Allen Fox: “The Reality of Perfectionism”

Written by: Allen Fox, Ph.D.

Excerpt from Tennis: Winning the Mental Match

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***Dr. Allen Fox, Ph.D. psychologist from UCLA, is a former NCAA singles champion, Canadian National champion, Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a three-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Dr. Fox also coached the Pepperdine tennis teams to two NCAA finals, including team member Martin Laurendeau, captain of the Canadian Davis Cup team.

He has authored several books, his latest, “Tennis: Winning the Mental Match,” has been acclaimed as “the best book on tennis psychology ever written.” It can be purchased on Amazon or Tennis Warehouse, or electronically on Kindle or iTunes. For more information and articles visit allenfoxtennis.net. He is also an editor of TENNIS magazine, consults with players on mental issues, and lectures worldwide on sports psychology.***

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We often hear players who become angry when they miss claim they do it because they are “perfectionists.” They say their standards are so high that they simply can’t accept the errors. So let’s take a closer look at the concept of “perfectionism,” which I see as substantially different from the common understanding. When people label themselves as “perfectionists” they usually do so with a hint of pride. There seems to be something admirable about being the type of person who will settle for nothing less than perfection.

The reality is quite different. The “perfectionists” that I run into – the ones that are forever getting angry or depressed when they make mistakes on the court – simply suffer from an immature and distorted view of reality. Of course they make mistakes, and of course they don’t like making them. Nobody does. But they have not yet accepted the truth that the reason they make mistakes is because it is impossible not to make them, and it always will be. That’s the reality of the situation, and it’s a reality they have not accepted. Calling the trait “perfectionism” turns it into more of a virtue than it is and allows them to continue getting angry at mistakes they can’t help. If they saw the issue as one of being simply immature and unrealistic (which are faults, not virtues) they might have to take action to correct it, which they are not yet prepared to do.

My brilliant French team member: One of my later teams at Pepperdine included a young player from France named Charles Auffray. He had been a walk-on as a freshman and had a great deal of physical talent but was emotionally undisciplined and a “perfectionist” in the sense of the previous paragraph. He was a brilliant young man. His father had gotten a Ph.D. from Berkeley in philosophy (I believe), was a very successful businessman in Paris, and his mother was classy and bright too. Charles had inherited all this and was scary smart. He could hardly speak English when he arrived (at least I could barely understand him), but he had somehow managed to pass the language and entrance exams. He never slept; he never studied; and he got A’s in most of his classes. I was mystified as to how he did it.

But on the tennis court he had a very short fuse. Despite his extraordinary physical abilities, he was prone to become wildly agitated if he was playing worse than he thought he should. I could never seem to convince him that he was human, not a machine, and that his game was subject to variability. I remember him coming off the court after what he considered a terrible performance and muttering things like, “I could not hit ze ball in ze court!” “I cannot play zis game!” “I only miss, miss, miss!” “I must quit and play ozer game!”

He was sputtering around with his broken English and funny accent, and it was hard to take it seriously. (Some players get dark and ugly when they lose, and there is nothing funny about being around them. Charles, on the other hand, was a lovely guy and a good soul. Everyone liked him, and his frustrated grousing was vaguely comical.) I couldn’t resist. So I said to him, “Charles, I have the solution to your problem of making too many mistakes. It’s simple. The next time you play a match, go out there and don’t miss anymore!”

For a moment he just stared at me quizzically, thinking I was crazy. Then he understood. I said, “That’s right, Charles. You can’t possibly do that. You make mistakes because you can’t help it! Accept the fact that no matter what you do, you will always make mistakes. And the sooner you stop getting upset about something that you can’t help, the better off you will be.” I don’t know if it was this little talk or whether Charles simply figured it out for himself, but he got better control of himself and ended up as the #1 player on the Pepperdine team and one of the best college players in the country. The last I heard, he was running a huge tennis academy in France, one of the largest in Europe.

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