Posted On:
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Perfection = Unobtainium

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A photo of the quartz-sandstone pillars in Zhangjiajie in the Hunan province of China, which inspired the floating “Hallelujah Mountains” of Pandora in James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar.

Last week, I shared the first in a series of posts that are intended to help give you some tangible suggestions for how to make your training more enjoyable and a more positive experience for you. This week, the tip I’m sharing is:

Understand and embrace that aiming for perfection is like trying to harvest Unobtainium.

Unobtainium is a term that is used to describe “any hypothetical, fictional, or impossible material.” James Cameron used this term to describe the substance that made interstellar space travel possible in his movie Avatar. I’m choosing to use it here not only because I’m a movie nerd, but because what it describes is a parallel for the quest that many people have for “perfect” in their training and workouts. Being perfect is just not possible; it is unobtainable.

As a species (and especially as a collective culture/society in the United States of America) we love to glorify greatness, and along with that comes buy-in on a myth that in order to be great, one must be perfect.  We, as a culture, also like to perpetuate the myth that perfection is actually possible; social media has exacerbated this over the last fifteen years and has helped to plant the seeds that perfection is something that can actually be achieved.

American runner Kenny Moore, who placed fourth in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games, wrote the following in his book Best Efforts about a conversation that he had after that race with his teammate and fellow countryman, Frank Shorter, who won the marathon and the gold medal:

“You know,” I said, “all this time I thought the Olympic Champion was somebody incredibly special.” Frank gave me a consoling look, as though he would have liked to protect me from this final disillusionment. “And then you found out,” he said, “that it was only me.”

This conversation struck me because it hones in on a very critical point: The people we applaud, throw up on a pedestal, and assign the title of greatness to are, in fact, human.  All too often, we think that people like Mr. Shorter, who win gold medals in the Olympic Games, must be nearly perfect.  In truth, they are more like us than they are not.  By extension, that also means that they are not perfect.  They’re just…human.

I see the quest for perfection every day in my work as a coach. Some common examples that I’ve seen many, many times over the years:

There are many more examples I could list, but these are definitely the most common ones that I regularly see.  The main point I’m striving to illustrate here is that perfection among humans truly is a myth.  Denying that this is true is not only completely and totally stubborn, it’s a flat-out lie.

As such, it’s a false expectation to have for oneself.  To expect that you can be perfect in anything (let alone everything) is going to set you up for continued, constant frustration and angst.  You’re setting yourself up for certain failure right from the start by reaching for something that is ultimately actually unattainable.  I’m here to help guide you toward setting yourself up for success from the start.

The fact that we shouldn’t aim for “perfect” doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try our best, have high expectations of ourselves, or aim for goals that push and drive us. Rather, what this does mean is that instead of aiming for “perfection,” we should aim for our best effort. As I’ve talked about before, if you give your best effort that you can on a given day, that’s giving “perfect” effort, because you gave everything you had to give. It’s that “perfect” and best effort that will give you the momentum to reach those lofty goals that you choose to set.

By liberating yourself from the unrealistic expectation that you will be perfect in your training and workouts, you can then free yourself up to have real expectations of yourself, such as giving your best effort (recognizing that even our best effort may “fall short” and not result in our most desired outcome).  Having real and achievable expectations of yourself will lead to increased happiness and contentment over the long haul.

The people who do achieve their desired outcomes are like you and me. They have good days and bad days. They fight with the Negative Nellies that live inside their heads, they experience anxiety, and they have workouts that do not go anything like they thought they would.

When you consider all of this, the fact that they’re like us - and not perfect - is actually more inspiring.  It shows us that we - with all of our imperfections - can work through our troubles and through the hard days to still find success down the road and reach our goals.  Gold medalists become gold medalists by doing the simple, mundane things day in and day out.  Over time, these things add up and their success is the sum of all of the parts that came before it.  Thus, if we focus our energy into giving our best efforts into the simple, mundane things in our own lives, we can eventually reach our personal version of greatness as well.

Perfection = Unobtainium.  Instead, aim for your best, whatever that looks like on a given day.  You’ll ultimately feel more satisfied, grounded, and content as a result, I promise. :)


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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