When I was a kid, I hated sports. I dreaded gym class. I was picked last for every team. I flinched when anything smaller than a soccer ball came near me. Or not near me. And if we’re being honest, it wasn’t just the smaller balls that gave me panic attacks; dodge balls, volleyballs, and tetherballs terrified me. They still do. Although adulthood affords me the luxury of never being forced to play ball games, it’s hard to fully relax because every so often, Dan tosses me the car keys.
For reasons I will never fully understand, I tried out for lacrosse when I was a freshman in high school. Most people look back the team sports of their youth and recall friendship, laughter, teamwork, and the development of self-esteem and confidence.
I look back on the three seasons I played lacrosse and wonder why I did not quit sooner. It was painful, and not the kind of pain that breaks you down, only to build you back up. Mostly it was just painful in the breaking down way, but I pretended it wasn’t.
I pretended I wasn’t waiting for the coach to give me a pep talk. I pretended not to silently wonder why all the girls who’d started as beginners like me, figured out how to maneuver gracefully across the field, making assists, scoring points, and generally looking sure of themselves, while I remained awkward and afraid of the ball. I pretended I didn’t mind being on the fringes of the sport that I assumed would make me one of the gang.
I have two distinct memories from my time on the lacrosse team. One was right after a game against our biggest rival. We won and the mood was giddy as we piled into the team van. A hot, fresh bag of McDonald’s fries was being passed around. My arm was extended toward that bag, and just before I plucked a few fries for myself, one of my teammates—the quintessential mean girl—noticed me.
“Why don’t you save the fries for those of us who actually played?” she asked. It was not so much a question as it was an accusation.
My stomach dropped as I lowered my hand to my lap. After a beat, the rest of the team continued laughing and recalling the highlights of the game while they polished off the fries, while I sat in silence, alone with my shame.
The other vivid memory I have of lacrosse is coming in second in a timed two-mile run. My teammates and I complained whenever the coach made us run, but secretly, I enjoyed it. With running, there was no ball.There was no stress. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other. Even I could not mess it up.
On that mild spring afternoon, we charged down Blackstone Boulevard and to my shock and delight, I found myself at front of the pack. I nearly killed myself in an attempt to edge out my closest competitor and finished a very close second. When I finished, my legs burned, my lungs were ready to explode, and I was on the verge of puking.
I could not wait to do it again.
When I was 22, I ran my first marathon. By that point, friends and family frequently referred to me as a runner, but it was very important to me that I set them straight. I was not a runner, I would tell them. I just liked to run. That I would I would, in fact, pay money and travel to run for over four hours at a time was actually no indication that I was a bona fide runner, it was just evidence that I enjoyed my hobby. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time it made perfect sense because I still thought of myself as the un-athletic kid I had always been.
Shortly after I trying a spin class a few years later, I dove headfirst into road biking and triathlons. When I was not working or trolling for guys, I was biking, swimming or running. My friends and I joked we wouldn’t recognize each other if we weren’t wearing a cap and goggles or sunglasses and a helmet. But when I admitted to a friend that I wasn’t sure I “deserved” to use race wheels at an upcoming bike race and he said “But you have the same right to race wheels as any other athlete,” I thought he was crazy. “You think I’m an athlete?” I asked, incredulous. “Why wouldn’t you be?” he asked me. “You are always training for a race. Sometimes you work out twice a day.” I was flattered but I remained skeptical.
When I was 28 I did my first IronmanTM triathlon. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. I spent the better part of a year training for it. In preparation for it, I crossed the finish of my fifth marathon and I travelled with my bike to a training camp in Spain. I planned every aspect of my life around training for that race. Yet I scoffed when anyone called me a triathlete. “I do triathlons,” I remember correcting my sister, “but I wouldn’t call myself a triathlete.” She told me I was nuts; and not just because a triathlon was my idea of fun.
I wish I could tell you I realized I was an athlete when I crossed the finish line of that IronmanTM. What I remember about that moment was pure joy, a sense of accomplishment, and the piece of pepperoni pizza I inhaled immediately afterward.
I wish there were a specific race or workout that I could look back on and say “That was when I realized I was an athlete.” The unglamorous truth is that over the next few years, I gradually shed that sense of myself as a ball-challenged, athletic failure and finally understood that I was an athlete. That I had, in fact, been an athlete since the day I tried to win that two-mile run in the tenth grade.
I wish I’d figured that out sooner. But upon immersing myself in Impostor Syndrome Research, I realized something kind of epic. It turns out, over the course of my painstakingly slow path to figuring out that I was a legit athlete, I had inadvertently tested nearly every strategy, tip, and trick promising to cure Impostor Syndrome.
Are you into this? Do you think your group would enjoy it? I’d love to chat with you about speaking at your next meeting. Feel free to contact me at pam.sinel(at)gmail.com