I know. You want to get things just right.
Your logo. Your website. Your programming.
Your gym’s space. Your virtual gym’s space—should you nudge that ring light to the left?
You also know that attention to detail, preparation, and organization are legitimate keys to running a successful coaching business.
But you may not realize—or inconveniently forget—that these processes each have a point of diminishing return: Any more tweaks will not pay off.
And that preparation can mutate into rumination, procrastination, and obsession.
Perfectionism is defined as “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.”
Trainers know this all too well, whether you’re launching a business or just an offering within that business.
The intention is good: wanting to do your best. The frequent result, unfortunately, is excessive worry, fretting about failure, and lots of wasted time.
Not always, of course. Many of you feel your perfectionism is a superpower.
It helps you to hyper-focus, to persist in the face of fatigue and failure. It pushes you closer to perfection, even if you never arrive at the final destination.
You’re not wrong. Psychologists have studied perfectionism closely, and we know that there are different kinds. Some types of perfectionism can be helpful and productive, supporting growth and wellbeing.
Other types of perfectionism lead to self-doubt, low self-esteem, impaired performance, and even depression.
Perfectionism: the pros and cons
Research shows a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks to perfectionism—the classic double-edged sword, in the words of Joachim Stoeber, Ph.D., a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Kent.
Not surprisingly, perfectionism tends to be a strength in athletics, where perseverance and a commitment to flawlessness can lead to success, a 2015 study concluded.
On the other hand, perfectionists have also been found to experience symptoms of depression that include low self-worth, high self-criticism, guilt, and worthlessness.
Trainers can draw lessons from this research on athletes. Trainers typically think and behave in the same disciplined, achievement-focused ways as competitive athletes.
The research reveals how to get the most out of your perfectionistic tendencies while minimizing the drawbacks. Specifically, perfectionists tend to use certain coping strategies when dealing with failure, Stoeber and other researchers found.
The lighter side of perfectionism
Stoeber and Kathleen Otto, a psychologist at Philipps University of Marburg in Germany, used the term “perfectionistic strivings” in a 2006 study to describe healthy aspects of perfectionism.
This positive form of perfectionism drives the individual to work hard, perform well, and push themselves, and research has supported these benefits.
Athletes who described perfectionistic strivings had high personal standards, were very organized, and felt that both of these qualities were helpful in achieving success and feeling proud and accomplished, a 2016 study found.
Why is “striving” for perfection a good thing? Because the individual is focused on the present, aiming at an ideal outcome. They’re not fretting over past failures or the ultimate outcome, just the task in front of them.
For trainers, perfectionistic strivings could include organized and thoughtful program design, advance planning of newsletters and Instagram posts to promote your personal training business, or simply good self-care as you prepare for a day of present, focused, and energetic sessions with clients.
All of these goals, or strivings, would be in the service of offering a “perfect” service, or being a “perfect” coach. They will all improve your chances of delivering your best effort.
The dark side of perfectionism
“Perfectionistic concerns” refers to the negative aspects of perfectionism, Stoeber and Otto wrote. These can include:
- An intense need to avoid failure.
- An inability to feel satisfied with accomplishments.
- Constant dwelling on past imperfections.
This last one is linked to a variety of mental health issues, including depression, a 2006 study found.
This focus on bad experiences makes it difficult to shake off less-than-perfect experiences. And it leads to a classic vicious cycle: Fear of failure actually increases the chances of making a mistake.
Negative perfectionism is closely tied to low self-esteem and feelings of shame, and leads to self-blame and less acceptance, Stoeber and coauthor Dirk P. Janssen wrote in a 2011 study. This self-doubt leads to overthinking and a fear of letting others down, all of which becomes debilitating.
Okay, does any of that—positive or negative—describe you? If it’s concerning, don’t worry, you can work on thinking and behaving differently.
Here are some research-based ways to become a positive perfectionist.
How to deal with perfectionism as a personal trainer: eight positive habits
Create a quick check-in appointment for yourself each workday. It can be as brief as two minutes, but set aside a specific time for a two-part session:
- Notice and appreciate at least one thing you did well. It could be your effort, focus, or a specific outcome.
- Recognize a limitation or circumstance that might be in the way, but is unavoidable, like a client canceling at the last minute, or poor attendance due to a snowstorm.
Find an upside or some humor when you’re feeling down. If a lead didn’t work out, for instance, you might say to yourself, “Great, I can use that hour for a nap,” or “This means more time to watch HGTV.”
It’s just a version of self-talk, a way to decrease the intensity of your negative concern.
Think like an athlete preparing to compete. Create a pre-coaching routine that gets your body and mind ready for optimal coaching performance.
Meditation, visualization, listening to motivating music, or even playing with your dog can all prime you for engaged and active interactions with your clients.
It’s hard for some to turn off self-criticism that fuels negative perfectionism. Research demonstrates that external noise can drown it out.
When you realize you’re criticizing yourself, take an intentional action. This can be talking on the phone with a friend, or with a client in session, or putting on the best personal trainer podcast, or listening to an energizing playlist. Or try some binaural music—the soothing beats are thought to ease anxiety and might help some tune out self-criticism.
Your negative personal appraisals can amp up your stress response and prime unrealistic expectations. This can hinder your coaching performance.
So practice a skill that either evokes a relaxation response—like deep breathing or meditation—or mentally rehearse an experience or performance going well.
This could be as simple as rhythmic breathing. Inhale to the count of three, for instance, and exhale to the count of six.
Another variation is adding phrases, akin to a mantra. Inhale while thinking a short phrase like, “I am calm,” and exhale thinking “I am quiet, inside and out.” The longer exhalation can help produce a relaxation response.
You’re just switching from negative to positive thinking, and that may help you avoid getting stuck in negative perfectionism.
Of course, setting goals is central to success. But if your goals are too lofty or too rigid, it can set you up for failure.
Take a moment to ask yourself if a goal is adjustable. Can’t tell? Ask a colleague what they think.
When you include contingencies and backup plans, you increase the chances you’ll feel capable and be successful.
Say your goal was 10 new clients in a month, but you only have three after two weeks. Stop, think about why that is, and consider adjusting your expectations.
Maybe it’s spring, so nobody wants to be inside a gym. Tell yourself, “Let’s adjust to a goal of five, and see if I can sign up a few more.”
Stuff happens. You know that—now tell yourself that.
You’re a coach, you know perfection is impossible.
When something goes sideways, intentionally remind yourself that mistakes are part of the process. They don’t mean you’re “bad” or a “failure.”
Turn the mistake into part of the process. If a client drops out, for instance, ask for feedback and see if you could adjust your services accordingly.
Acknowledge it wasn’t ideal but tell yourself: “I’ve adjusted and can move on—no need to beat myself up!” See how that works.
Tell yourself you can learn from mistakes to do better next time.
Do you ever say things to yourself that you would never say to another person? If so, make your self-talk more objective.
The first step is to take note when a negative thought pops up, like, “I’ll never build up enough clientele to be successful!” That’s negative and unhelpful.
As soon as you hear yourself thinking that, practice thinking, “That’s not true because …” and then complete the sentence.
Maybe it’s, “That’s not true because I am building a clientele and my clients are happy with me!” Or, “I’ve only been building a business for a year, and I’m getting closer to my goal.”
Most of those tips are proactive, intentional behaviors. The flip side of that are some things to avoid. For instance:
3 perfectionist traps you should avoid
Don’t overfocus on projects that are minor and not a good use of time.
Focus on needle-movers. Instead of falling down the rabbit-hole of your website or social media, redirect that energy to things that will make a difference—like following up on leads.
Don’t fall into paralysis by analysis.
Obsessing over logo colors, which personal training software is best, or how much extra toilet paper to leave in bathroom stalls is not productive. If small things get in the way of spending time on the big things, notice and move on to something that matters.
This decisiveness can be practiced, like anything else. Keep on a schedule, and limit the time spent on details to, say, an hour per week.
Or if an issue arises unexpectedly, before you address it, give yourself a time limit. You can even set a timer, and when the time’s up, move on.
Don’t focus on accumulating certifications.
Yes, continuing ed is important. But spending too much time on that at the expense of coaching clients can deplete your energy and hinder your efforts to build sustainability.
In sum, remember to use the “light” side of perfectionism to your advantage. Maintain those high standards to sustain motivation and to stay well prepared, organized, and confident.
Learn from mistakes, experiences, and, well, “imperfections”—and then let them go and move on!