Imposter Syndrome - something that perhaps you’ve heard of but not considered in the context of sport, or perhaps you’re dealing with it personally. If you’ve ever gone to a race and felt like you didn’t belong, then you’re likely dealing with the negative psychological response that is imposter syndrome. I write this blog as someone who is currently (and has been for the past few years) trying to navigate the feeling of failing to meet expectations both internally and externally.
Developed by Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, the imposter phenomenon occurs when an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘if you run, you’re a runner’ but is that easier said than accepted for some of us? The phenomenon occurs at all levels of the sport from those who think that their pace or volume doesn’t constitute them as a runner to those who are vying for a position at the front of the race.
Alex Yee, a British Triathlete who recently won a team gold medal and individual silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics, has expressed feelings of imposter syndrome before. Yee detailed that he ‘struggled at that point with the self-worth of being an athlete’ and that it ‘took a few tough conversations and a lot of work to realise you are worthy of being there’. Despite no evidence to suggest that Yee didn’t deserve the success he found, he still battled with his self-esteem and the pressure to perform.
Personally, the experiences I’ve faced dealing with imposter syndrome are the inability to race for fear of failing, entering the cycle of comparing my training and results to those of my peers, and discounting my own achievements as luck. These experiences eventually developed into a phase of training where I was doing more than I could tolerate and sustain at that period of my running journey. I inevitably ended up with health issues that I am still dealing with. I’ve since taken a number of steps backwards in the process of accepting who I am as a runner because I can no longer trust that my body will respond to the stimulus I give it due to the damage I’ve done in the past.
Another issue I face is the fear of being judged and compared to my peers. I’ve been in a number of race environments where I haven’t done as well as I’d have liked but I’ve been pushed by my competitors to deliver my best possible performance. Imposter syndrome makes that outcome feel like a failure because I didn’t live up to the expectations that I perceived to exist externally and internally.
Other indicators of imposter syndrome are self-deprecating behaviour, justifying our worth to others, and hiding or downplaying our goals.
So, what are the practical steps that can be taken to try and mitigate imposter syndrome?
Accept ourselves for who we are
We are all loved and accepted for the person we are rather than the things we can do. It’s also acceptable to fail regardless of what that nagging voice in our head tells us. The best performers have some of the biggest failures but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to perform.
Scottie Scheffler, fresh from winning his first Masters Tournament, said that his wife had told him before play that 'if you win this golf tournament, if you lose by ten shots, if you never win another golf tournament again, I'm still going to love you, you're still going to be the same person'.
Avoid seeking external validation
Unless it’s something that gives you a positive response, avoid hanging your self worth on external validation. Seeking external validation can be a temporary solution to a more permanent issue. Strava is a runner’s best friend and worst enemy. When we are running well, it can be motivating to receive kudos and comments from friends awestruck at the training you’re doing. On the other hand, during periods of inactivity or when you feel your training isn’t where it needs to be, social media tools like Strava and Instagram can be a hindrance to your development as an individual and a runner. Internal confidence > external validation Engage with the habits and the processes that bring you happiness and let confidence come as a byproduct. Your running journey is your own, not the summation of those around you. Be where your feet land.
Ask for help
There are a number of avenues you can pursue if you want to explore the feelings of imposter syndrome. Work with a running coach, speak with a therapist, or start a conversation with your mates about the feelings you’re experiencing. We are all on this wild ride together and the more open and honest we can be about our challenges, the less scary they are to face.