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4 ways to combat Imposter Syndrome in sport

4 ways to combat Imposter Syndrome in sport

4 min read
  • Leadership & teamwork
  • Sport psychology

Ever felt like you don’t belong at the level that you are competing at? Or that at any moment, people will work out that you have bluffed your way there? 

This phenomenon is known as the Imposter Syndrome, and even those at the very top of their game feel it. Imposter Syndrome is characterised by feelings of anxiety and thinking that: 

  • You are not as talented as others believe
  • Your success is down to luck, not hard work and ability
  • One day, you will be exposed as a fraud

With lots of social comparisons about performance and ability, their impact on some athletes’ fear of failure and the pressures of perfectionism common in elite sport, it’s no surprise that Imposter Syndrome is so prevalent these days.

A lot of the athletes we work with mention that they feel like they have Imposter Syndrome or describe some of the characteristics of it. Whilst they often ask “how do I fix this?”, often it’s not about fixing it. Sometimes, it’s about managing it to start with.

So, how do we do this and what advice do we give to our athletes?

4 ways to manage Imposter Syndrome in sport

1. You are the reason behind your success 

The first way to start dealing with your Imposter Syndrome is to start attributing your success to you. Lots of athletes that we work with tend to put their success down to other factors such as luck, opponents performing badly, favourable conditions… But the reality is that they have performed well and trained well.

This means that it’s important to keep reminding yourself of how you have contributed to your success. Here are some ways that we do this with our athletes: 

  • Write down small wins throughout the year – what went well at training and at events. Then, you can reflect on this before big events or after you experience a success. 
  • Have lots of conversations with your support team and loved ones about what is going well and reflect on why that is. 
  • Talk to yourself in a positive and helpful way to remind yourself that you belong. 

2. Watch out for comparisons 

In the world of sport, it’s very easy to end up comparing yourself to others. It’s never been easier to keep up to date with how others are performing, be this through stats, highlights, times, distances or even ratings.

Whilst it may at times feel like these things have an impact on you, the reality is that it’s difficult to focus on you and your performance when you have these things in mind. What this often leads to is athletes feeling as though they need to prove themselves rather than focus on improving themselves and this can add pressure which can make it harder still to perform. So, here’s the sort of messages we share with our athletes:

  • Learning isn’t linear – no one learns and develops as the same rates
  • Focus on what you need to do well to perform at your best instead of others
  • Do you think others are focusing on you? If not, why? 

3. You are a work in progress

It’s very rare that any athlete we work with can’t get better at something. In this sense, they are never a finished product and can always focus on something to develop.

For example, for younger athletes, we know that the teenage brain works differently to adults. For older athletes, their position or strength in their sport might change, which brings a renewed focus on learning and development.

In some areas of psychology, we suggest that anything we learn and develop quickly, we often lose quickly too. Some things might take a while to develop, but that is okay. Here are some things we work on with our athletes to help with this:

  •  Every season, we focus on main areas of development as an anchor point to refer to
  •  Reflect on learning and development, not outcomes
  •  Praise helpful behaviours that link to learning

4. Fail better 

In sport as in life, it’s inevitable that at some point you are going to fail or underperform. The good news is that there is growing evidence that when framed correctly, failure can help to develop key psychological characteristics such as motivation, resilience, empathy and metacognition.

Whilst our advice isn’t to go out and fail, it is certainly to make sure you learn from it when it inevitably happens. So, here are some ways to do that:

Train your mind as well as your body. Unlock your full potential with sport psychology coaching.

Final thoughts

Whilst it’s important to recognise it when you start to feel like an imposter in your sport, it’s not good enough to stop there. You should be proactive and use the people around you to help you to combat these feelings.

So, use the easy tips above to try and work on how you feel or to help others along the way, or get in touch with our team of sport and performance psychologists to chat about how we can help you overcome these challenges.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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