Performance sports like cheerleading and gymnastics feed the belief that the standard is perfect which has stolen the joy of competing. Instead of entering the competition ready to have fun, and excited to show off all of their hard work, athletes are nervous, fearful, and anxious to the point of throwing up. They practice tirelessly for months to gain complex skills that they must perform with flawless, effortless execution, only to be at the mercy of judges who expect perfection. To win, you must:
- balance difficulty with clean movements,
- avoid mistakes which lead to deductions,
- stand out among your competitors for creativity, all while
- smiling and hiding any trace of fear for showmanship points.
I was reminded of these unfortunate truths as I opened an email from a former athlete and read, “I wrote this paper for school, and it reminded me of a lot you taught me.” The title instantly caught my attention, and my heart pounded as I continued to read her account of a cheer competition in which she performed. Her story is not uncommon, but unfortunately, her takeaway is. By reading this essay, I hope Ansley will inspire you to reassess how you measure success either by perfection and scorecards or self-confidence and focus on your best.
THE PERFECTLY IMPERFECT ROUTINE, by Ansley Hughes
Perfection is what everyone strives for, but no one is perfect. If you expect nothing less than perfection, you will never be satisfied because perfection is unattainable.
I have been doing competitive cheerleading since I was young, and in that sport, you are taught to make everything look flawless. You are given a two-and-a-half-minute routine that you spend months perfecting, and at each competition, you get one chance to do your best routine. I was told that to win, you cannot make any mistakes. So, at an early age, I was taught to strive for perfection. It was only when I was at the biggest competition of my career that I learned that it was okay not to be perfect.
I am about to take the floor for the biggest competition of my life. I have been cheering for years, and all the practices and performances before this one do not matter. This performance is the only one that matters now. We have been practicing and perfecting this routine for months, and now is our only chance to prove our talent and become a state championship-winning team. I am more than prepared but nervous because if this performance is anything less than perfect, we will not win.
“Creekview High School, you may take the floor,” is announced. I cheer onto the mat with the rest of my team. I act excited even though I am trembling in fear. I get set where I begin the routine and wait for the music to start. “Deep breaths,” I tell myself. The music begins, and I throw my first stunt. It was perfect. Next, I do the cheer and yell it as loud as I can, and the arena begins to cheer with me. I do my jumps and move to the stunt, and it goes very well. My nerves start to fade. I execute my tumbling pass flawlessly and watch as my teammates do theirs. I have the biggest smile on my face because everything is perfect. Then I see something fly in the air. The crowd gasps. It is my teammate’s shoe. This is not good.
In cheerleading, if something such as a shoe falls off during a performance, it will deduct points from your score. Every time someone steps on it, more points will be deducted from your final score. This is bad. As we move to our last stunt, another teammate attempts to throw the shoe off the floor, but it falls short and hits someone in the face. The crowd gasps again. There is no time to worry about the shoe, so it stays on the floor while we do our last stunt. As we move into the final part of the routine, which is dance, the shoe is stepped on multiple times. Finally, someone throws it off the floor, and we strike our final pose.
The crowd went wild because we had just performed a fantastic routine, but to me, it was not amazing because it was not perfect. My team and I should be proud of the routine we just performed, but all we feel is defeat because of our unattainable expectation of perfection. As we walk off the floor, no one celebrates. My teammate kicks the nearest trash can out of anger and frustration. Others begin to cry out of defeat. All our hard work seemed pointless because of a shoe. Our coaches tell us to dry our tears and keep our chins high because we just performed the best routine we had ever performed. They said even if we might not win, we did the best we could and should be proud of ourselves. We go to sit in the stands and wait for awards. No one spoke. Our faces are blank with dissatisfaction with ourselves.
We went to the awards praying that we might still win, although there was little hope. It was hard to say how many points were deducted because of the shoe. As they start to announce the winners, my heart begins to pound. They call the third-place team, and it is not us. They call the second-place team, and it is not us. “And your 2019 Georgia High School Association 6A state cheerleading champion… Creekview High School!” I could not believe it. My whole team jumped up to celebrate, and I hugged whoever I could find. Tears began to roll down my face. I was so relieved. This was the best moment of my entire life.
Even though our routine was not perfect, it was still the best in the state. We won even with a huge mistake. We discredited ourselves from the best performance we had ever done. We were upset when we should have been proud of ourselves. I learned through this experience that it is okay to make mistakes and mess up because even the best of the best are not perfect. I now know that if you expect to be perfect all the time, you will never be satisfied with yourself.
Did you feel like you were there? I know I did. Through reflection on her experience, Ansley discovered that expecting perfection only leads to nerves, disappointment, and fear of failure. Winning was the only thing that mattered, and perfection was required to get there. This belief is held true by too many athletes today.
Our programs teach athletes like Ansley the secret to balancing perfectionist beliefs and replacing unhealthy expectations with confidence, focus, and trust. We increase their awareness of fear-inducing thinking errors and teach them to shift their focus to things that actually help them perform well and boost their confidence. At Mandy Patterson Coaching, we believe sports are an opportunity for children to learn life skills that will set them up for lifelong success. If you can relate to Ansley’s story and want to learn more about the confidence approach to performance, sign up for a no-cost Performance Check Session today by clicking here.
If you are dealing with a mental block or just fears and anxiety related to competition, I would love the opportunity to support you. Now is the time to start working on your mental game so you can be ready to perform with confidence!
As a Mental Performance Coach, I help athletes turn anxiety and fears into confidence and joy. Through 1-on-1 private coaching, learning content, and application guides I teach athletes how to master their mindset so they can achieve their biggest goals.
If you want to learn more and see if Mental Coaching is right for you, I invite you to schedule a 30-minute no-cost Performance Check Session.
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