The Imposter Syndrome: a Silent Career Assassin

Submitted by Clint McGill, BaseballNotes

Imposter Syndrome- A concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.   Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more competent than they believe themselves to be.

I was reading a book on personal development after my playing days were over when I first heard about the ‘imposter syndrome.’ I learned that it was a mindset that I’d experienced at various levels throughout my career, but never something I could put a finger on, until it was defined for me.

After reading this I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite quotes: “You don’t become what you want in life.  You become what you believe you are.” Isn’t that the truth!

For me, the mental struggle of the imposter syndrome was at its worst whenever I moved up to a new, more advanced level of baseball, which I did a lot of throughout my career. Whether it was high school, junior college, Division I or pro ball, I always had the same concerns that I wasn’t cut out to be productive on this ‘grand’ new stage. I was completely dependent on results, and I let my day-to-day outcomes dictate what kind of player I was. I never could quite shake the notion that the whole thing wouldn’t eventually come crashing down on me.

To give you another perspective on what I was feeling, I’ll use the example of the age-old Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons. You know, the ones where the coyote runs off the cliff in pursuit of the roadrunner. You’ll notice that as long as Wile E. keeps pumping his arms and running, he stays suspended in midair. It’s not until he looks down and has the thought of “wait a minute, I’m a coyote, I don’t belong up here…’ and POOF – down to the ground he goes.

There would be times where I’d be hitting .350 or have a great game, and I refused to look at box scores and stats, or acknowledge in any way that things were rolling because if I did…POOF, down I’d go. There are a lot of coyotes roaming around the baseball field these days.  I know I was one.

When you look at our game’s best examples of players like Jose Altuve, for example, you might notice that even though they’ve run off that proverbial ‘cliff’- hitting at a blistering pace of .350 or better- they don’t hide from it. They don’t carry themselves in a world of ‘hope.’ They just act like they belong out there, suspended in midair. Being up at these heights are an expectation. That’s where they belong.

Here’s an excerpt from the great book by Gary Mack, The Mind Gym:

“We all have an interior comfort zone that we want to be in.  Picture a good club golfer playing Jack Nicklaus.  His self-image is probably that he is a good golfer, but not good enough to beat Nicklaus.  If he beat Nicklaus, he would be uncomfortable with the demands of his new self-image.  So he does whatever he can to get back in that comfort zone, even if it means missing a two-foot putt on the 18th green.”

You can see the imposter syndrome manifest itself even in the big leagues.  There are plenty of examples of guys who are perennial all stars in minor leagues, but when they get called up they just cannot do it in the big leagues. They just don’t see themselves as major leaguers.

That’s why you will see so many guys that need multiple opportunities at a new level before they excel. The first time they get ‘called up,’ they’re just too star struck.  From a high school player’s first varsity game to the big leaguer the first time they face a guy like Clayton Kershaw, there are times when every player will think of themselves as inferior.

Eventually, however, the player learns through multiple opportunities that they do, in fact, belong. Once they come to this realization, they respond in an entirely different way, because their sense of belonging is much greater than it was before. In either case, it’s just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So what can we do? How can we overcome the mental roadblock of the imposter syndrome?

“Believe in yourself” is great advice, but it is terrible instruction.

The first thing you need to do is to understand that at some point in time, everyone has doubts of whether they belong.  Acknowledgement that these thoughts are extremely common don’t make you unique. The great separator, in my opinion, is witnessing others exhibit supreme body language and confidence, even though on the inside, they’re having the same experience as you. It’s a technique that can be simplified into acting “as if.”

Think of the absolute best version of yourself, the person you want to become.  In fact, think of your favorite major leaguer. How does that person behave? How does he stand in the batter’s box? How does he walk to the pitcher’s mound? How does he handle making an out? Or hitting a double? How does he feel?

And your job is to behave that way right now.

You see, confident actions come before confident feelings.

If you wait for positive outcomes to appear, if you’re dependent on winning, or getting a hit, or having a good game before you allow yourself to behave with confidence, then you’ll never reach your true potential. This game is way too tough for that, there are way too many ways to fail, too many slumps and losing streaks to maintain any sense of confidence if you simply act according to your last few at bats or pitching appearances.

You need to behave like a big league All-Star right now. Literally, just pretend.  And once you start to behave confidently – even if you didn’t feel it initially – your confidence and performance will increase. You must understand that you are not an imposter!

It is not fair or accurate for you to compare your inner feelings against another’s outward appearances.  Give yourself the opportunity to reach your biggest goals by removing the imposter syndrome mentality.  You can do it!

A former infielder, Clint McGill spent his playing days at Fresno City College, Texas Tech and Loyola Marymount before signing with the Houston Astros. His website, baseballnotes.co, features blogs and podcasts covering some of baseball’s most contested topics, including ‘swinging up versus swinging down,’ hitting the outside part of the ball, travel ball, and more. Clint has also partnered with former MLB players Pedro Liriano and Ramon Ortiz and their charity, Athletes with Jesus (proathleteswithjesus.com), which aims to bring the joy of baseball to the underprivileged children of the Dominican Republic, and provide Dominican communities with a program that educates children on baseball and how to lead physically and emotionally healthy lives through good sportsmanship and role models.

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