All of us have doubts, fears and insecurities about ourselves especially in difficult situations or when we are in an environment that challenges us and our abilities.
When our team at Flow started working with professional athletes and high performers we had doubts ourselves about whether we were the right people for the role, had the skill set necessary, and were ready for the moment….AND we’re trained on handling uncomfortable thoughts and feelings such as these. So what is this universal experience, why does it happen, and how do we face our fears, doubts, and insecurities head on?
The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ was first coined in the 1970s, by psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D, and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. They described the syndrome as a “phenomenon that occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” (APA). In simple terms, imposter syndrome is the belief that, even while achieving success, you still believe your abilities are not good enough.
If this is something you identify with, don’t worry, this feeling is quite common and it can be managed, overcome, and will eventually lead to increased confidence (self-efficacy), an enhanced skill set, and open doors in your career that may not have seemed possible prior. Even the most successful athletes (really successful…like back-to-back MVP type successful) experience this feeling. Welcome to the world of Imposter Syndrome.
Yes, Even Professional Athletes Sometimes Deal with Impostor Syndrome
Our example of a professional athlete who dealt with Imposter Syndrome may, on the surface, come as a surprise (although probably not if you read the title of this article). This player had an exceptional career, including 8 All-Star selections, multiple NBA Most Valuable Player Awards (including back-to-back years!) and is widely regarded as one of the best point guards of all time. That being said, his impressive achievements help to prove the point that anyone, including Steve Nash can feel like an imposter at times.
In the documentary Nash, Steve Guararasci, Nash’s former Olympic teammate, shared the following insight from the hall of fame PG: “Steve actually said to me that he feels like the most insecure basketball player until warm-ups start. So when he’s going into a game, he’s not sure what he’s capable of. But once he warms up and gets a few shots up, he’s like okay…this is how I play.”
From an outsider’s perspective, it can seem bizarre for a player not to feel secure after winning a title or an MVP award, but a player experiencing imposter syndrome sees this way of thinking as the norm. Most of the time, unfortunately, feelings of impostorism are fueled by one’s environment. For athletes, this can be the environment of the organization, in their personal life or at home in their family environment. The need to succeed creates a tremendous amount of pressure for those trying to make it to a professional level which is often reinforced by their peers, social circles, and the media. As a player develops and gets into more competitive environments, the pressure rises astronomically. Every little mistake can be scrutinized, while the victories are not given as much praise as they should. Players may begin to identify with the outcomes and perception of others rather than their internal barometers for success or processes that help the team succeed. Most players who feel like an imposter in their sport aren’t always the result of their self-doing: the people in our circle influence us dramatically.
*As a side note, circling back to Nash, it is important to point out that, while it’s hard to open up about feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness, it’s valuable to share with somebody. Speaking up about it can help lessen the power it has inside your mind and create space to manage the feelings more effectively. Nash demonstrates this by opening up and being vulnerable with Guararasci*
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Get in the Groove
For a player like Nash, his feelings of insecurity and the ability to mitigate those feelings during warm-ups highlight the importance of developing a pre-performance routine, a topic discussed in a previous article titled “The Foul Line, Mental Imagery, and Taco Bell?” Anyone who has played sports understands that it takes time to get into the right state, physically and mentally, to compete. Warm-ups and activation help to get the body moving and the blood pumping but also help to calm and focus the mind which, depending on the context, may be swarmed with insecurity and anxiety. So, for a player like Steve Nash, isolating movements in his pre-game routine included a mix of practicing jump shots, layups, and dribble moves. Besides getting physically warm for a game, practicing these routine movements get you mentally prepared for the action ahead.
*This idea can be applied during a game as well, having a move or play that you or your team can go to that is comfortable and increases feelings of confidence, competence and focus can be exponentially effective in enhancing performance (even more so than drawing up that perfect play for a basket based on weaknesses in the defense)*
Challenge Your Thinking
Oftentimes, feeling like we don’t belong in a particular environment is influenced by the stories we tell ourselves. If you feel like an imposter, your self-talk will reflect that and precipitate those feelings into action. However, this way of thinking can be reconstructed to fit a more positive and realistic narrative. Failure is inevitable, but it happens much less than we predict it to happen (Thanks to a human negativity bias). An excellent way to begin the process of challenging your thinking is by noticing and labeling your habitual way of thinking before your next game/match. Going into a game, an athlete may be telling themselves the following:
“I hope I don’t mess up. That player is much better than me. I’m going to let my teammates, my friends, and my family down.”
A way to reframe that thinking could be:
“Show up with effort, the way you always do. I can’t control the outcome or the abilities of other players, I can only control my performance. Put yourself in position for success the way you did in XYZ situation.”
The way we talk to ourselves has a significant influence on our feelings and behaviors. Even though negative self-talk doesn’t always equate to failure, it can impact one’s self-esteem, especially off the playing field. It’s important to be kind to yourself and take both success and failure in stride. Be objective, if you lose don’t judge, blame or criticize yourself, instead grow, learn and put yourself in position to get better. Use it as fuel.
As baseball legend, Connie Mack would say: “You can’t win them all.” If you put your best foot forward and give your best effort each game, you may still lose the game, but you don’t lose the inner game against yourself.
Recognize Past Successes
In addition to reframing your self-talk, recognizing your successes from past games can help reaffirm your abilities in times of doubt. It’s easy to forget your natural abilities in the heat of the moment when tensions are high. But don’t worry, this is normal. You can have an edge over the competition, however, if you keep a mental note of a few past performances that you’re proud of. When doubts start to arise in your mind, it can serve as that gentle reminder, “oh yeah, I’ve performed well before and I can do it again.” If the doubts persist, which they may at times, stick to fact based thinking. When our emotions and anxiety rises oftentimes our thoughts become irrational, take us out of the present moment and become highly emotional. Sticking to the facts makes it difficult for our brain to take us down roads that are not realistic.
At some point, every player, amateur or professional, will deal with imposter syndrome in some form. It’s natural to doubt your abilities at times; but like any adversity, internal experiences such as these can actually be beneficial and serve as motivation to keep improving. At the end of the day, praise from coaches, teammates, and fans won’t matter if you don’t give yourself that same level of praise or let yourself see it from their perspective. This, like anything, is a skill that can be practiced. Thus, the next time you think something like "Dang, I’m not sure if I can do this” before a performance, challenge that thought and replace it with a more positive (fact based) affirmation. Also, recognize your past successes as a reminder that you’re exactly where you should be. Make sure you and your inner voice are on the same team and the opponent won’t stand a chance.
-See Steve Nash incorporate routine, breathing, and mental imagery into his free throw shooting. Nash is known as one of the best FT shooters in NBA history.