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Imposter Syndrome and its Impact on Mental Health and Performance in College Athletics- Part One

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In the first of a two part series, I’m taking a look at imposter syndrome and its impact on certain segments of the population, particularly Black college athletes.

Dr. Kristin Keim, “The Mental Book of Racing. Striving to be Worthy” Medium.com

A focus on mental health in sports has come to the forefront the last couple years, as both professional and collegiate athletes are starting to speak out about their struggles with mental health. Mizzou Athletics recently shared some powerful stories of their own athletes’ struggles to try and decrease the stigma of asking for help.

In the first of a two-part series, I’m diving into into the sports psychology arena and looking at athletic identity, mental health, and imposter syndrome. In part two, I will share a Q&A I did about this topic with former Mizzou Basketball graduate assistant, Nafis Ricks.

Maritsa Patrinos, Buzzfeed

You’ve probably heard of it. You’ve probably felt it, even if you didn’t know what it was called. It’s that (sometimes crippling) feeling that people are going to figure you out, that they’re going to realize that you really don’t belong and you don’t actually know what you’re doing or what you’re talking about. It’s common among executives, creatives, those in sports (particularly athletes), and in some segments of the population more than others.

I’ve felt it as someone who masquerades on the side as a sports blogger (and a creative, for that matter) — despite no one expressly saying something to me about my abilities to justify this feeling — I don’t belong. Like, who do I think I am, working for a sports site full of talented writers with analytical minds and great voices? A job that I asked to do as a volunteer on Twitter via DM? What if people think I don’t know what I’m talking about? I know I’m a pretty good writer and that I have a knowledge base to work from and have (I think) valid thoughts about sports, but what if I really don’t? What if I’m a fraud?

Ever have that feeling? It’s called imposter syndrome, and while it’s not an officially recognized diagnosis according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it’s a real thing that impacts about 70% of Americans, and is particularly prevalent among women and especially among Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).

So what it is exactly? A Diversity Inc article by Casey Musarra describes imposter syndrome as an, “internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative enough despite evidence of high achievement.” If bad enough, psychologists acknowledge that it can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

According to the article, imposter syndrome may uniquely and disproportionately impact college students of color. In general, Black people are 10 percent more likely than others to experience what experts call “serious psychological distress.” To make things worse, they’re also less likely to receive proper care for that distress because of factors like lack of information and socioeconomic disparities, which can lead to worse mental health problems.

According to an article by Josie Doggett in HuffPost, “Imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our (Black people’s) heads. We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong.”

Doggett continued:

“In response to the microaggressions we experience in real life, we become our own aggressors, filling ourselves with negative internal dialogue that can result in poor physical and mental care... With imposter syndrome, it becomes too easy to believe the lies both society and your brain tell you.”

Add in being an athlete, imposter syndrome can be crushing. According to an article titled “Striving to be Worthy: Athletic Identity and Imposter Syndrome” by Dr. Kristin Keim, by participating in a sport, athletes are essentially making a statement about who they are, and their identity is formed by their skills, confidence, and social interaction — or how others (family, friends, teammates, coaches, fans) think of them.

Think of how hard it must be to be a high-level athlete; to have your self-worth and competence determined by those around you. Say you are a wide receiver and you drop a perfect pass in the open. Say that pass could’ve led to a touchdown or would have brought you from behind in a game’s waning moments to win. You are hard enough on yourself, so not only are you upset and question your own skills, but then you’ve got everyone around you harping on you because of it. You know you’ve trained hard, and it’s something that you have done in practice, but you didn’t do it on the big stage. Seeds of doubt slip in: Am I a good player? Are my teammates upset with me? Did I disappoint my coach? What kind of hate will I get on social media? How will this impact my performance going forward? Will I go from being a starter to a backup? Will I fade into the background?

This presents a problem, Keim said, as society tends to view male athletes only through the lens of their athletic identity, and not for the many other things they are. If poor performance has diminished your athletic identity, what are you left with?

Suzanne Imes, a psychologist explained, “In our society, there’s a huge pressure to achieve. There can be a lot of confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent upon achieving.” And if the person impacted by something like the situation above is a Black male, studies show he is more likely hold this in and not talk about it. That weight can become unbearable if you don’t get help.

Luckily, Mizzou athletes have tremendous resources available to them through Dr. Scotta Morton and her team. But even as you look at the videos shared by the numerous Mizzou athletes about mental health awareness last week, you’ll see a common thread. It took them a while to seek help because of the stigma attached to it.

So if you’re not a Mizzou athlete, though, what can you do? What can I do, as someone who struggles with this semi-regularly?

Keim said to talk about your thoughts, as scary as that may feel. Realize, “no one is perfect and that being the best is not possible. Rather, try to be a better version of yourself as an athlete or whatever you are doing in life. You have to first feel worthy to be at the starting line.”

Another idea? Dr. Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African diaspora at The University of Texas-Austin recommends keeping a daily diary and recording the positive feedback you receive. He said:

“Do that over the course of a week or a month and go back and look at all those instances in which you’ve gotten good feedback, where you’ve been told you’ve done a good job and done something well.”

I don’t keep a feedback diary, but I definitely do have positive comments from my colleagues pinned in the Rock M Slack channel to go back to when I need it, and I’ll refer back to nice comments I’ve received online and elsewhere. I do find that that helps, so I highly recommend this option.

For more on this very important topic, tune into Part 2 with Nafis Ricks, former graduate assistant for Men’s Hoops at the University of Missouri. Ricks recently obtained his master’s degree in Positive Coaching and spends a lot of time working with Black men (and women) on lessening the stigma associated with discussing mental health.