The Impostor Syndrome, High Performance, and Canadian National Championships

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Setting the Stage

I immediately began regretting travelling to Edmonton two days early for the Canadian National Championships and Rio Trials the second I landed.

The stories started flying around in my head.

“I have so much to do back home"

“I’m letting my work teams down"

“I’m letting my wife and little girl down"

“I'm being selfish"

After several long minutes of remorse I tried to brush the feelings aside and re-focus on the game plan. Find my place, get settled, get to the track to train. Leaving the airport I slowly transitioned from one bus to another eventually making it to my AirBnB and then to the track around 730PM.

Expecting the scene to be buzzing with throwers getting ready for the event, my heart sunk a little further upon reaching the track. Despite it being the designated “open throws” time - not a single other competitor was there.

"Am I this much of a track kook” I thought to myself.

Brushing my sheepishness to the side, I warmed up and went through my training session, alone, and in the midst of rain and thunder storms.

I then made the long, multiple bus pilgrimage from the track to a grocery store and then back to my place.

Visualization rituals

Before heading to bed that night, as I’d done for the past several nights, I plugged in my headphones and went through the guided visualization my aunt Barb, a high performance sports hypnotherapist, recorded to help me prepare for these Games.

Heading to bed I thanked God, the Universe, the greater life-force for this small step on the journey - regardless of how kooky a competitor I was.

Thursday would bring another long day of prep...

Visualization, a remote work session, groceries, visualization, I headed to my second ‘open throws’ practice and yet again was the only senior discus competitor there. I started to think I was crazy for being there.

"Are all of these guys so good they don’t even need to show up a day early?” I thought.

Gameday

I woke up on Friday feeling charged and ready to go. I took the mid thunder rainstorm in stride, my coach Garrett and my inner voice affirming I had spent 4 months throwing in the rain and wind - this was no big deal… Gulp.

This attitude all changed however the second I stepped into the marshalling tent an hour before the event. To my surprise, this was the very first time I saw any of the other competitors I would be facing off against.

They were monsters.

Strong, big, bold, exuding confidence and poise.

I immediately felt like an ant (yes all 6’6 250 lbs of me). I felt way out of my league. An impostor with a big red flag shouting it out. I quickly found a corner and scurried over with what felt like my imaginary tail tucked between my legs.

It was at that point that a little gremlin in my head conveniently pointed that I was the only one who was already wearing my throwing shoes of the whole group. Having gone through my regular warm up including technical drills and never having been to a 'big boys competition' this was all I knew.

“Tyrell, you are such a kook - take your shoes off so it’s not so embarrassing”.

All of the guys chatted amongst each other, clearly having built a friendly competitive relationship with each other over the course of the past few years. I was on the outside looking in on the discus old boys club. I awkwardly tried to smile and make eye contact with a couple of the guys as they made jokes - a voice jabbing in the back of my head

“you can’t be serious Tyrell, are you at a high school dance?"

As we made our way from marshalling to the warm up cage I tried to refocus my mind. Reminding myself I am essentially here for participation, to do my best, I have nothing to lose and nothing to prove. It was at that time that I realized I was also positioned as the 4th athlete to throw, meaning in a field of 10 I was coming in with a qualifying throw near the bottom of the pack.

Oomph. I felt a small boulder drop in my gut.

My warm ups felt good but as I started to observe the other throwers I realized they were competing in an entirely different sport. They were “real” discus throwers. I don’t mean this in a facetious or sarcastic way - the top guys had absolutely incredible form. I was watching what they were doing, soaring the discus into the stratosphere and realized I had absolutely no concept of how to do that. I felt like I was throwing with all of my might just to see my disc go a quarter as high and half as far.

Stay focused Tyrell, this is about you and no one else.

It All Comes Down to This

Finally, nearly an hour and a half later, it was time to throw. I was ready to get on with it. If nothing else to put my racing mind to rest.

I gave one final look over to my coach Garrett who perfectly reassured me with a simple and calm head nod. I turned my mind on auto-pilot, reverting back to the visualization I had gone over several dozen times.

I was as ready as I could be.

My first throw didn’t feel great, but it felt damn relaxed considering the nerves.

49.50 meters.

I could see a few of the other competitors eyebrows raise… Then I realized my own eyebrows were raised - how the heck did I just do that - a 1 meter PB on my first throw. As I walked back to my coach I laughed in what felt like a coping mechanism to let out an insanely huge amount of stress and nerves.

A couple of the competitors came over, noticeably surprised… “I don’t remember you last year”, “what’s your PB?”, “where are you from - that was a great throw."

Maybe I wasn’t a complete impostor…?

The second sigh of relief came in the thought that at least if I finish last I will have made a personal step of forward progress.

The next 20 minutes and two throws whirled by and it wasn’t until the end of the 3rd round that I paused to take note of where I sat. I then realized on the fancy electronic screen they showed each thrower’s best throw, and current position on the board when they were up. A thrower whose technique I was drooling over in the warm up pit was about to step in for his 3rd throw.

The board read “best attempt: 46.90. Position 4”.

I did a double take. 46.90, position 4. I threw 49.50, what does that mean?

It dawned on me that I was sitting in 3rd place, with first and second about 1 meter away.

A jolt of adrenaline and excitement coursed through me. I was in medal contention going into the final.

In the Hunt

That adrenaline did not bode well for my next 2 throws where I rushed the release and failed to improve. My coach calmly brought me over, gave me a couple of key cues, and encouraged me to just have fun - we’ve got nothing to lose.

Anchoring in visualization

Over the past couple of days I had been visualizing an interesting tactic as I prepare to walk into the circle for my throw. Simple but profound. I feel myself smiling… And this simple act of smiling seems to neurologically trigger the reminder to not take myself or any of this too seriously.

I made sure as I walked into the front of the circle on that sixth and final throw to allow myself a grin from ear to ear.

"Who cares whose watching or what people think - have fun silly."

The throw felt far from perfect, but I knew I had at least gotten right a couple of the cues Garrett had just coached me through.

My fellow competitors, who it turns out are an incredibly supportive community, cheered at what looked like a good final attempt.

I walked out, now actually feeling like I may have achieved one of the goals I set out for at the beginning of the season…

“50.11 meters"

A final sigh. And a smile. Several of the competitors congratulated me. I walked directly back to Garrett, who despite knowing I had a lot more in the tank, was smiling as well. I gave him a big hug - proud that I didn’t let him down more than anything else.

A +50 meter throw and Canadian Senior National Championships bronze medal to close out the 2015/2016 season.

The Real Takeaway

That evening I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind was too busy extracting and dissecting every little bit of learning from the whole experience.

Why did I beat myself up so much for going early?

Why did I think those guys were so much better than me?

What caused me to still perform and peak despite this swirl of emotions?

I realized that I have an archetypal sequence of events that take place for me to hit my absolute high performance. Irregardless of the medium - facilitating teams in the boardroom, speaking on stage, competing in the ring.

I rigorously prepare.

I push myself ten times harder in preparation than I do in the moment of performance.

I realized at these Championships that it was my hours and hours of preparation leading up to the event that was what allowed me to perform despite the nerves, anxiety and gremlins. I had an auto-pilot to tune in to. I had been building it for the last several days and weeks.

By the time I stepped into the ring for that first competition throw I had already had 3 physical sessions in the ring and several dozen mental sessions.

And it was because of this foundation I had created, that when those gremlins started creeping into my conscious brain feeding me stories of doubt and shame - I was able to shift my attention to the work that had already been done.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

I think we have all have those gremlins that creep up in our head. Those of us pushing the limits are constantly hearing the “impostor alarm” going off in the back of our heads.

Every time I walk into the boardroom with an important meeting to facilitate I wonder who is going to think I’m full of it, or don’t know what I’m doing.

I have the same feeling in my gut every time I get on the stage.

Part of this fear is healthy and we can use it to keep us humble and open to new learning and growth. But much of it can be deflected if we’ve already established the state of our performance through rigorous preparation.

The war of high-performance is won well before we step into the spotlight.

I share this story as a statement of affirmation to myself. I know the next four years will be full of the imposter syndrome - and I will look back at this experience as a guide of how to navigate those waters which create the potential for our greatest outcomes.

So.

Do you have a preparation strategy that empowers you to hit your peak performance in the exact moment you need it. Despite all of the swirling pressures and stresses that you face?

I’d love to hear your story.  Tyrell Mara Canadian Track and Field Discus

image: Moonrider Productions

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