The Pursuit of Excellence

As I mentioned in my previous post, my hard-drive is full of unpublished posts, because the perfectionist in me couldn’t put them out there for the world to see. I have been pondering on perfectionism over the last couple of weeks and, in writing my next blog and wanting to reference a previous one I had written on perfection, discovered I had never published said post.

It seemed such a shame to leave it there sitting written but unread, and adds an extra dimension to the post I am currently writing. So here it is. Perfectionism part 1.

A couple of years ago I came to the realization (with the aided insight from my coach, and psychologist) that there is no such thing as “perfection”, or at least, not in the sense that I understood it. I was chasing flawless perfection, and it was derailing me.

Growing up, I used to live by the age-old idiom “practice makes perfect”. It did me well, and there’s no doubt the underlying message is powerful and motivating. Learning to play the piano, getting the hang of running-writing, learning to tumble-turn; every new skill requires countless hours of practice to master.

Late in my high school years my swim coach revolutionised the way I thought about this by introducing me to the idea that only perfect practice makes perfect” it was a bit of an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me (maybe I am a bit slow…). I’d always understood that the more carefully you practice something the better you’ll get at it, but never thought that conversely if you practice something badly, you’re actually cementing bad habits, bad techniques; that practising could be detrimental if you’re not going to practice well!

While better, this idea has some flaws too; several years down the track I found myself coming to grief and getting frustrated at this idea.

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Being a fairly decent swimmer I hadn’t put too much thought into my swim since switching to triathlon. Don’t get me wrong, I trained hard, but I’d pretty much assumed my technique was good enough.

At the beginning of last season, we had a big swim block with a large focus on technique. Turns out I’m not as crash hot as I thought I was. I was a bit despondent at the idea that I was barely connecting with the water at all in my stroke, and my hand was exiting far too early (no wonder I was hopeless at pull). At the same time, I found hope in the idea that if I just corrected my stroke, how much faster I would swim! Simple. I would just fix my catch and stroke length and voila! I’d be swimming perfectly. But remember practice makes perfect, and not only that, perfect practice makes perfect.

Practice I did, but as hard as I tried I couldn’t quite get a perfect catch. No matter how hard I concentrated, or slowly I swam, there were flaws in my technique. I had become fixated on the idea of perfection, and instead of seeing the positive changes that were occurring in my stroke, I was upset that it wasn’t perfect. My mindset was stuck on the idea that if I wasn’t practicing perfectly then I would never fix my technique. I was so despondent during one technique focused session, seeing only the continued imperfections in the video playback of my stroke, that I actually started crying in frustration. What was the point in trying so hard if I couldn’t get it right?

It was then that my coach stepped in, and reminded me that when it comes to human performance, there really is no such thing as perfection, it is unattainable. Excellence, however, is what we are after. I don’t need to practice perfectly to improve; just better than before.
By making continued minor corrections to my stroke it has slowly but surely improved.

While it is still very important to identify the flaws that need fixing, it is equally important to recognise the gains made, and to take encouragement that each time I practice well, I am one step closer to excellence.


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