What turns a perfectionist into a lunatic

There may be no crying in baseball, but there’s plenty of screaming.
There may be no crying in baseball, but there’s plenty of screaming.
Image: Columbia Pictures
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For sports fans, the spectacle of red-faced, screaming coaches—even more than daffodils and chirping birds—is a harbinger of spring. Occasionally, the rage of some of those men (and they are overwhelmingly men) has overflowed into headline-grabbing incidents and viral YouTube clips: former Dodgers coach Tommy LaSorda tackling a mascot, for example, or Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew head-butting a player—not to mention the train wreck of court-side meltdowns at last month’s NCAA college basketball tournament.

Whether all that gesticulating and cursing helps motivate players is unclear, but the apoplectic coaches have served at least one useful purpose—for science. A new study (paywall) uses coaches as examples of perfectionists, and links different perfectionist types to how the coaches handle stress. It suggests that the ones with the noisiest, most colorful displays are reacting just as much to what people are saying outside the game as to what’s happening on the field.

“Lots of coaches display features of perfectionism,” Andrew Hill, a psychologist from the University of Leeds, told Quartz. “It could be that sports can require flawlessness/exceptional performance; they promote perfectionistic tendencies among coaches and athletes.”

Broadly speaking, perfectionists come in two brands: those who set their own high standards, and those who strive to meet other people’s standards of success. The study of  227 young coaches found that those who measure themselves against public opinion have a very hard time controlling their anger, compared with those who rely on strictly internal measures, such as a team’s performance.

Interestingly, it was the coaches with high personal standards and high sensitivity to outside pressure—the mixed perfectionists—that were the most prone to angry outbursts.

Since this study looked at a cross-section of coaches relatively early in their career, it doesn’t prove that these mixed perfectionist traits are present in the coaches that make it to the upper echelons of sport. But it seems possible that such a combustable combination is at play within those irate coaches hopping up and down at the sidelines on television: Presumably, many successful coaches wouldn’t be where they are if not for high personal standards. And, in a world where the web has turned every fan into a potential pundit, it is probably difficult to ignore outside expectations.

Yelling might be a little more accepted in sports than in other workplaces, but a boss’s poor anger management can affect the performance of subordinates—from athletes to Wall Street traders (video). Research suggests that negative emotional displays (including anger) can erode employee trust.

And of course, a coach or manager with a short fuse could risk losing his or her job. On the other hand, since some research shows that angry people might live shorter lives, getting fired could be a boon to a stressed perfectionist’s long-term health.