Since the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and perhaps even since the Savior walked the earth), believing Christians have looked with awe upon the command to “be ye therefore perfect,” (Matthew 5:48, 3 Nephi 12:48) sometimes at the peril of discouragement, and even depression. 

Perhaps spurred by growing concern with “toxic perfectionism,” recent addresses by leaders of the Church have seemed to attempt to shift the focus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from immediate perfection to ongoing progress. Instead of expecting flawless perfection in this life, teaching has increasingly centered around doing our best to regularly repent and make daily progress towards the eternal goal of perfection. Beginning with then Elder Russell M. Nelson’s 1995 address, “Perfection Pending” and then punctuated by the regular emphasis on “becoming” following Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ talk in 2000, fresh reintroductions to grace (Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder David A. Bednar) and eventual perfection (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland) were also made.  

In combination, these words have prompted a steady diet of encouragement towards daily progress to tumble around in our minds. However, like so many principles, the things we know must make their way into our actions and our culture. So, the challenge we now face is how to embrace and actuate a shift towards an in-the-flesh, real life climate of progress. Fortunately, if we are willing to expand our search for answers to include eternal truths hidden outside of church buildings, we may find additional understanding about cultivating such a climate of progress.    

Learning from sport

Because we are told that “all things are spiritual unto [Christ]” (D&C 29:34), I really enjoy when my scholarly pursuits as a professor and academic align with my spiritual knowledge. I teach and study sport and exercise psychology. Sports have the potential to teach us important and even spiritual lessons for our mortal journey – with many crossovers between principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ and principles of competition in the athletic sphere. Amidst the experiential spectrum between heartache and magic in sports, we find especially vivid evidence of the importance of establishing a climate of progress towards excellence – in contrast with a demand for immediate perfection. For example, sports are games of failure. In baseball, celebrated hitters fail to get a hit 70% of the time. And in basketball, three-point shooters are “hot” when they are failing to make shots 60% of the time.

Sports capture our wildest dreams of victory, while also cradling us in the despair of painful defeat.

As in life, perfection is a worthy long-term goal, but when it is the only goal – or an immediate one – athletes are likely to come up short most of the time. Thus, the daily grind of practice must be focused on incremental improvement. That focus, which creates space for a freedom to fail within sports and not be overcome by despair, comes from wise leaders – both coaches and athletes alike.        

Despite the lack of total perfection in athletics, sporting events still captivate fans and participants alike. Close contests have the potential to draw out deep emotion and some of the best performances. Tales of the undervalued and overwhelmed underdog’s triumph over a stronger and more skilled opponent ignite our passion as spectators and participants. Sports capture our wildest dreams of victory, while also cradling us in the despair of painful defeat whispering lullabies of improvement and hope for next season. Although there is so much that can captivate us in sport, it’s sometimes admittedly difficult to navigate the unforgiving terrain of a zero-sum contest where there is one winner and the rest are labeled losers. 

The need for wise, patient coaches  

Coaches are largely responsible for establishing the focus and tone of the team. The leadership of emotionally intelligent and empathetic coaches can help in the reframing of a devastating defeat into an opportunity for optimism. The unfortunate truth about competitive sports in our culture is that many coaches have embraced the athletic culture of win-at-all-costs, entertainment, and exaggerated emotion.  Not only are these coaches “missing the mark” when it comes to the purpose of competition, but they also often end up doing immense harm to young, impressionable athletes in their formative years. 

We don’t have to look very far in the media to find examples of coaches who seem unbounded by the same standards of emotional, physical, and psychological discipline that they demand from their athletes. In some cases, these coaches also send a message to the team that only talent matters and the coaches’ time is best invested in the most skilled players. In other cases, these poor models even reach the point of verbally abusing athletes in the name of “motivating” or “toughening” them up. Whether in the name of “tough love” or the “my way or the highway” mantra, these autocratic coaches have either misplaced or lost their focus on the purpose of athletic competition. Akin to generational transmission of trauma in families, many are arguably imitating their own coaches – allowing new life to be given to a slowly dying trend of dictatorial coaching in yet another generation.

An overriding desire among some coaches to drive their athletes and their own careers to greatness ironically blurs the pathway to that very goal. Coaches are a product of the culture all of us have collectively established. As leaders, coaches embody the larger achievement culture all around us – reflected in competitive workplace and educational environments as well. Sports, then, can rightly be considered as a microcosm of society more broadly – all of which may need the same paradigm shift.  Because the development of our societal values are also surely influenced by the culture of sport, I’m arguing here that we need a dramatic shift in our paradigm of success in sports, in faith communities, and in life more broadly. Unless we make changes in our sport culture – and in our larger society – the damage to young people will be further perpetuated and exacerbated.

Measuring success

It’s natural that we celebrate the winners of contests as human beings. Out of the belief that keeping a record of most wins, most points, and most successes is the best way to capture greatness, we sometimes assume quantitative measures are the only means to define greatness in ourselves and those around us. These statistical measures of greatness, however, sometimes leave us missing out on capturing the intangible and arguably more meaningful triumphs. 

Some coaches understand this. They see sports as the breeding ground for life’s most poignant lessons. They see the power in using sports as a way to connect human souls and develop grit, rather than sow the seeds of discouragement and promote a survival of the fittest mentality. Seth Davis, a prominent sports broadcaster and journalist, said of iconic Duke University men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, “Nobody has won more games in the history of major men’s college basketball than Mike Krzyzewski, but if his legacy was defined by that, I think it would be pretty small. And I think he’s the first person to say that.” 

In an interview that corroborates Davis’ assessment of his coaching, Krzyzewski said, “If winning basketball games was the only thing…I mean, you have to win and I want to win, but there’s got to be more. Otherwise, we’ve [already] won.” 

Coach K, as he is called, knows that the definition of success is far too narrow if simply comprised of a win-loss record. And whatever definition a coach settles on, of course, ripples out to players too. Understanding how coaches’ definitions of success impact athletes starts with considering individual beliefs, then tracing how they expand in influence to the group culture level.  

Educational and sport psychology researchers have both made claims similar to Coach K about the effect of focusing on outcomes versus process – and the different implications of these competing views on future effort. These two divergent philosophies of success define competence very differently in terms of  what situations we feel most successful. 

One view suggests that a person feels most successful when they are better than other people. Essentially, when comparing myself with others (or a normative standard), how do I stack up? With this perspective, I feel a need to win or do better on a test than others in order to validate my sense of competence at a skill or evaluation of knowledge. Feeling successful based on my ability to outperform others reflects a performance orientation.

Most people have some attachments to both philosophies of success – performance and mastery – but one is usually more dominant than the other.

The other view defines success by personal improvements – comparing my current self to my previous self. Within this conceptualization of competence, the measuring stick is my own past performance or my progress over time. To feel successful, I might learn a new skill, whereby I have increased my knowledge or enhanced my capability. Feeling successful based on my self-referenced growth and improvement over time reflects more of a mastery orientation. Although I am presenting these two orientations as dichotomous, they are actually orthogonal – and independent of one another, freeing them to exist mutually at the same time and within the same mind. In other words, simply because an individual has a high performance orientation doesn’t therefore mean that they automatically have a low mastery orientation. Most people have some attachments to both philosophies of success – performance and mastery – but one is usually more dominant than the other.   

Cultivating a culture of progress

It’s not just at an individual level that these different views of success have an influence. The values embraced by communities, teams, and groups also affect the group level feeling or climate experience. A motivational climate is the experience of feelings, attitudes, and values reflected in a group setting. It’s the feeling we sense while interacting with others and collectively reaching for our goals. On a sports team or organization, there is usually a clear message about what matters most – do we value the development of the athlete (mastery focus) more than the score displayed at the end of a competitive contest (performance focus)? 

At this group level, coaches and other sport leaders clearly communicate their values by what they say and do – perhaps especially when athletes make mistakes. Coaches automatically communicate the importance of learning a skill by how they react to the mistakes of their athletes. A coach who punishes mistakes by belittling, screaming, demanding an extra set of sprints, or angrily ignoring the athlete, sends a message that only the end result is important. As a result of this type of encounter, an athlete may be more timid, less confident in their purpose on the team, and focused only on trying when success is guaranteed. However, if a coach reacts to the mistake of an athlete with more instruction, checking for understanding, and a quick reminder of their personal belief in the athlete, the athlete is more likely to exert enormous amounts of effort in almost every situation. John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach, is credited with saying, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” Remarkably, John Wooden never mentioned winning in his pregame speeches to his team. He was focused on improvement and progress that were under the control of him and his teams.  

The best coaches encourage a culture of regular improvement. On the surface, this approach to coaching may be mistaken for a “soft” style of management. However, let us not mistake such a culture for a celebration of simple, purposeless participation with passive, minimal effort. High expectations of focused development characterize the practices of these coaches. The intensity with which these coaches approach every aspect of their preparations and their interactions with athletes demands the best efforts from their athletes. In the culture of a mastery climate, competitive fire is flamed by the daily sprint toward personal progress.   

Creating a culture of progress as disciples

It was Elder Neal A. Maxwell who specifically advocated for the disciple-scholar model, wherein dedicated discipleship guides the thought processes and research of academics and bright minds in every field. On that basis, my understanding of these philosophies of success in sports has served to expand and deepen my understanding of the gospel – especially my understanding of the difference between progress and perfection. 

This same mastery orientation we’ve considered above aligns well in a gospel context with that unrivaled “program of progress – repentance,” wherein we are told to continually dust ourselves off after making mistake after mistake and come humbly to the Savior for mercy and strength. 

In contrast, our sometimes-simplistic views of what constitutes success in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be overrun by the pitfalls of perfectionistic theories. If our view of success is that we gracefully prance “line upon line” into heaven (without stumbling), we may have a harsh meeting with reality in store. Success may instead be more about the direction we are heading rather than the distance we have climbed.  After all, as Elder Dale G. Renlund said, “Saints are sinners who keep on trying.

A mastery perspective on gospel-living would encourage a focus on steady and iterative improvement. The opposing perspective would decree that we out-perform our brothers and sisters in the gospel in efforts to be Christ-like and demonstrate our worthiness. This type of perspective overshadows the reality that there is room enough for everyone who seeks to follow sincerely in Christ’s kingdom.  

Similar to how individual beliefs and focus align with gospel principles, the concept of motivational climates translates meaningfully into interactions as members of a faith community in the hallways of churches and our daily encounters with all our brothers and sisters on the walkways of malls and grocery stores. As I was sitting in a Relief Society lesson – the last lesson before church gatherings were suspended – the teacher invited us to consider how we could make our homes and our interactions with others an “environment of love,” as Elder Hans T. Boom suggested in October 2019 General Conference. While listening to the responses of the sisters, I realized that the same way psychological climates are formed in team environments applied to our homes and lives. We must clearly express the value we place on developing souls, not simply on the evaluative sum of reaching an end goal. We need to acknowledge that this life is a process that is most often riddled with imperfections, faceplants, and incorrect decisions. Is our definition of success in gospel living clear to our spouses, our families, and our friends? In response to the teacher’s provocative question in that lesson, I would advocate for stronger emphasis on development rather than present faultlessness. Unfortunately, I believe that many have experienced a performance climate as they walk through life, being evaluated against an unrealistic standard for their still-evolving human growth. 

As parents, teachers, and leaders of all kinds, how do we cultivate a climate of encouraging progress rather than demanding perfection? In any context, a focus on the daily development towards a worthy goal will help us take meaningful steps in the right direction. We must find ways to thrive on the thrill of the iterative, upward thrust of purposeful reflection and discipline. Along with all the important aspects of individual responsibility, so much of our day-to-day priorities are defined by the emotional, psychological, and motivational atmosphere we perceive. If we are committed to making the shift in our mindset a reality in practice, the responsibility to promote a climate of progress rests on the shoulders of parents, teachers (of all kinds), and leaders. These are ones who set the tone of homes, classrooms, and environments all around us. We must communicate more effectively that the goal is mastery; mastery of our mortal passions, our thoughts, our actions, and our lives. A goal of mastery means mistakes and missteps are framed as learning opportunities, rather than reasons for shame. Also, effort – not outcomes – should be what is most celebrated. As Sister Joy D. Jones suggested, “The Lord loves effort, and effort brings rewards. We keep practicing. We are always progressing as long as we are striving to follow the Lord. He doesn’t expect perfection today.” Perhaps most importantly, creating a climate of progress needs to be supported by Christlike love, which is redeeming love (Alma 5:46; see Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s October 2016 talk), a love that urges an upward climb that arises out of – and not despite – renewed effort in the midst of sin and error.