On perfection, basketball and running…

I settled into my court side seat at my eleven year old son’s basketball practice, taking in the scene before opening my laptop to finish some work. A new boy had joined the team and stood in front of the coach.

“So, what should I do?” he asked as he held the ball in both hands.  He looked eager and excited; innocent in that way eleven year old boys are before the hormones hit.

“Just play. Go shoot some hoops then in five minutes you’ll be warmed up and ready for practice.”


The kid slowly walked away, trying to bounce the ball but not quite coordinating himself.

The team Evan belongs to welcomes anyone who wants to play, as opposed to other teams that cherry pick winning players in order to top the tournament. I started typing away, glancing up at the action now and then. That’s when I saw the new kid sitting on a chair in the far corner of the gym. His head was slumped forward, his shoulders shaking with sobs. My maternal heart strings tugging, I walked over and sat down next to him.

I touched his shoulder. “Hey, are you okay? What’s happening?”

“I’m not as good as the other kids. I can’t keep up with them. I want to go home…”

“You know, I’ve been watching you and for someone that only started ten minutes ago you’re really pretty good! Most of these guys have been playing for years and some of them still aren’t even that good, but they keep coming to practice and trying. I think you just need to practice some more.”

By now he had stopped crying and was listening, so I told him about Evan’s recent drama.

Ev has been playing basketball since first grade, and even though they’ve always had mini-tournaments, this past year was first he’d played in “real” games. He’s only eleven but was asked to play with the Under-13 group for his ability and height. The first game was brutal and they lost by over 100 points. He came home crying and wanted to quit.

“Why do you want to quit? You love basketball!”

“I’m not good enough… and it’s all my fault… and I get too anxious if everything doesn’t go perfectly.”

BINGO! We’d hit on the real problem.

I told him that sport reflects real life and I’d noticed that he had these same issues of “perfection” in his school and home life. He could use this basketball situation to work on this, and see that the most important thing was to do his best and let the situation take its course. He also had to remember that he was an important part of a team. Leaving them would also be letting them down, so he had to really think about that.

With the help of his coach we got him back on the court and he’s happily playing again. Sometimes the team wins, but now Evan has learned how to lose as well. Whenever I see his perfectionist anxiety creep in his studies I bring him back to the basketball situation and remind him to keep doing his best.

The little guy sniffed as I told him the story. He said he didn’t think he’d ever get good at basketball and just wanted to go home. As I handed him my phone he thanked me for our chat. His father came a few minutes later and as he walked out of the gym I couldn’t help feeling a little sad.

By now you may be asking, “What the heck does this story have to do with running?”

When I coach runners, whether it’s for a 5K race or the marathon, their personality and character always comes out in those training sessions. Just like Evan wanted to quit basketball after one bad game, I’ve seen runners want to quit because of one bad race. Women runners are especially guilty of defining their entire self worth on one single training session where they didn’t hit their desired times. I’ve coached several men that would only sign up for races where they thought they could run a PR (personal record), never ever running recreationally.

What I love about sports – about running – is that it can be a “safe” environment to work out your little quirks and issues. You can dare yourself to relax about not performing the perfect workout, or push yourself like you’ve never done before. It’s a span of time that allows you to work on strengthening your character, one mile at a time.

  1. helen
    This is a lovely post. One of the things I've really appreciated about getting back into running the last couple of years is that sticking at it is the real achievement for people like me, who, in terms of time, are in the bottom 5-10% consistently. Yet, I'm thrilled I'm setting myself goals and working towards them, and watching my body become capable of new things, and the U&R philosophy is so much to do with this. I have lots of perfectionist tendencies and I'm really enjoying freeing myself of these in some areas of my life. It's the ongoing commitment that really counts. Thanks for striking the balance of being firm and encouraging about the right things!
  2. Julia Jones
    Thank you, Helen!
  3. Paula
    Oh wow.... perfect timing. Thank you. I have a huge deadline at work today which has been dumped on me after returning from holidays. The expectations are completely unrealistic but, of course, these may be more mine than the company's. The outcome is not going to be a perfect. I missed last night's run as a result of working late and know that the upcoming half marathon is going to not be perfect either (last year the same run was a great PR). I even have been toying with the idea of pulling out of the race. So, I guess, I just have to suck it all up!! And hang in there.
  4. Nikki
    Really valuable post. Thanks, Julia. I can really identify too.