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Athletes, the Impostor Syndrome, and Self-doubt


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Athletes, the Impostor Syndrome, and Self-doubt

 

As a fighter, coach, and official of many World Champion USA Kickboxing and Karate Teams, I can assure you The Impostor Syndrome is alive and well in the world of sports. 

A great example was in The Ultimate Fighter 5 when Joe Scarola, a student of coach Matt Serra quit with seconds to go in his first fight. Serra was yelling at Scarola to hold on for seconds more when Scarola tapped out. Serra, who has known and worked with Scarola since he was a kid, said, “He just didn’t want to be here.”

That, in my experience, is classic Impostor Syndrome at work. These are athletes that are more interested in not looking bad than winning.

Sports psychology studies show that athletes who expect to win do so more than those who don’t. That may seem obvious, but many athletes reading this recognize the depth of this truism.

Athletes committed to winning want to win and hate to lose. When they win, they will tell you why and how. When they do lose, they will first imply that they were injured, distracted, or the official blew the call. This is usually followed by a standard media reply such as, “We’ll just have to regroup…” or something generic if it’s an interview.

Athletes who are not committed to winning do the opposite. When they win, they will say something like, “I got lucky today…” or “It really could have gone either way…” These athletes would rather pull up short of their full effort and accept a near loss, rather than give it everything they have and still lose. If they take too much credit for the win, they have a fear that they will be expected to continue to win.

If they lose, they will say something like, “I just enjoy the challenge…” or “I’m just glad to be here…”

Clearly, not every athlete is at either end of the spectrum of these examples. But this discussion refers to high caliber amateur and professional athletes with more at stake in the competition than the average weekend warrior.

The difference between winning and losing can be literally “by a nose,” but the difference in rewards can be massive.

Part of preparing for competition is to condition the mind to accept and embrace the pain that the athlete may have to endure to win. A good coach also works on mental preparation in helping athletes understand that this feeling of self-doubt or that you are faking it is common. Studies show that up to 70% of the population is affected by The Impostor Syndrome and that includes athletes.

In fact, many of us, myself included, entered into a sport in order to help us gain some confidence and overcome self-doubt. Coaches and teachers would serve their athletes well to recognize that and let the athletes know that every great champion has doubts.

Muhammad Ali said before each fight that he stood in the restroom stall in the locker room trying to pee, but he got so nervous he never could. In his book, This is Going to Hurt, Tito Ortiz says that he cries before each fight. All great champions have doubt.

We have to let our athletes know that it’s OK to have self-doubt and then present them with strategies to overcome them.

 

 

About the Author

John Graden is an author and speaker. His latest book, “The Imposter Syndrome” is previewed in this article. He can be reached at johngraden@mac.com. More information on Mr. Graden and The Imposter Syndrome can be found at JohnGraden.com


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