Imposter Syndrome In Athletes

Author: Alexandra Salerno, LPC, NCC

Do you even doubt yourself? Maybe you’ve had the thought “what am I doing?” or “do I even belong on this team?” Maybe you’ve felt guilty, shameful, embarrassed or frustrated. You might have wanted to give up because it felt easier.

If you’ve experienced this raise your hand! And guess what – you’re not alone. About 70% of the general population experience imposter syndrome at some point (or multiple times) throughout their careers (Wilding, M. 2022.)

Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon or impostorism, is a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud. Imposter syndrome brings along negative thinking, anxiety (before, during of after sport), self-doubt and feelings of personal incompetence. To counter-act these emotions, athletes may end up working harder and hold themselves to higher standards. Imposter syndrome can impact an athlete’s ability to optimize their performance and reach their full potential

According to Dr. Valerie Young (2022), there five categories of imposter syndrome that you might encounter:

  1. The Perfectionist – Usually goes above and beyond 100% of the time; can be accompanied with ruminating thoughts (or obsessive thinking about small details; i.e. “if A isn’t perfect, then the whole project is ruined!”) Usually, you won’t feel successful or satisfied and may continue to overthink, even days/weeks after the event.
  2. The Superhero – Usually working later or “over-time” to get the job done. Athletes may feel they need to “do it all” or carry their team in order to win. Typically, the superhero thrives off of validation from coaches and peers. However, they can struggle with confidence in the long-term.
  3. The Natural Genius – Usually judges them selves on the first try (i.e. If I can’t do this on the first try, I’m a failure). These athletes typically struggle with multiple tries to learn a new skill. They may even avoid challenging situations, due to a fear of failure.
  4. The Soloist – Typically, the soloist has trouble asking for help, as this is perceived as a weakness. There may be a thought patterns of “I don’t need anyone’s help,” or feelings of shame around asking for help.
  5. The Expert – Measure their competence on “what” and/or “how much” they can do. The Expert believes they will never be enough, and as a result, may either avoid challenging situations, or seek out validation through situations that they are “enough”.

It’s not unusual for athletes to ebb and flow into different categories, based on the situation they are experiencing.

So, what do we do now that we know the types of imposter syndromes that are out there? The most important piece is to recognize when you might be experiencing imposter syndrome and do your best to focus on what you can control in the moment.

Here are some skills to help get you out of imposter syndrome:

  • Learning from mistakes and viewing them as part of the natural process of learning.
  • Replace “I need to be perfect with” with “I’m going to do my best” (remember, perfectionism is relative to each person.)
  • Work on building inner confidence and positive dialogue with yourself (i.e. “I can do this.”)
  • See yourself as a work in progress, not something needs to be “fixed” or “perfected.”
  • Realize there’s no shame in asking for help (that’s how we all learn!)
  • Take it moment-by-moment, day-by-day, and identify what is within your control.

Remember, skills take time to learn and develop. By practicing them each day, you can works towards becoming the best athlete you can be.

Make it great!

Additional Resources:

From One Imposter to Another: An Olympic Reporter’s Advice on Self-Doubt.
Wilding, M. 2022. 5 different types of imposter syndrome (and 5 ways to battle each one).
Young, V. 2022.