A Toll on Mental Health

As athletes chase perfection in their sports, they must reconcile with the mental consequences of perfectionist attitudes.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Technically, it is possible, though highly unlikely, to be perfect in sports. Becoming the greatest athlete nowadays has a lot to do with becoming the player with the most goals, saves, assists, points, blocks, rebounds, passes, stolen bases—whatever it may be. In some sports, however, there is “perfection,” though very loosely defined. Baseball has a perfect game and a no-hitter; hockey has a shutout; darts have a perfect leg. In every team sport, there is a perfect record. Athletes in these sports are sometimes tempted to use these accomplishments as the bar, the apex they strive to reach. But is it healthy to do so?

Answering this question requires us to examine perfection as it has been achieved in some sports, taking lessons from the athletes and uncovering the truth about perfection.

  1. 1972 Miami Dolphins

These Dolphins were the first—and only—team to win all of their games, including the Super Bowl. On the way, they set the record for the highest total point differential in a season and thoroughly dominated the league, but that did not mean that they flew over every single opponent with ease. In the Super Bowl, kicker Garo Yepremian’s chip-shot field goal was blocked. Panicked, Yepremian attempted to throw the ball to a teammate but instead threw a pick-six. “I thought, ‘Boy, this will be great if Garo kicks this field goal and we go ahead, 17-0, in a 17-0 season. What a great way that would be to remember the game.’ And then Garo did what he did,” head coach Don Shula said. Yepremian supposedly didn’t leave his home for weeks, traumatized by the incident. 

That miss would be one of the few mistakes of the Dolphins’ season. But that’s the truth—it was an entire season of football, a sample size where individual errors like Yepremian’s amount to nothing when examining the big picture. Athletes tend to pick on these small details to an excessive level. Though it is completely human nature, it can have serious ramifications on one’s mental health. Take a look at your situation holistically; examine the sum of all the actions you take rather than beating yourself up over one error. Though he missed two extra points that season, the two seasons prior and two after would both be strong years for him as he nailed every extra point he attempted, and his 65 percent field goal percentage was commendable for the era. At the end of it all, he was a part of the NFL’s only perfect team. There’s some magic in that.

  1. Dave Stieb and Ken Griffey Jr.

Spending his entire career with the Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher Dave Stieb was very good at being almost perfect. Baseball’s perfection, a no-hitter (a game in which a pitcher allows no hits), eluded him thrice at the last possible moment. Of those three times, two were back-to-back starts in which Stieb recorded 26 perfect outs and two strikes against the last batter but failed to record the final out in both. The probability of this event, calculated by sports writer Jon Bois, was one in 241,190,218. Each time, he was unbelievably close to the apex. Devastated despite winning both games, Stieb pitched 11 almost no-hitters, in which his bid for perfection was broken in the sixth inning or later. 

Of course, this “disappointment” overlooks the fact that Stieb was still an incredibly talented pitcher, one of the best in the era. He found success. He was the best pitcher on a newborn Toronto Blue Jays roster that was spearheading the team into a playoff contender. He recorded wins. And yet, the inability for him to achieve perfection dragged him to a level where he could no longer recognize his successes. “Right now, I just want to go home,” Stieb said to the press after blowing the second of his two consecutive near-no-hitters. “It was a real heartbreaker.” 

Falling just short of this perfection made Stieb appear as the guy who could never wrap it up, never bring home the Blue Jays’ first franchise no-hitter despite being so close to it. He was commonly cranky and experienced anxiety around his no-hitters. His administration put a lot of pressure on him, including a minimum innings pitched barrier to reach a certain paygrade that his own manager denied by pulling him early from his last start of the season (also a potential no-hitter). Though Stieb was mentally strong throughout it all, perhaps thanks to his apathy, not all baseball players bode well with the same pressures. At just 17 years old, famed future Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. made an attempt on his life due to the pressure surrounding his lightning-fast rise to the upper echelons of baseball. Griffey Jr. would survive and have a highly successful career, but he exemplifies the pressures that can arise for athletes from whom we expect the best and who attempt to push their limits.

Back in Toronto, Stieb’s mental fortitude carried him through these dark times. Later in his career, he would finally get one, joining a star-studded list of pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter. In his quest to find one, Stieb remained shockingly calm and cool, something that is beyond difficult for athletes to do. To come so close to your would-be greatest achievement and be denied on several occasions is devastating, but Stieb developed a mental fortitude to pull through and look to the next game. When that game came, he could not have been happier. Stieb’s autobiography, appropriately titled Tomorrow I’ll Be Perfect, was written before he achieved his no-hitter, and yet in its pages, you can almost see it coming. Even without his perfection, any reader of the book would see Stieb’s charisma, skill, and attitude above this single accolade, and commend the strength he needed to survive his setbacks. 

  1. Bully Boy and The Machine

Darts is an endurance sport, consisting of as many pieces as a tennis match, but one where perfection is possible and has a name—the nine-dart leg. Darts requires one to wipe out a total of exactly 501 points in as few throws as possible. Though extremely difficult, nine-darters are possible and have happened a number of times in darting history. Hundreds of players have stepped up to the oche on television, but only a select few have nine-dart legs to their name. It begs the question: If we have been chasing this same goal for so long, why hasn’t every darts player (or at least one) been able to achieve nine-darters consistently? Doesn’t practice and better analytical technology and throwing techniques just lead to more perfection?

Simply put, no. Though darts players have improved significantly over the years, humans are not capable of mechanically rattling off that level of precision and accuracy—even the pros. Ironically, the most perfect darts ever thrown consecutively were thrown by Dutch darts player Michael “The Machine” Van Gerwen. Van Gerwen rattled off 17 perfect darts—nearly becoming the first player to hit consecutive nine-dart legs—but failed on the last dart. His play, and the play of other darts professionals who have achieved nine-darters, prove that chasing perfection is sometimes fruitless. 

Instead, Van Gerwen went for a different record—the highest points average in a match—which he eventually won by playing good darts. In that match, he didn’t achieve a nine-dart leg, but he was able to earn an emphatic win in which he was on point with almost every throw. He managed his board well and scored well but had no nine-darter to show for it. In fact, Van Gerwen has even thrown nine-darters in matches that he would go on to lose—including the 2023 World Series of Darts Final, which he lost to English darts player Luke Humphries despite a nine-dart leg. This reveals the true impact of nine-darters—they can greatly affect not only your opponent’s mindset but also yours, inviting cockiness and overconfidence into games that can slip away. Perfection in darts is a short-term performance analysis that can greatly change across legs as a player becomes tired or thinks less when they throw. Plus, due to their relatively small impact on the match score (as darts matches are commonly played to between 11 and 45 legs), a nine-darter does not guarantee a win. Therefore, it’s illogical to chase nine-darters in your route to victory. Though nine-darters may be remembered and spoken about for a couple of months, the trophies you win are immortal.

However, there is one nine-dart leg that will never be forgotten. In the 2023 PDC World Championship, Van Gerwen threw first against English darts player and then-first-ranked Michael “Bully Boy” Smith. After their first six darts, both players were on a nine-dart finish, with the crowd exploding to its feet. Van Gerwen had the first chance to pummel home the finish. He hit a perfect seventh throw, and then a perfect eighth throw, but failed to hit double 12 to finish the match. Smith then took his next three darts and nailed them all. Van Gerwen threw eight perfect darts but was punished by Smith, who was chasing him down the whole time. Alas, Smith took it home, along with the day’s trophy as he was crowned the PDC World Champion.

These three sports have a lot to tell us about perfection. There is a lot of appeal and ecstasy in it—the idea of finally ascending to that mountaintop that you chased for so long. But in the quest for perfection, for our own achievements, we often face setbacks that can be overpowering and difficult to overcome. The expectations of the world around us may rise and apply pressure to athletes who are putting on the show. The idealization of perfection is detrimental: it clouds our judgment of our biggest achievements, as it did to Yepremian; it can disguise the truth of our work, as it did to Stieb; or it can create unrealistic expectations from ourselves and our fans, as it did to Van Gerwen. Just remember that sports are about more than being perfect. They’re about being yourself, becoming the vessel of your own dreams, and knowing that the entire world is cheering you on. So when you next step up to the plate or line up under center, or wind up to take your shot, do it knowing that you are about to achieve something incredible. Who cares if it doesn’t align with someone’s arbitrary standards of perfection? Tomorrow, we’ll all be perfect.