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You wouldn’t suspect that Alex Yee struggles with imposter syndrome. At the age of 23, the young British triathlete has two Olympic medals: a silver in the individual race and a gold in the team relay, which he helped secure as the anchor for Great Britain. In his first Olympics, his accomplishments are already incredible.
But in an interview with Radio 1 Newsbeat, Yee shared that, “I didn’t feel worthy to stand on the start line.”
No one would guess that even successful professional triathletes like him struggle with their confidence, because imposter syndrome is a hidden challenge, affecting our mental and emotional preparation. And the reality is it’s all too common—among beginner and pro triathletes. Here’s how to recognize imposter syndrome and what to do about it.
Wait, imposter syndrome is a thing?
In a sport where the top athletes are seen as superhuman, the bar is set high for breaking limits and chasing records. To be a triathlete is to seek out tough workouts, intensity, and sacrifice in order to train and compete. It can seem like there’s no room to show weakness.
So when you don’t see weakness from others, but find yourself struggling with your own confidence, it’s easy to feel alone and forget others are probably hiding their weakness too. That’s when imposter syndrome loves to strike.
Imposter syndrome, which can also be known as perceived fraudulence, is used generally now to refer to feeling like you’re not good enough or are a fraud. But it’s defined as “a pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’” Imposter syndrome is more common than you think, and it happens in every level of triathlon.
Here are a few telltale signs:
- You persistently doubt yourself.
- You focus on mistakes, not progress or achievements.
- It’s easy to beat yourself up.
- You set unrealistic expectations.
- You don’t take compliments well.
Typically, these signs are persistent, no matter the effort you put in, and continue despite being at odds with the factual information around you—ie. you feel like you don’t deserve to be on the race start despite putting in the training hours, or you don’t think of yourself as a triathlete despite completing a triathlon.
Why is imposter syndrome so common?
Your Self Worth is Often Shaped By Others
Since early in our lives, we’re taught to look at others for their approval. As a triathlete, we tend to focus on performance, PRs, and podiums—and we focus too much on how those things are perceived or regarded by others. (Yes, also on #MedalMonday.) If you aren’t at a certain level, you can easily tell yourself that you’re “not a triathlete,” because you feel like you’re not a good enough triathlete, and believe it.
You Fear Disappointment
If you have gaps in your confidence, your expectations can trigger pressure and doubt, which will make you fear whether you’re ready to compete or if you even deserve to be there. That fear ultimately isn’t about if you’re prepared or ready. It’s about the fear of failing to reach those expectations.
You’re Focusing on the Gap
If you feel like you don’t belong, it’s because you feel like you aren’t at the level of your competitors or role models.
You laser in on your weaknesses. You look at their form, physiques, and routines, thinking about how they’re better than you. Your focus is all on comparison and creating a gap between where you are now and where you want to be.
What can you do about imposter syndrome
Breaking free from imposter syndrome isn’t about training harder or setting bigger goals. It’s about conquering the mental blocks that make you feel like you don’t belong with the training and goals you already have.
STEP 1: Own what you’re doing.
If you’re training to do a triathlon, you’re a triathlete. If you’ve hit a PR and have your eyes on another, you’re a triathlete. If you’ve qualified for Worlds, you’re a triathlete.
Everyone has a different definition of what being a triathlete is, but don’t create a definition based on what you haven’t done. Acknowledge the commitment, training, and goals that go into being a triathlete, no matter what level you’re at, and keep that front of mind.
Set your own definition of what being a triathlete means to you.
STEP 2: Shift your focus.
In a world where it’s so easy to compare yourself to others, stop. Spend less time focusing on things you can’t control or that make you feel inferior.
Instead, shift more (ideally almost all) of your focus on you. Keep a log of your training, progress, the mistakes, and the lessons you’re learning along the way.
STEP 3: Go deeper.
Your self worth is built over a lifetime and odds are that this isn’t the first time you’ve felt like you don’t belong. So, explore other times when you felt like this. Who told you weren’t good enough? Where did you get that idea from? How else has this shown up in your life?
All mental blocks come down to patterns that you’ve learned over time. If you understand how they started, you’ll realize it’s just something you were taught. It’s not who you are.
Imposter syndrome will mask your full triathlon potential if you let it. But like strengthening a muscle, if you apply the right methods, with the same consistency and discipline you put into your training, imposter syndrome will just be a buzzword from your past, not a reflection of your future.
Dr. Jen Faber is a mindset and performance coach who helps athletes conquer the mental blocks holding them back. Learn more at DrJenFaber.com.