The Pitfall of Perfectionism (Q & A: Writing Training Programs, Part 5)

Okay, I'm almost done with this seemingly never-ending series, I promise. I only have today's post - to cover an often overlooked component of program design - and I'll finish off the series on Wednesday with a few "blueprint" suggestions. Moving on, let me briefly touch on an achilles heel of mine....

5. Perfectionism

I'm currently reading a phenomenal book on writing, titled Bird by Bird (thank you Tony Gentilcore for the recommendation), and the author, Anne Lamott, touches on this very topic:

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while doing it."

Now, before I go any further, take a moment to read that again and really let it sink in. While I'm currently addressing the writing of training plans, the advice above can easily be applied to any facet of life for those of you who are perfectionists (you know who you are).

Be it your work habits, your possessions, your relationships, the obsessive believe that you need to be perfect can, and will, utterly destroy you.

Perfectionism, in my opinion, is analogous to fire. It can be very useful provided it's retrained to its intents and purposes, but all-consuming and incredibly destructive if it's not contained. A small fire can be used to forge and refine a steel blade, or provide warmth, but it can also bring your entire house to the ground should it spiral out of control.

Yes, I actually did just come up with that analogy myself, and yes, you may steal it.

My office space isn't necessarily the neatest, I don't wash my car every other day (unlike my brother), and I don't line up everything in my home at 90 degrees to each other. Heck, maybe all those things are more closely related to OCD than perfectionism....I don't really know....but the point is that there are areas of my life in which I'm a perfectionist. In high school, one of these areas was my schoolwork (choosing homework and studying over hanging out with friends, anyone?), which, over time, translated over to this obsessive need to perfect anything I take honest time out of my day to complete that involves a pencil, paper, computer, and that little thing they like to call the "cerebral cortex."

My high school life basically consisted of homework, studying, reading book after book, and lacrosse practice (I've heard getting outside and remaining active is important for cognitive function).

Helloooo to good grades and cruising into the college of my choosing, but goodbye to time with friends, overall sense of enjoyment, and my hopes of becoming globally ranked in Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past speedruns.

Needless to say, there was a price to pay for my perfectionism, and I missed out on some pretty important stuff (I'm referring to Zelda rankings, of course, not time with friends).

Where was I again? Oh yeah, perfectionism and writing programs.....

Look, when it comes to designing workouts and resistance training programs, IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE PERFECT. I'm speaking from personal experience here, as I used to spend an unholy amount of time writing programs. In fact, I'm not even going to tell you how long I spent on on a 2x/week training plan, let alone a 5x/week training plan, as it'd be embarrassing to recount.

I would practically torment myself with finding the perfect set-rep scheme for each and every exercise, the most flawless waving of volume and intensity, and the best sequencing of exercises. Guess what? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter.

I realized that I was, in fact, doing my athletes a disservice, because it was taking time away from continued education, and I remain a bit emotionally distant during their training sessions because I would still be thinking about the program design. And you know what I discovered in the process, that was a bit of an "ah-ha" moment for me?

Good coaching will trump "perfect" program design, any day of the week.

A good coach will help someone get more out of a freaking bodyweight split squat than many poor trainers can provide someone during a bilateral squat with a barbell. Along a similar vein, an excellent coach can help someone receive a better training effect from PUPPing correctly than a bad coach/trainer walking someone through pushups (at least what they're calling a pushup).

And, you know what? I can't tell you how many times I've written a program for someone, only for them to walk in the following day telling me they tweaked their back, shoulder, or knee, and I've then had to modify virtually the entire thing anyway, right there on the spot. Or, they have an unexpected business trip, which is going to throw the workout split off schedule. Or, their girlfriend just broke up with them and they had their computer stolen. All of these things are going to require program-modification on the fly.

The point in all of this isn't to tell you to stop working hard in your job, or to fail to give your clients and athletes everything you've got. But there is a very thick line between giving other people your best, and allowing your perfectionism to spin out of control like a wild fire, negatively affecting your own mind, along with those around you.