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by Kristina Miller

May 21, 2019

Imposter syndrome can make coaches feel insecure, but they should realize the impact they’re making on their swimmers

My high school coach used to say, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” As a 16-year-old, I didn’t pay much attention, thinking he would say anything to make us go faster. But this phrase followed me into adulthood and into my coaching career. The words are posted at the pool where I teach swim lessons, coach the college team as a volunteer, and coach Fairbanks Masters Swimming full time.

Now, I can’t help but find an element of truth in those words—not just for athletes but for swim coaches as well.

As a 28-year-old female coach, I became a Masters head coach by chance and stayed because I love it. I’ve worked on some amazing pool decks and coached some amazing athletes. I’ve found myself alongside Olympians and as part of prestigious swim camps.

As a swimmer, I’ve placed fifth at the 2018 UANA Pan American Masters 1.5K open water race and eighth in my age group in the 1650-yard freestyle at the 2018 Nationwide U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship.

People often compliment me on my accomplishments as a coach and a swimmer, but they don’t know the emotional pain lurking in the background.

I regularly go home at night and question my abilities. I’m afraid they’ll see that I got eighth because only eight women swam in my age group. I’m afraid they’ll think I’m only a good coach because I flew all the way from Alaska, which, for some, seems like a foreign country. I wonder if I was the only person they could find.

Sometimes my fears are triggered by a poor encounter with people who tell me I’m too young to coach or if swimmers suddenly ignore me once a male coach comes on the pool deck. This causes me to worry more once I find myself with a fast swimmer on my Masters club. “Am I the best coach for you” keeps playing through my mind.

Some coaches hide these insecurities or act as if they don’t exist. To admit them would be admitting that we don’t have all the answers or, worse, that we’re not as good as we claim. As my Masters club grew, I started asking other coaches and swimmers if they felt this way. To my surprise, they did.

Eventually, my weight-training coach introduced me to the concept of imposter syndrome, where individuals feel inadequate in their pursuits and fear that others will discover their perceived incompetence and which was first identified in a 1978 paper published in Psychotherapy, Theory, Research and Practice by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They dismiss their achievements as luck or knowing how to play the system.

I hear it all the time in swimming. Coaches attribute their athlete’s success to talent, taking no credit for developing training plans and pacing plans and correcting technique.

Yes, some are trying to be humble—I’m in no way advocating arrogance or taking undue credit—but coaches must accept that, yes, sometimes we’re just that good.

As I think back on that quote from my high school swim coach, I can only think all this negative self-hating is weakness leaving my body. It’s a way of clearing my mind, so I can be a better swim instructor, coach, and swimmer. We never stop learning. We’re always expanding our perspectives as swimmers and coaches.

I think this is how we really combat imposter syndrome—simply by showing up day after day, meeting as many people as we can, swimming as many races as we can, and facing the challenge of improving on and off the pool deck. Learning new things from new people keeps us humble and keeps us current in an ever-changing sport.


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