opportunities. You cannot have a beautiful fight when you are trying to fight just to not lose, regardless of whether or not you win. Avoiding falling into that trap is easier said than done, however. We live in a society that punishes losing. After just two losses, relatives and friends will say ridiculous things to you and people will ask when you are going to retire. Most people like to align themselves with others they see as successful, so failing publicly can have consequences that aren’t so obvious. You might feel your social standing start to slide. Sponsors might bail. Losing can get you cut from a fight organization. If you are professional and win a fight, your pay is usually doubled. There is great incentive to eek by and barely get a win than to take a risk and maybe lose. There are tangible reasons to have anxiety about the outcome of each and every bout.

Perfection Doesn’t Define Us

Fear of the loss trickles into every other facet of a performance. A head cold or a sprained thumb combined with a little anxiety is a recipe for a fighter to drop out of a fight. Is he or she going to care about a little post nasal drip or even be able to feel that sprain once the adrenaline is pumping? Of course not. In this person’s mind, it has become an epic disaster that they may not be able to overcome. If they aren’t at 100 percent, controlling all possible factors, then the anxiety about the risk is just too high. They’d rather not fight. The truth is, we aren’t really our 100 percent. We don’t choose a spouse based on who they are on their best day. We don’t evaluate our students based on a single aced test. We don’t hire a plumber/mechanic/accountant based on what they are able to do on their best day. They are judged upon what they can replicate daily. We may want the world to only see our highlight reel, but frankly, the person we are is probably closer to our 70 percent. Every other job in the world is completed with minor difficulties popping up here and there. You cannot claim an occupation, or an identity, if it only takes place on a perfect day. That’s not to say there aren’t reasons to pull out of a fight, but let’s not confuse 70 and 20 percent.

Coaches can help or hurt in these situations. Good, hard training helps a fighter feel more capable. Consistently putting athletes in a position where they will be challenged, will struggle, and will be successful is a great way to build confidence. Easy tasks don’t build people the same way. On the flip side, an unaware coach can take an athlete with a ton of heart and completely run them into the ground. After this happens, it is not easy for them to trust the process or the coach again. A truly experienced coach knows when to be the gas and when to be the brakes. A very unfortunate habit of unfit coaches is their need to unload their own anxiety onto their fighters. Constantly obsessing over the need to be technically perfect, talking about other fighters ‘embarrassing’ them, repeating over and over again that they are afraid the opponent is going to miss weight, or any other manner of unloading their own fears onto the person who has to actually perform is inappropriate, to put it nicely. The last thing a fighter needs to worry about is the coach’s emotional state about the fight, and they certainly don’t need to have fuel thrown onto the anxiety flame.

Do We Want to Train to be Our Best?

Absolutely, but sometimes our best is far from perfect. It’s just the best we have at that moment. The reason for most skipped days of training is not so much because a person is sore, sick (within reason, as nobody wants to be the A-hole that gets the whole team sick), tired, or any combination of the three. It’s because they are loaded with anxiety about going to practice and looking like crap. A person can still train when they look like crap. It’s ok! They just may not be able to handle the associated shame.

To be clear, there is a difference between training lighter between events to save your body and training lighter within weeks of a fight so you can relieve the mental and physical pressure. Perfectionism hurts the other way as well. “If I just train really hard ALL THE TIME, and eat perfect, and have the perfect this or that, there’s no way I’ll lose my next fight.” First of all, no, it will in no way ensure that you won’t fail. Second, it will run your body down terribly. Sometimes, the thing that is mentally harder is far better for our performance. This includes trying not to bring your weight down too early and not trying to stay in peak fight shape at all times. We all know that waiting too long to do these things is problematic as well, but we need a healthy balance and to not make poor decisions because we are nervous.

If left unchecked, fear of shame will swallow a fighter’s potential one bite at a time, one missed round at a time, one missed practice at a time, one missed fight at a time. If we take the pressure off ourselves every time we anticipate discomfort, our capacity for dealing with pressure, pain, and fatigue, all while still performing, will never increase. Our 70 percent doesn’t become better. We are then training a tendency to fold under pressure rather than rising to the occasion.

How Do We Combat This Tendency Toward Perfectionism?

We need to change our target. We need to stop shooting at a bullseye and swap it out for something more akin to what we are trying to hit. We aren’t trying to have a perfect weight cut, we are trying to make weight and be strong for the fight tomorrow. We aren’t trying to never get hit, we are trying to get hit less often and give back more than we take. We aren’t trying to have perfect fights, we are trying to have great ones. If you watch your favorite fighters, the greatest fighters, there are parts of their performances that may look perfect, but they aren’t. The mistakes have just become so whittled down by pressure that they are no longer easy to see.

Lomachenko is a perfect example. His boxing is absolutely beautiful. And guess what? He had nearly 400 amateur fights prior to becoming a professional. He did not feel 100 percent walking into the ring over 400 times — guaranteed. He fought many of those fights with injuries or illness, or while dealing with personal issues. All the competition with imperfection has molded a man who is arguably the greatest boxer of our time. Is it likely that anyone starting later in life is going to have hundreds of fights? Probably not, but each one brings us closer to level we are trying to reach.

The same patterns toward perfectionism aren’t as prevalent everywhere in the world. International training and competition can be paramount to a fighter’s development for this reason. For example: one of the beautiful things about fighting in Thailand is the cultural tendency to first take a fight and then become as ready as possible, rather than insisting on first becoming “fight ready” before taking a fight. Now, part of this is due to frequency. Pressure tends to wane when we do something often. It’s pretty hard to wallow in your Ben and Jerry’s for too long when you have another fight scheduled in a few weeks. It’s what we would call disorganized. You may not have to weigh in at all, and you probably don’t really know who you are fighting. It might change a day or hours before the event. So be it. You just have to fight. Most people don’t speak English and the culture is so indirect that you won’t know what is going on even when they do. If you are the sort that has any desire to control things, that will go flying right out the window. You’ll have no choice but to swallow your feelings and enjoy the ride.

Fighting is Chaos

You very well may break your hand a minute into the first round. Your opponent may come out and fight completely different than the person in all the tape you watched. You can’t land your X, Y, Z the way you thought you could. Then what? Controlling every little facet of our environment and trying to make sure we are perfect will not prepare us for that. It teaches us to fall apart when things don’t go according to plan. Avoidance of being imperfect will ensure that we become even less than that. It will ensure we do not become much at all and remain a small fraction of what could have been if only we had been able to let go.