The Enjoyment of Chasing Perfection

A road to perfection will make the impossible a reality by challenging your ability to overcome stumbling blocks, making you poised in the face of adversity, and giving you a great joy of accomplishment.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

Vince Lombardi’s famous line gets right in the heart of being a competitive athlete — a persistent chase of perfection. You don’t win by being just meh or mediocre because there is always someone else training hard to accomplish the same task a little better, faster and stronger. So every day it’s off to the races, chasing perfection while being chased by the menace of mediocrity.

But it’s not a bad news. I personally enjoyed the daily grunt of training much more than the thrill of competing. Why? Because it was a chance to make a gradual improvement and move a step closer to perfection. Key word is gradual. Although one can drastically improve basic skills at the beginning, mastering finer points may take years of relentless training.

This is a truly frustrating part. For each step forward, there can be several steps back. I would get really — and I mean really — mad about not being able to get something right after several attempts. And nothing would make me more angry at myself than making the same mistake over and over.

Most often it was a physical culprit that would not allow me to accomplish the task at hand until my body adopted to what it was asked to do through practice and repetition. But there were also mental errors that would stand tall on a way to perfection.

Mental blocks are difficult to recognize and even more difficult to overcome.

Some mental blocks are a result of shared assumptions that are often unsubstantiated and flawed. For centuries, it was thought to be humanly impossible to run a mile in 4 minutes. That all changed on May 6, 1954 when British runner Roger Bannister finished a mile long race in 3:59:1. Bannister’s historic performance shattered the faulty collective belief, suddenly making an under four-minute result a reality. Since then, over 1,400 athletes have broken the four-minute mark, with the best time improving Bannister’s record by nearly 17 seconds.

Personal mental blocks can be just as powerful.

I remember one year working on a competitive program that was so technically challenging and physically demanding that my skating partner and I genuinely thought that it was beyond our limitations. It took months of stringing different parts of the program together before we could finally complete it from the beginning to the end without making a single mistake.

What finally pushed us over the edge was an extra doze of adrenalin coming from knowledge of an upcoming US Championship, in which we were scheduled to compete with that program in less than a week. We dreaded having to perform unprepared, but that single good run through gave us some faint hope that we could put a complete performance together in competition. We nurtured that feeling all the way to the day of the event despite having little success repeating the sole clean run through. It was an incredible relief when we could lay down a performance that was not as brilliant as we wished for, but solid enough to claim the title.

Satisfaction is the antipode of frustration.

The two extremes go hand in hand throughout an athlete’s career. Like a stretched rubber band, the deeper is the frustration confronting impossible, the greater is the satisfaction of adding the impossible on a personal list of accomplishments. More importantly, with satisfaction grows confidence in the ability to take on even more ambitious challenges.

The episode with our skating program made us stronger athletes not only because we had grown tougher physically and mentally, but because it had forged a belief in our ability to cope with any obstacle thrown our way.

But growing such a level of confidence requires putting in work and managing expectations. Break your entire effort into small parts. Take one part, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, and try to perfect it. Make it shine a little brighter than the rest. It should not be too difficult or burdensome because only you are in control of how it should be done and when to stop. Once satisfied, move on to the next part. Be ready to realize that perfection may allude you no matter how hard you try. Instead of dwelling on disappointment, shift focus on and trust the process.

Consistency of improvement toward perfection is a key, no matter how slow or incremental it may seem. With time and consistency, the impossible will succumb to your effort. And although the result might fall short of perfection, the progress you will have made will take you on a path toward excellence, and give confidence in your abilities to confront any challenge. Be proud of your accomplishment because such a transformation is worth celebrating.

Sports Lawyer, Former Pro Ice Skater, Author of The Sports Lawyer Diaries: reflections on athletes’ essential character traits, motivations and life choices.