top of page

#1: Am I an athlete?

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Athlete /ˈaθliːt/

i. a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise;

ii. a person who takes part in competitive track and field events (athletics).

Lucy shares her first blog post, in which she explores imposter syndrome and how to address it. Lucy is the founding partner and director here at Mountain Mindset, and is an accomplished leader and sportswoman.

This is blog #1, in anticipation that I will write more in future…and there it is again: imposter syndrome. I’ve just set up my shiny new LinkedIn account (I’m behind the curve here) and one of the elements was to describe myself. I have gone for ‘Physician, Leader, Athlete’. Physician was easy: from the age of 14 I have known that I was going to be a doctor; I am now a consultant stroke physician. Leader was also easy: I currently hold a leadership position within my NHS Trust and have been tested to my limit during the continued coronavirus pandemic.

But am I an athlete? Aren’t athletes people who travel the world competing in packed out arenas whilst wearing revealing Lycra? That’s definitely not me although I will confess to owning some items of Lycra clothing! At my school pupils tended to be categorised into academic, musical, sporty, etc. I fell into the academic group, so it wasn’t too much of an issue for my teachers when I found my way to the back of the furthermost tennis court and stayed there doing the square-root of nothing. Outside school I was a proficient tree-climbing, den-building Tom-boy who paradoxically also did ballet to a reasonably high standard.

In 1997 I went up to Oxford where it was basically compulsory to at least try rowing. Most people do this in the first term ‘Cuppers’ match between colleges, many never setting foot inside a boat again. As a medical student I was so snowed-under trying to keep up with the volume and intensity of work that it wasn’t until an ‘easy’ term at the end of my second year that I was able to get my hands on a blade. I instantly loved it and quickly progressed through the novices to my college first boat, later going on to captain the medics and row for the university lightweights.

As a junior doctor I completed my first half marathon and tried to continue rowing but moving job every 6 months plus an on-call schedule that made me an unreliable crew member did not lend itself to a successful rowing career. Friends were getting into mountain biking which I enjoy but find a bit scary.

I met my husband in 2009, he is ex-military and a good runner. It became obvious early on that this was a case of ‘if you can’t beat him, join him’ and we decided to run a half marathon together the weekend before we got married. Our first training run together was less than 2 miles and disappointingly I had to walk-jog most of it, but on race day with my husband’s encouragement I completed the distance in the same time as my previous effort 7 years earlier.

Since then I haven’t looked back and I’m now an enthusiastic member of my local running club with numerous half marathons, 4 marathons and 2 ultra-marathons under my belt. I have a personal trainer who tests me to my limit, building strength and resilience for the crazy goals I come up with. He has moved from telling me ‘I train you like an athlete’ to ‘I train you as an athlete’, a subtle but significant difference. I haven’t come anywhere near the front in any of my races, but the planning, training and dedication required just to get to the start line of an event that is going to take multiple hours to complete is, for me, an essential part of the experience.

Am I an athlete? Am I proficient in sport or physical exercise? Yes, I am. My half marathon time isn’t ground-breaking, but it is faster than the female average and those who know me would agree that physical exercise, particularly running, is one of my defining characteristics.

So why the imposter syndrome, defined as

feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that persist despite evident success? Like many others, particularly but not exclusively women, this is a feeling I am familiar with from my professional life. Who am I to be in this position, doing this thing? Aren’t others better than me? Some of them may be better but many are not: it is easy to confuse ‘different’ with ‘better’ particularly in the arena of professional leadership. Many organisations still have predominantly male leadership which leaves a lack of female role models for women like me to aspire to. I recently had the benefit of some professional leadership coaching during which I explored imposter syndrome and how to address it. Here’s what I came up with based on my experiences:

1. Validation: share and celebrate success in yourself and others. This includes recognition of what you have achieved to reach where you are today and how your experiences allow you to bring unique value to a role

2. Set your own goals to ‘run your own race’. Perhaps you want to complete a half marathon in under 2 hours. This will not win the race, but it’s the prize you are competing for and you should celebrate once you have attained it: the same applies in leadership

3. Invite and reflect on both positive and negative feedback: encourage others to critique your work. So often we only get negative feedback, or (as I recently discovered) positive feedback at the moment you are leaving a role

4. Embrace vulnerability: do not hide your failings from others who will respect your integrity and willingness to acknowledge the need to change or improve. Recognise your limitations and make a plan to address them. There’s a great quote: “FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning”. In other words, if we are not prepared to try and maybe not get it right first time, we will never develop new knowledge or skills

5. Find a peer mentor or ‘critical friend’ to allow expression of your feelings of imposter syndrome in a safe environment. Be prepared to return the favour for them! Consider setting up a peer support group to share experiences

6. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’: step into what the expectation of the role is in both behaviour and appearance, it is amazing how powerful this can be in others’ and your own acceptance of your role. Having said that, some leadership roles have traditionally demonstrated unhelpful negative characteristics. You must avoid these. Uphold positive values and speak out against those who do not meet the required standard

7. Be a role model: if you find that there are few others like yourself for you to look up to, become the role model you would like to see for those who come after you

Imposter syndrome is commonly experienced amongst professionals, and exists despite tangible evidence of success. The points that Lucy mentions tie into our leadership framework here at Mountain Mindset. Our Leadership Academy will equip you with the necessary toolkit to become an all-rounded leader. Contact us for a no-obligations quote today.

179 views0 comments
bottom of page