A few years back I was asked to speak at a conference. The focus of the conference was on Physical Literacy. Now, being a former teacher, turned Strength and Conditioning Coach with a specific passion for Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), and over 10 years experience working with athletes ranging from 10-30 yrs of age, it would seem I was particularly well positioned to impart my wisdom on a group of curious and eager educators. So I sat down to prepare my topic content proposal, and then the imposter syndrome kicked in.
Imposter syndrome. The feeling of being a fraud despite evidence of success. The conflict between “what I know” and “what I think others know.” The feeling of why would anyone listen to me. Or is everyone going to think I’m silly, or stupid, or too simple. Are they going to feel like it was a waste of their time?
The experience of Imposter Syndrome is a sneaky phenomenon and not always directly evident. Sometimes it can take the form of writers block. Sitting at my computer with an idea for a post, but worrying whether what I have to say is going to expose some deficiency in my knowledge. Or declining to work with or speak to a group, for fear that their competency is going to far outweigh mine, no matter how competent I perceive myself to be. As an athlete, being afraid to try out for a team or club because I couldn’t possibly belong there despite the invitation to participate.
With the physical literacy conference, the first hurdle was submitting and being approved for my content proposal, then comes the dread of “will anyone show up?” After a group of around 25-30 showed up, then starts the micromanaging in the moment. Self-censoring things that I wanted to say or do, for fear of sounding stupid. Trying to guess what the group wanted to hear. Luckily for my presentation I steered into what I know best, coaching. Trying to connect movement and decision making through games, I took the cohort through a number of strategies and game. People laughed, they played, they engaged and asked questions. At the end I asked for feedback… crickets. Eventually through some prompting I received some feedback and handed out some cards. Success. Right?!
As I collected up my stuff I couldn’t keep it away. Did anybody really get anything from that? Were they just humouring me? I stuttered during that one explanation and used the wrong word, I hope nobody caught that! Two of the participants came and asked if they could help and said thanks. That was nice, probably felt bad for me.
Walking back to my car. Gonna’ just look at the ground so as not to catch any judging looks. Was the name I chose for my presentation stupid? I should have come up with something more clever.
The drive home. I probably went too long, I’m sure they just wanted to get out there and go see the next speaker.
Even though a bunch of the attendees followed me on social media, the self-doubt and criticism followed for a little while when a random memory from that day would pop into my head. Then after a while the experience went from my consciousness and I went back to my daily routines.
Later that year while I was out at the track with a group of athletes, one of the attendees happened to be there doing laps. We made eye contact and acknowledged that we recognized one another. On his next lap around he came over to the group.
“Hey coach, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your presentation last spring. The one game you taught us I use all of the time with classes. They LOVE it!” He didn’t have to come over and say that. I finally believed him.
What’s the lesson here? Imposter syndrome is an ailment of the self-aware. When I was younger, I thought I had it all sorted out. I spoke with authority where maybe I shouldn’t have and projected unwavering confidence. The more I know that I don’t know, the harder it is to speak with authority because I know there are others out there with more knowledge than I. This is why I would warry of anyone calling themselves an expert, or master, or some other hyperbole of qualifier.
There is the saying “Knowing just enough to be dangerous.” This saying applies to many of the internet experts and social media influencers. They can use the words and sound like they know what they are saying, but they lack the context, understand and self-awareness to question if what they are saying is true, valid or being applied properly. But they say it anyways.
And what does this have to do with Imposter Syndrome?
It’s THE lesson. Put yourself out there.
Imposter syndrome is real and is more prevalent than you can probably imagine. The people who you respect. Who you pay to go see speak. Who advise policy and curriculum. Who make decisions which effect hundreds, even millions. They all experience it! But what is different is, just like the influencers, they put themselves out there. Albeit usually with more grace, humility and understanding of their limitations, but they do!
They open themselves up to critique and embarrassment. They push the limits of their comfort zone. They engage with those who are curious and they embrace the discomfort in spite of the self-doubt that comes with imposter syndrome.
So understand that imposter syndrome is real, it is common and it is actually a positive because it means you have self-awareness and pride in what you do. And ultimately put yourself out there anyways!
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Justin Vince CSCS