Imposter syndrome has plagued me nearly every step of the way on my coaching journey, which has lasted for well over a decade. I graduated from a college that had a very solid Exercise Science program. However, I majored in English Literature, which doesn’t translate perfectly to being a coach. At the time, coaching and personal training were a “side hustle” while I went to school. In the real world I was planning to be a writer and a teacher. But I enjoyed coaching. It allowed me to stay close to the martial arts and helped to keep me in shape. Being a full-time coach was a pipe dream; it was as silly to me as the thought of joining the circus or selling snow to Eskimos. When a coach I worked for was hired to be the head of a collegiate program and asked me to come on as his right-hand man, I believed there had to be a better person for the position. Working in the collegiate space for the next three years, I had to quickly learn to deal with feeling of being inadequate and under-qualified for the position. This sensation, of feeling like I didn’t quite belong has a name: Imposter Syndrome. It took me some time to learn how to deal with this ankle biter, and in this article I’m going to share some of the strategies I used to kick it square in the teeth so I could focus on what really matters – being the best damn coach I could be.
Step 1: Fake It ‘Til You Make It
The first step of handling your Imposter Syndrome is accepting it. It is very likely that, as in the case detailed above, there was someone better for the job. The sooner I moved to accepting that, the sooner I could devote my energy to doing the best job I could do, instead of worrying about whether or not I was the right person. In life, when circumstances beyond our scope fall in front of us, we can choose to allow ourselves to be crippled by doubt or we can choose to take responsibility. When facing Imposter Syndrome, taking responsibility allows us an avenue to courage, the ability to say “this is my job and I will do it the best I can” instead of “shouldn’t someone else be doing this?”
“Faking it” can be very literal. When I first started coaching, a mentor of mine gave me some great advice. He instructed me to think back on all the best teachers and coaches I had over the years, to look back on their mannerisms, from the way they spoke to how they stood and the inflections they used. The next step was to put myself in that role, borrowing those movements and speech patterns the same way I’d pick up a new martial arts technique or a new barbell movement. This is something I still find myself doing when I hear a coach explain something in a particularly eloquent way, and it helps me refine and sharpen the way that I communicate with others. If you respond well to a certain kind of coach, others will as well, and while you’re working on establishing your voice and presentation, you can pull from those who came before you. This isn’t stealing, it is honoring and paying tribute to the instructors who had a positive impact on your own life.
In this first stage of the battle with your self-perception, you can borrow the confidence of your more experienced peers. When you find yourself appointed to a position that you feel you are not worthy of, remember that others put you there. They certainly don’t want to fail. You can draw on that confidence, believing in the people that believed in you. There were other candidates for the position, other people they could have selected, and they picked you. Much like you as a coach often see potential in your athletes that they cannot, the person who put you in this position to succeed saw great potential in you. Borrowing their faith will bolster your own confidence, and it will push you towards taking responsibility for doing a good job. Athletes are motivated to outperform expectations for the good of the team, and you can rise up to the challenges presented to you as well. There are only so many seats at the table, and everyone earns their spot. The same was true of you the moment you stepped into your new role. Be sure to act like it, even if you don’t wholly believe it just yet.
Step 2: Walk the Talk
During his days as a professional wrestler, loyal Power Athlete Twitter fan Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was known for categorizing some of his opponents as Jabronis. A Jabroni was one who talked the talk, but never walked the walk. If you want to crush Imposter Syndrome, you won’t do it by being a Jabroni. Embody your core values and principles and soon the evidence of your worthiness will be undeniable. It’s easy to write off a coach who’s out of shape or can’t convey scientific principles. Embrace the lifestyle of a coach and immerse yourself in your practice. Get in the weight room and gain a first-hand understanding of the programming you’ll be teaching. The more training you personally engage in, the better you’ll be able to program and teach. If you’re not sure where to start, there’s no better place than the Power Athlete Methodology Course and a few months on Bedrock. While this will certainly help craft your body, it will also prepare you mentally to run your athletes on a similar basic program. The linear development of Bedrock is the ideal place for anyone to begin their training.
Coming into the collegiate coaching sphere, I only had a few basic certifications and a couple measly years of experience. After accepting the job, I went out and got as many books as I could on strength training, conditioning, agility work, nutrition, and more. I looked into working on public speaking and sharpened my presentation skills. Several of the athletes I’d be working with played sports I didn’t have much knowledge in. I watched hours of footage on YouTube and familiarized myself with these new sports as much as I could. I reached out to the coaches at the school and, where possible, I even played some new sports myself so that I could gain a sharper understanding of what I’d be discussing with my athletes. Searching out different courses, I took on continuing education with whatever money I could spare, choosing to go to seminars instead of going on vacation or taking weekends off. I vowed to never let myself fall into the trap of complacency, seeking out weaknesses in my education that I could transform into strengths.
Growing and learning on your own can be tricky. Finding a network or mentorship is a huge advantage towards developing yourself as a coach and ending your Imposter Syndrome once and for all. Finding the right mentor is a matter of selection. Coaching is a varied field, so you’ll want to look for someone who’s been down a similar path. If you’re looking to become an amazing small gym owner, chatting it up with the head of a collegiate program is likely the wrong angle, but if you’re looking to turn a bunch of high schoolers into perennial champions, you don’t want to be talking to someone whose accomplishments are largely based on selling and retaining memberships. This is not to say that either one of these trajectories is better or worse, but you must be respectful of the differences presented here. Making clients happy and building a sense of community in a gym is often dramatically different from building a strong weight room culture with a group of high-level athletes.
In addition to mentorship, having a network of knowledgeable peers to lean on will accelerate your growth and keep you from stagnating, exposing you to different ideas and concepts. I’ve yet to find a better network than the Block One Coaches, nor have I found a test quite like the Block One Certification. I know we’re doing back-to-back shameless plugs here, but that doesn’t make it less true. I became a Block One Coach back in 2018 and it’s something I value as much today as I did when I traveled to Texas to earn the certification. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who are equally hungry to excel is invaluable and being seen as a peer by those people provides concrete evidence that you truly are the person who you were previously pretending to be.
Step 3: Let The Work Speak
Imposter Syndrome is a wily and crafty opponent, but we’re ready to deal the final blows now so that you can step into the confidence of knowing that you are a world-class coach. It is time to depersonalize your situation. What does that mean? Put simply, it is time for you to step back and tally your accomplishments. After several years in the field of feeling like a phony, you’ll have either moved on to different employment or you’ll have racked up success after success. The big mistake that gets made here is a lack of appreciation for those successes. Depending on what part of the field you are in, this could be something like helping people lose weight and enjoy exercise or it might be the positive impact you’ve had on your athletes as people and any number of wins and losses on the field of play. Perhaps you’ve built up a business that is supporting you and your family, or maybe you’ve transformed the culture at an establishment that now puts a premium on quality athletic achievement. Regardless of your course, give yourself the time to reflect on what you’ve done and to be proud of it. When it comes to exercise programming and design, you can look at the results you’ve gotten for your clients/athletes as proof that what you’re doing has been working, not as a way to drive complacency, but to foster security that you’re smart enough to decipher the good from the bad and bring quality science to your people. Look at your accomplishments as though you were assessing the work of another, list them down on paper if necessary, and you will be empowered by seeing what you have done.
You can also “let your work speak” by paying it forward. After several years in the field, you should begin to pass on what you have learned. Your successes and failures, the programs that flopped and the techniques that created positive change, pass on all of it. I have often been told, “teaching is to learn twice”. When we’re teaching someone, the gaps in our own knowledge are exposed by their questions and feedback. Filling those gaps will help us add to our credibility and decrease the feelings of being an imposter. You’ll reinforce your confidence in your own knowledge by passing it onto the next generation, and you get to take your place in the transmission of the lamp, lighting the torch for new coaches as yours was once lit by others. This is where Imposter Syndrome comes full circle in a really beautiful way, as you have the chance to become the coach that someone else emulates just like you were mimicking those who came before you.
In addition, the ability to help others find their way is simply more evidence of the truth that you really do know what you’re doing. Exposing new concepts and ideas to your students will show you how much you’ve learned along the way. Teaching will also help you understand where your specialities lie. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that any one of us has to have a full command of every aspect of this field. You will find times where you’re better off reaching out to an expert or referring someone to another coach for help in an area that you’re not as familiar with. Trying to be an expert in every possible area is a quick way to feel like an imposter all of the time.
For our final note, let’s really dig into what causes Imposter Syndrome. The anxiety of being an imposter comes from the belief that who we are is not enough, that someone else should be stepping into the role that we are now fulfilling. While a lack of confidence can be normal, the basis of this concept is upsetting. Circling back to the first paragraph, we are the ones who are here now, here today. It is our job to take on the mantles of work that are set before us, and the amazing gift of your life is the ability to live uniquely, to be the coach that only you can be. While we began our journey by parroting others and borrowing different techniques, experience will grant you your very own coaching voice and perspective. You will be a coach that only you have the potential of becoming, and you will have an impact on your clients or athletes that only you can have. It’s a feel-good way to end this article, but I encourage you to embrace your individuality. Whatever point in your coaching journey you find yourself at, there are people that you can affect positively today in a way that no one else can. Understanding this is the key to eliminating Imposter Syndrome once and for all. Celebrate your gift and go coach your heart out!
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John is a Coach at Underdog Mixed Martial Arts in West Hartford, CT, where he teaches both martial arts and strength & conditioning. For over a decade, Underdog has built several professional fighters, even sending some to the UFC and Bellator. John began training martial arts at a traditional Karate dojo at the age of 6 years old. This was the start of a lifelong journey which has seen him log countless hours in a myriad of styles, including Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Kali, Eskrima, and Jeet Kune Do. In addition, John has spent over a decade working as a professional strength and conditioning coach, coaching at the High School and D-III Collegiate Level. Along with over a dozen other certifications, he holds the distinction of being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA and is honored to be counted as a Power Athlete Block One Coach. He is intensely passionate about empowering athletes to find their max potential and explore their body’s unique capacity for the martial arts.
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