Perfectionism is a Balancing Act

Perfectionism is a Balancing Act

How a Referee Can Turn Unhealthy Into Healthy Perfectionism 

Perfectionism is logical. The highly competitive nature of football and officiating accompanies a variety of stressful circumstances such as, injuries, pressure, interpersonal conflict, and an evaluative atmosphere where referees must deal with others’ and their own personal scrutiny of performance. Your response to these factors can be adaptive or maladaptive, and this explains the ‘fine line’ between healthy or unhealthy perfectionism.

Take former world No.1 tennis player, Serena Williams for example, she has admitted herself to be a perfectionist. She revealed how she can use her perfectionism to her advantage, but it is also an example in how someone can fall into the trap of unhealthy perfectionism. 

“If I’m not playing well, I do get down on myself because I am a perfectionist…no one takes a loss harder than I do. In any sport. I hate losing more than I like winning.…

But I channel my frustration toward losing into a motivation to learn from my mistakes and use that newfound knowledge to improve for my next match”. – Former world No.1 tennis player Serena Williams

So What is The Theory Behind Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a multidimensional personality trait presented by a strive for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of one’s self . Hence, why perfectionism can be described as a ‘double-edged sword’ holding both positive and negative characteristics. On the one hand, it can be used as a facilitating factor to boost motivation and develop refereeing expertise. On the other hand, it can seek to promote a dysfunctional mindset and self-defeating outcomes characterised by worries, and a fear of failure.

The ‘2 x 2 Model’ of Perfectionism is based around these two comparative features of perfectionism and proposes these are differentially organised in each individual:

Evaluative concerns’ perfectionism (ECP): A socially prescribed tendency to perceive significant others as exerting pressure to be perfect, in conjunction with evaluating oneself critically and doubting one’s capacity to reach high standards. 

Personal standards perfectionism (PSP): A self-imposed tendency to strive towards perfectionism by establishing high standards and aiming for achievement. 

Pure evaluative concerns perfectionism (low PSP, high ECP) – Perceiving pressure from the external environment (for example contingent rewards and controlling interactions) to pursue perfectionistic standards, but do not value or internalise the standards. 

Pure personal standards perfectionism (high PSP, low ECP) – Personally valuing and internalising perfectionistic standards, without perceiving external pressure from the environment to achieve these standards.

Pure ECP are associated with low levels of self-determination, fear of failure, avoidance-oriented goals, competitive anxiety, negative affect and an increased likelihood of officiating burnout compared to pure PSP. In contrast, referees with pure PSP adopt more approach goals to performance and a ‘hope for success’ motive, fuelling their desire to demonstrate normative and interpersonal competence e.g. striving to master a task and do better than others.

These findings can be explained using various mechanisms including stress appraisal, coping styles and perceptions of success and failure. In terms of stress appraisal, because pure ECP reflects motives to avoid failure, officials with this style are more likely to see competition as threatening, and less controllable and challenging than a referee with pure PSP.

When trying to deal with the stress, pure ECP perfectionists tend to use maladaptive strategies. For example, ignoring the stressful situation and not dealing with the problem (avoidance coping), and actively trying to reduce the negative emotional thoughts such as fear (emotion-focused coping). Pure PSP perfectionists are more likely to use problem-focused coping aimed at resolving the stressful situation to foster achievement.

Finally, pure ECP perfectionists are also more likely to judge performance in terms of absolutes. If they don’t get one or two decisions correct, it is seen as a complete failure, and anything positive about their performance is discounted, such as an overall improvement in performance for their last appointment. 

It is understandable that pure PSP may form a part of a ‘healthy pursuit of excellence’. With a low presence of ECP, officials open up opportunities to make additional efforts and achieve the best possible outcomes. In contrast, high levels of ECP accompanied with low levels of PSP may contribute to a more problematic motivational quality for achievement, and most importantly, represent a serious risk to a referee’s wellbeing and mental health. 

How do I Know if I am a Healthy or Unhealthy Perfectionist? 

You may be thinking that it’s normal for someone to try to achieve their demanding goals as there is no way to progress by being workshy.

The techniques underpinned by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy support you to:

  1. Identify and monitor when perfectionism occurs
  2. Question personal beliefs and know what’s reality
  3. Challenge and overcome ECP perfectionistic thinking patterns
  4. Deal with setbacks and lapses

1. Identifying and monitoring your perfectionism will raise your awareness of particular situations, thoughts and behaviours that occur automatically. These situation-specific thoughts and behaviours are a central factor in sustaining high levels of evaluative concerns. By simply writing things down can help you change your perspective and distance yourself from the problem.

To make a habit of monitoring immediately after the problematic situation, it is useful to keep a diary/logbook somewhere close at hand such as in your kit bag.

2Questioning personal beliefs will provide you more meaningful information regarding which consequences of your thoughts and behaviours are real. Behavioural experiments are a useful way to identify your unhelpful concerns by testing out predictions about a thought or behaviour. For example, if you are an official who believes training to exhaustion is the only way to achieve more, which is very physically demanding, consider planning out a reasonable schedule balanced around training and recovery would be more beneficial for long-term results. Other forms of experimenting include how might others react e.g. colleagues after a poor performance, or how distressed you will be when appointed to officiate a key fixture.

3. Challenging perfectionistic thinking patterns will help alter the way you evaluate your goals and increase your ability to think and behave in more flexible ways. Strategies to achieve this include turning rigid rules into guidelines and noticing the positive:

Rigid rules to guidelines

High levels of perfectionistic concerns tend to accompany rigid and strict rules to measure performance. These rules are often caused by ‘all or nothing’ thinking in which standards are judged in extremes e.g. a complete failure or a complete success, leaving no room for average performance. Even when a referee does achieve their standard they are likely to not think much of it i.e. no effort was required, and so set an even higher goal. Thus, it is important to develop a new way of evaluating the self to reduce the damage these rules have on self-esteem. We can do this by replacing rigid rules with flexible guidelines and using these as new standards for excellence.

The more you practice moving away from all or nothing thinking the easier it is to see that performance does not fall into one of two extreme categories. This will help you feel more relaxed in your thinking processes and offer you a sense of freedom to enjoy your officiating career. Top tip: To determine whether the goals you set yourself are achievable, ask a friend or colleague what they think and how they cope when they don’t achieve their goals.

Noticing the positive

Referees high in perfectionistic concerns get into a habit of paying excessive attention to the negative aspects of their performance. For example, coming to the correct decision to award a penalty but noticing they were not initially certain and should have been quicker to point to the spot. They also tend to depreciate their efforts when a goal is reached. For example, earning a promotion but stating it was too easy. These examples can be seen in someone with a healthy strive for success but won’t be regular thinking patterns that lead to a general criticism of oneself. This is because they are more likely to notice equally the negative AND positive aspects of performance despite the outcome. So the aim is to balance out what went well and what you can improve on. To help you do this keep a diary of events over the next weeks and note the following:

Step 1. Identify a situation which would generally cause you negative thoughts. For example incorrectly judging a tough, non-routine situation but having an otherwise flawless game. 

Step 2. Ask yourself are there any positive aspects of my performance that I am not attending to which I can take away. For example, colleagues congratulating my efforts or my coach praising me for my good cautioning technique. Also note the lack of negative evidence. For example, no one judging me for talking to players rather than just waving a card in their faces.

Step 3. Write down extra information from the situation to broaden your attention, such as the details around you (conversations, weather, club hospitality, equipment).

Step 4. Determine the main flaws from your performance and try to change them into areas for improvement. For example, I lost a bit of energy towards the end of the game so I should work on improving my cardiovascular endurance.

Step 5. Evaluate the outcome of having not just focused on the negative aspects. For example, when I reflect upon all the evidence, the game was a success overall and I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Attending to what went well and external stimuli helps broaden my attention. 

4. To help deal with setbacks

  • Consider the situations and stressors that you perceive difficult to to handle in order to help prevent acting upon automatic negative thinking patterns when the problem arises. 
  • Trap the problem as soon as you can as this makes it more manageable to work with. Bear in mind that to overcome your perfectionistic concerns it will take some conscious effort, but don’t panic when obstacles come in your way of your long term goal. It is merely impossible to establish a smooth pathway towards healthy perfectionism and therefore, it’s important that you consider setbacks as an opportunity to strengthen your learning process. 
  • Seek out support within your social network, such as a close friend, or even a professional; don’t expect to do all the work on your own! Ask for help from your manager whenever you need it and tackle the problem together.
  • Make it a regular habit to go over your action plans as often as you can. This will reinforce the changes you have planned to make and consolidate the adjusted thinking patterns. 
  • Finally, when you feel en route to resolving the unhealthy concerns and gain a little more stability in your progression, try and identify the trigger that caused the minor lapse and the sequel of events leading up to it.  

After all, don’t be harsh on yourself! Remind yourself how well you dealt with the slippage and the failures and applaud yourself for that.


  • There is a big difference between healthy (pure PSP) and unhealthy (pure ECP) perfectionism. The key question is ‘what is driving your behaviour?’
  • Striving for non-self-determined standards such as those you perceive have been forced upon you can lead to self-criticism and reduces the likelihood of achieving greatness. This is because perceptions of external pressure lead to avoidance, anxiety, fatigue and damaged psychological wellbeing. 
  • Like other mental qualities, unhealthy perfectionistic concerns can be reduced over time. This can be done using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which trains you to recognise those negative thoughts and find a healthier way to view the situation.
  • It can take enormous courage to put yourself on the spot and face up to your beliefs. But keep in mind that even small changes are meaningful. One small change can trigger the next because any sort of modification can make you believe that it can happen.

Recognising that ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean stronger and wiser, is a pathway towards a healthier and more meaningful life.

At The Third Team I work individually and in collaboration with different professionals where I have developed workshops associated with Resilience and Mental Toughness Development to help referees. The workshops are interactive, where referees are encouraged to open up and share their experiences to help each other.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about my workshops and how I could help you or your officials.

Best Wishes,

Nathan Sherratt Signature

Nathan Sherratt

Referee Educator & Managing Director of The Third Team

Nathan Sherratt

Nathan Sherratt, Referee Educator, Resilience Trainer and Managing Director of The Third Team.  A Mental Toughness Practitioner based in County Durham, North East England.