Elite Minds: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success

September 28, 2016


In his new book, sport psychologist and leadership consultant Dr. Stan Beecham helps us reprogram our brains to reach our full potential.

Excerpt from Chapter 9 
Elite Minds: How Winners
Think Differently to Create
a Competitive Edge
and Maximize Success
by Dr. Stan Beecham


The Curse of Perfection

Do what you can with what you have, where you are. —Teddy Roosevelt

Most elite athletes—from golfers to gymnasts, placekickers, and baseball pitchers—tend to be very focused, disciplined, and perfectionistic. Their belief is that the desire to be “perfect” will end up making them better. Unfortunately, this is not always true. More often than not, the desire to be perfect actually hinders performance. When we try to be perfect, we assume that success equals not making any mistakes, when in fact, success is your response to the mistake. People who tend to be perfectionists do not respond well to adversity or defeat. Their belief is “If I’m doing it correctly, there will be no struggle or failure.” As we mentioned in the previous chapter, loss and pain are the great motivators to change. Well, defeat, struggle, and embarrassment can also be added to that list because they can all lead to change as well. And remember, change always leads to improvement.

Not understanding that failure is part of the journey of success will lead to more failure—not perfection. Perhaps the best and easiest way to define success is this: Fall down 100 times, get up 101.

Accepting the Good and the Bad

We must accept that every now and then, we will have a bad day.

When I talk with elite athletes, I ask them the following question: “If you were the best athlete in the world in your event, how frequently would you have a bad day?” Surprisingly, many great athletes believe they should get to a point where they no longer have any bad days (or failures). But in reality, the best and most self-aware of those athletes report that during the course of a 30-day month, they have somewhere between 3 and 6 bad days. They understand that having a bad day is simply part of the process. The ability to accept these fluctuations in performance allows athletes to remain fully engaged in their training and keep their goals high. Likewise, the inability to make sense of your failures will ultimately cause you to become discouraged and less motivated, and your performance will decline as a result.

How you function during a good day does not define your character. It’s how you function during a bad day that is the true test. It is always beneficial for me to see an athlete I am working with have a bad day because it is the truest measure of that person’s competitive ability. Do they exacerbate the bad day by becoming even more critical of themselves or someone else? Do they feel sorry for themselves and pout? Do they make excuses and quit? In order for you to reach your potential, you must know how you respond to poor performance. This is critical information you simply cannot move forward without.

If perfect is not the goal, what is? It’s simple: Do your best. That’s it. Each and every day, make it your intention to do the very best you can with what you have that day. As I said earlier, in your daily journal, give yourself a W or an L for each day. If you did the best you could that day, you get a W. If you did not do your best, you get an L. The goal is to have six or fewer Ls in a month. And you never want to have two consecutive Ls. It’s okay to have a bad day, but you must make yourself recover quickly and get back on track. Remember: The goal is not to be perfect. It’s to do your best and recover quickly from failure.

What Is Perfection?

Perfection is a mathematical concept, not a human one. Those who actually achieve perfection, or the human equivalent of perfection, probably aren’t trying to be perfect when they actually bump into the “perfect” moment.

Gymnasts and distance runners have much in common psychologically because they both tend to be obsessive and have desires to be perfect. During one practice with a top college gymnastics team in the 1990s, I shared with the young women the story of Nadia Comaneci’s “perfect” 10.0 during the 1976 Olympics. Nadia, a member of the Romanian team, won three gold medals during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and she scored the first perfect 10.0. At age 14, she scored a 10.0 on her uneven bars routine. Because it was believed to be impossible to score a perfect 10.0 at that time, the scoreboard could display no score higher than a 9.9. In order to present her score, the officials had to present it as a 1.0. At first the crowd was confused, but they soon figured out that she had in fact scored a perfect 10.0. Nadia went on to score six more perfect 10.0s during her Olympic career.

Most of the gymnasts I was working with were familiar with the story, but they were either not born yet or were infants during the 1976 Olympics. In their time, perfect 10.0s were quite common in college gymnastics, and most of the women on the team had been recipients of a 10.0 at some point in their career. One of the women on the University of Georgia (UGA) team, Karen Lichey, was regarded as one of the best gymnasts in college at the time and still remains one of the best ever.

The purpose of presenting the Nadia Comaneci story was to address two concepts at once: perfection and impossible. I shared my thoughts that in the past, “perfection” had been paired with “impossible,” but now perfection (scoring a 10.0) is commonly viewed as possible in college gymnastics. “What’s the next impossible thing that will become possible?” I asked the team. We discussed how 200 was the highest possible team score and that no team had ever scored a 200. Additionally, no individual had ever scored a 40 (a perfect 10 on all four events) during a collegiate gymnastics meet. Most of the women believed that someone would eventually score a 40, and several of them had gotten close already. Later that year, Karen Lichey did the impossible and scored a perfect 40 during a meet. When she and I discussed it during our next session, she shared with me that she had come to realize that a 40 was possible and that she had the ability to pull it off. Karen also shared with me a quote by Walt Disney that our mutual friend, Kirk Smith, had given her before the meet. The Disney quote read: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Sixteen years have passed since Karen Lichey scored the first perfect 40 in women’s college gymnastics, and at the time of this book’s publication, no one else has matched her accomplishment. Many have certainly tried, but with no luck. The best advice you could give a gymnast trying to score the next 40 would be, “Don’t try to be perfect. Just perform the routine to the best of your ability. Let the judges worry about the score.”

Many years ago, I had a client who was an artist. She was a very talented young woman who was quite a poet and a painter, but she was frustrated because she was having a block and unable to produce anything that she felt was of value.

In discussing her problem, we realized that the main thing holding her back was her belief that everything had to be perfect in order for her to do her best work. Her stars were not lining up the way she had hoped.

I asked about her belief that everything had to be perfect in order for her to sit down and write. She had assumed that a perfect outcome first required a perfect situation. I suggested that she give up on perfect and just work with what she had.

She agreed to write at a certain time each day, no matter what, to see what would happen. Here is what she brought back to our next session:

Don’t wait for an invitation, an ideal time, a perfect situation.

It’s happening all around you, about you, with or without you.

So, do the do that makes you, you.

Don’t wait for another time when you have one available . . . now.


Dr. Stan Beecham is a sport psychologist and leadership consultant based in Roswell, Georgia. Legendary coach Vince Dooley gave him his start as an undergraduate student at UGA, allowing him to work with Kevin Butler, the great college athlete and professional kicker for the Chicago Bears. Dooley later hired Dr. Beecham to start the Sports Psychology Program for the UGA Athletic Department. He was instrumental in helping UGA win numerous individual and team championships during his tenure.

In addition to his work with professional, Olympic, and collegiate athletes from many sports, Beecham conducts leadership development programs for corporate clients. 

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