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  • Jennifer Vollmann

Lessons from Triathlons: Perfection is a dream killer

For most of my life I have strived to be perfect. I wanted straight As, to be the best non profit Executive Director, the most perfect mom…


What is right?

What is good?

Who is perfect?


There is no universal definition. We make it up as we go and if we are able to achieve it, we make up a new one! It is a never ending game of raising the bar higher and higher that we play with ourselves.


Me: “I did it! I got an A!

Brain: “Great, but was it an A+? What about that paper you got a B in. Close but try again.”


Me: “I showed for my daughter when she was having meltdown, I was calm and compassionate.”

Brain: “Yeah but I don't think you phrased that sentence right, she might be talking about this one day to her therapist.”


It is crazy making! And I did it to myself! I was the only one putting pressure to achieve an impossible level of perfection. Here is the real kicker, I didn't even know I was doing it! To me it looked like motivation and striving to be better. I thought it was just my brain keeping it real.


In reality, I wasn't moving forward, I was holding myself back. My fear of not being perfect stopped me from doing things where I might fail. What was I afraid of? When I boiled it down, I was afraid of the unkind things I would say to myself. Seems insane to hold yourself back in life because you are afraid of being mean to yourself, but it happens every day in every brain!


It wasn’t until I started training for triathlons that I realized the level of perfectionism I was trying to achieve and what it was creating in my life.


I have never been an athlete. As a kid it seemed was obvious to me I wasn’t athletically talented and since I feared not being perfect, I opted out participating in all sports. When I signed up for my first triathlon, I made it clear to everyone, but really to myself, that this was “just for fun” and I wasn't going to be very good at it. I tried to take off the pressure to be perfect. It of course did not work, the brain is very good at seeing through deflections.


And then I fell in love with Triathlons…

I wanted to be ALL IN but getting over my perfectionist hump took years. At the start of every race I told myself “it's ok if you don't have your best performance,” “you are probably not as fast as these other real athletes.” I was so afraid of what mean things I would say to myself if I didn't have a “perfect performance,” that I stepped off the gas pedal before the gun even went off.


My first sprint triathlon

Success does not come from fear, it comes from freedom. Freedom from outcomes, from what ifs or “you could have or should have…” It comes from letting go of expected outcomes and allowing yourself to show up as all of you regardless of what might happen. That is when you can blow your mind, that is when you can achieve things you never even imagined.


The more I raced, the more I felt this pull of perfectionism and its impact on my training.


Me: “That was a great swim! I hit all my send off times!”

Brain: “Well actually you struggled in that last interval and you had to fight more then you should to make the pace.”

Me: “WFT!”


My desire to see what I could really do on the race course grew and it eventually forced me to look at every aspect of training and mindset. When I looked at my mindset and the thoughts that kept popping up in my head, I realized what I thought was self-motivation was in fact a very deep level of perfectionism.


We get to choose what we think about everything in life. I can look at a workout and think: “I nailed that run, I can build on this fitness!” or I can look at it and think, “It was good, but I was off my 4th interval by 20 seconds, I have a long way to go.” Both thoughts are true, but one thought serves me and the other raises the bar of perfectionism even higher.


The great news is you get to pick what you want to think!


When I looked at my mindset and saw the crazy making I was doing to myself, my mind was blown! I was wasting so much energy picking out all the things I was doing “wrong” that I missed all the incredible things I was doing!


Each session, even the 20 min easy runs, I chose what thought I was going to think on purpose. When other thoughts about falling short or doing something wrong popped up, I redirected my brain to my chosen thought. Day by day I started to let go of perfection. The more I let go, the more I leaned into my potential.

Leaning into my potential until the very end!

The result?

Training was no longer a place to be unkind to myself. It is now a place of growth. It is a time to see what I can do to detached from the labels of good and bad. I approach racing as a way to express who I truly am. My race morning thoughts are: “I cannot wait to see what amazing experiences are waiting for me!”



My mindset change had a ripple effect in all areas of my life. Triathlon was a catalyst to explore how perfectionism was holding me back. It gave me an avenue to work on developing a new mindset and a way to put it to use with daily feedback in my training. I could see how changing my mindset created so many opportunities for me to blow past everything I thought was possible for my athletic life and create so much more! I knew if I could release the pressure of perfectionism in triathlon, I could do it other areas of my life.


Where is perfectionism holding you back?


Where are you afraid of failing because of what you will make it mean? What will you say to yourself?


You get to pick what you think everyday. Choose what serves you and start to develop a mindset that creates more of what you want in your life.