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  • Jessica Circe

Hyper-Achiever Syndrome - How your ambition is getting in your way



I was sitting at the ingate getting ready to go into the ring. I was running my course over and over in my head, so I wouldn’t forget it. I was tense and my horse knew it. I was stressed, and so was he so he stomped his foot in irritation. The last words my trainer said before I went into the ring was “Have fun.” And I remember thinking, “Is she joking? This isn’t fun. This is a competition! I’m here to win. I’m going to go out there and do my absolute best.”


However, I didn’t do my best. Don’t get me wrong, I rode okay… maybe a 7 out of 10 and I got a ribbon, 4th if memory serves, but I distinctly remember feeling like it was not good enough… not even close. I had another round in just a few moments, so I quickly put those feelings aside and moved on to brood about the next course, reminding myself of all the things I'd done wrong, so I would not repeat those same mistakes in the next round. And I went right back to feeling tense and stressed. You can probably guess how well I did in the next round and how I felt when I exited the ring.


Is some version of this sounding familiar to you? Are you having a moment of deja vu and reflecting “Been there.”? Then you probably also have Hyper-Achiever Syndrome. Now, before you go to Google or schedule an appointment with your GP, Hyper-Achiever Syndrome (HAS) is not a medical condition or disease. Let me be clear… There is nothing wrong with you. Or me for that matter. HAS is a term I coined for a group of characteristics, thoughts and feelings that I experienced during my professional career, and I recognize in many of my athlete clients now.


So, if HAS is not a medical condition, what is it? It’s a habitual thought process or mentality that is overly dependent on high performance and achievement as the source of a person’s happiness, self-confidence, and self-worth. It is centered around the belief that in order to be happy and to feel fulfilled in life, a person must set goals and achieve those goals. There is a feeling of “I need to be successful, then I’ll be happy.” When things are going well and you’re winning ribbons, scoring goals or making many of your shots, then you feel terrific. You’re flying.


Hyper-achiever syndrome is a habitual thought process or mentality that is overly dependent on high performance and achievement as the source of a person’s happiness, self-confidence, and self-worth.


However, that feeling is fleeting. It only lasts until the next error, the next missed “easy opportunity” or the next lost game. Then that flying feeling is gone, and you find yourself doing everything possible to get back to it. You work really hard, practice for hours, obsessively watch game tape, and spend time training to get stronger, more balanced etc. And sometimes that works (Yay!) and others it doesn’t (Ack!). And it can feel like the harder you work, the worse you get (Crap!) so you either work harder or you retreat (or you quit, but that’s a whole other blog post).


This is the double edge sword of HAS. When you love a sport so much you want to do it at elite level, it takes a lot, I mean A LOT, of work. And sacrifice. More than you think, and I can assure you, if you think it’s a lot and you’re up for it… double that… because it’s still more than that. And that work pays off. You improve, you get stronger, you get more skilled. Then there will come a time when the amount of work you put in does not result in the same increase in performance. And simultaneously, everyone around you, every one of your teammates and competitors are also improving, getting stronger and more skilled. Competition gets more intense, it gets harder to win, harder to score, and harder to be selected to start. So right when you feel you are struggling and maybe even stalling in your development (notice I said “feel you are”), it appears the competition is simultaneously getting tougher.


There will come a time when the amount of work you put in does not result in the same increase in performance. And simultaneously, everyone around you, every one of your teammates and competitors, are also improving, getting stronger and more skilled.


That is the premium environment for HAS to develop and grow. I remember that moment clearly for me… When I transferred to William Woods in 1998. Skilled trainer, good horses, talented other riders to learn from, competitive environment to practice in. With the right mentality, I could have dug in and taken advantage of so much opportunity. But I had HAS... all I saw were glaring signs of my shortcomings as a rider, as an equestrian. Every piece of feedback from the trainer or my fellow riders, every mistake I knew I was making, every ride that didn’t go well was like pouring petrol on my already out-of-control HAS wildfire.


I was stressed. I was scared. I was anxious. I was envious. I was both physically and emotionally exhausted. And then I would win a class, or get a compliment from my trainer or a visiting clinician… and for a moment, it was all worth it. I felt at that moment it was all going to be okay, and that I could do it, be a professional equestrian and an accomplished one. And then the next piece of feedback or mistake would hit me, and I was right back in the fire and chasing that next moment. Hoping beyond hope I would get another one of those moments.


That’s what it’s like to live with HAS as an athlete… attempting to survive the fire between the moments of levity, joy, success. I thought it was normal, that this is what it was like, what it was going to take to live my dream. Like the price of admission. And no one told me different. There was much talk about mental toughness and setting emotions aside and working hard, and the impression was you could either handle the stress and the pressure or you couldn’t. If you could, you’d make it, and if you couldn’t, you’d wash out at some point.


However, let me be clear… IT DOES NOT HAVE TO FEEL LIKE THIS!


It doesn’t have to feel like living in a wildfire of stress and anxiety, or whatever your wildfire feels like. It doesn’t have to feel this way because HAS is a habitual thought process. Habitual, meaning it’s a habit, like brushing your teeth twice a day, or always putting your right boot on first. And habits can change. Even mental ones. It takes work, it takes time, but it does happen. You merely have to want to overcome the current thought process. Start with that, and you’re well on your way.


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