Your Brain On Fitness: The Impostor Phenomenon
25 May

Your Brain On Fitness: The Impostor Phenomenon


Part 2:  The Impostor Phenomenon


Part 2 of the Brain on Fitness series relates specifically to the psychological effects on athlete performance. Many athletes experience what is known as the “impostor phenomenon.” This, in short, is when an athlete or client is unable to internalize their own successes despite external evidence.  Think of it this way; you put in tons of work, you have your nutrition dialed in, you are proactive about hydration, sleep, and recovery, you mobilize, you are focused on your goals, and really “go for it” all year round.  The Opens come around and you crush the workouts, exceed your expectations, and by all measures possible, are successful.  Your perception of this success is that “you caught a break with the workouts,” “you are naturally good at the open,” “its not that impressive because you’re not as strong or as good at gymnastics as you should be,” “it was a fluke 5 weeks…” etc. We probably all know someone, on some level, that has made utterings similar to these when they have out performed even what they believed to be possible, and while it would be easy and quite practical to point the finger at the work they put in to get there, that person believes their success was due to factors beyond their control. Adversely, it is likely that this person believes their short-comings and failures are due to their lack of talent, ability, and having not worked “hard enough.” They are certain that unless they go to gargantuan efforts to do so, success can not be repeated. Thus, it is “as though” they didn’t achieve the task at all, and an impostor posing as them performed the achievement.  This term was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanna Imes when measuring performance of young professionals, mainly highly achieving women who believed they were not intelligent and had been over-evaluated by their peers. Statistics state that 70% of people will experience at least 1 episode of the imposter phenomenon in their lifetime. 


As a coach working with a vast range of clients whom of which are both competitive and non competitive, I have observed this type of behavior a number of times, and similarly to part 1, “overcoming comparison,” sometimes comparative behavior gets coupled with an equally strong feeling of inadequacy although external factors would prove otherwise.  This irrational fear of being exposed can greatly disrupt the psychology of an athlete and a client on their path to making progress. For the competitor, the psychological impact can be limiting at best, in what the athlete is able to accomplish during their career; and at worst, devastating to the athlete reaching their greatest potential. For the general fitness go-er looking for longevity, and vitality, these experiences can greatly affect long term progress and how the client views their growth and success, often being “by chance,” or that they must be having a “good day.” This can be exhausting and frustrating for the client and may result in a crippling effect with performance.  We find a lot of success being able to work with our clients and athletes daily to coach them through these kinds of experiences.


I can relate personally as an athlete/competitor, as I can recall spurts of my career where although i was performing at an elite level, and feeling like I was at my best athletically, there were some incredible feats I had accomplished which at the time had convinced myself were results of favorable events, timing, and ultimately catching a break. I don’t think I was so overcome by this perception that it greatly inhibited or limited my performance in a massive way, but it certainly hindered my views on the level at which I was performing, and made me doubt my real abilities, when I should have been extremely confident because of what I had done to prepare myself to operate that way. Let me say that during this time period, I feel like I gave everything that I had, and that I was capable of accomplishing to the sport of fitness, and in no way were these experiences a damper on what I accomplished, however, I may have set bigger goals for myself and for what I was capable of accomplishing if I never experienced this type of mindset along the way.  As a coach, I now value this experience in hindsight, because although then it wasn’t ideal for performance, it now helps me to be a better coach and helps me better prepare and relate to my clients and athletes as they may periodically experience some of the same thoughts. 


So, how do we overcome this way of thinking and viewing our accomplishments and personal growth? Consider the following when having experiences similar to what I have described above: 


  • There is a reason for your success: Re-wire your thinking, try to move past your insecurities and recount the work and the commitment you have made to having success. Putting these elements into perspective can help you better grasp the concept that you have what you have, and you are where you are with fitness (or other elements of life) because you have worked hard to be there. If you haven’t reached your goal yet, keep working and moving towards it. Evaluate what the factors are that might be holding you back. Our good friends at OPEX Tulsa call this “moving dirt.” The concept is that life and fitness are like a big pile of dirt, somedays you get a shovel, and some days you get a spoon, but as long as you are moving a little of bit of dirt each day, you are moving in the right direction. 


  • You’re not Alone: Other people share your thought process, your fear, and your constant comparison.  Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and give your full effort to accomplishing your goals.  You will come up short many more times than you will win—that’s called the journey—learn to LOVE it. It is far more memorable than hitting a new PR. In the words of James Fitzgerald, “Full Effort. Full Victory.” Write that down. 


  • Reflect and celebrate: Daily, monthly, and yearly it is necessary to set aside time and reflect upon where you are now and where you came from.  Here you can acknowledge your shortcomings, but absolutely revel in the image of yourself as something different than you were before. What made that work? What were you able to accomplish? Where are you going next? How will you get there? Smile. As big as you possibly can.  Write down your progress. Show it to others who you care about—they will want to share your moments of awesomeness. Be proud of even the smallest accomplishments.  Set your sites on what is next and use that momentum to go forth, and conquer! 



Go Forth, 


Cody Loeffler 

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