Skip to main content

The social barriers female athletes face that can inhibit optimal performance 

By Llara Kay

The Fear of Failure, …

It isn’t something I thought I struggled with. In most conventional ways, and the way modern society measures us, I feel pretty fearless and like to attack many challenges head on.

But in truth and reflection, the risks I take are calculated and well within my comfort zone; I’m willing to push myself just that bit harder than I need to, but in all honesty, I hold back from pushing to my full potential, as I’m afraid to fail …

I’m afraid of the consequences I would have to live with if I tried my absolute hardest and wasn’t able to see it out. Crazy I know, but let me give you an example, 

I’m a ‘good’ Masters Athlete (CrossFit Athletes 35 years+), I train hard and with dedication; developing skills, cardiovascular capacity, speed and strength. However, I will never be an ‘exceptional’ athlete, because in my day to day training, I only push myself hard enough to beat my nearest competitor in the gym.

This could be a person in my CrossFit class or a score I have seen posted for a particular workout on any given day! I know that if I make myself uncomfortable during the start of a workout, I can amass a big enough gap, then slow down into a more comfortable pace and ‘win’. 

For that class in particular, in my mind, I haven’t ‘failed’. But if I mentally explore the bigger picture, I haven’t tested my full ability nor optimal capacity! I’ve just massaged my ego – gaining a short-term win, while outworking someone! Therefore, never confronting my fear of falling short if I really step out of my comfort zone, thus never becoming exceptional!

The real conflict 

Now to the crux of the story, …

When it comes to effectively competing – on the big stages – an area of weakness has always been my strength. I’ve been in this sport for over 10 years now, and in all this time, this has been the one consistent detractor from my performance. During the 2021 CrossFit Open, after 2/3 workouts, I was coming 13th in the world (in the 35+ category)! Then, in the third workout, they threw in a max lift …

Now, anyone that knows me or sees me at the gym, will attest that I spend more time working on Olympic Lifting and Squatting than anything else, so I guess I’m just unlucky? 

Nope,… I’m brave enough to do the physical work in the gym, but fully committing and eating the right amount of calories to aid and complement my progression, nooooo! Why? I’m terrified of gaining weight around my belly and being labeled fat! It’s crazy, I want to be strong, oh man how I want to be strong, but I don’t want to get “fat”. 

To build muscle, to build the strength I want, I need to be in a ‘calorie surplus’ (not deficit), I know this, but I don’t want to put weight on my belly; I would love big quads, big arms, a muscular back, but I don’t want a fat stomach and this seems to override everything!  

This fear of doing the eating – of getting my optimal nutrition on point, as well as doing the training, means my strength remains the same year in, year out! Sometimes I feel a bit stronger, others I accumulate fatigue – pick up minor injuries and niggles, which are all linked to this silly ideal! 

So instead, I watch as others develop and build strength, and slowly but surely move to heavier lifts. As for me, well, I remain stuck in no man’s land, above average (good, safe and in my comfort zone) when it comes to the Metcons (specific Workouts of each Day) and then plunge into self-pity (not exceptional, not satisfied) when the inevitable strength test comes!

What’s the real fear?

So, what is the ultimate fear that holds me back? It’s the trade off; its fully committing, going all in with my nutrition, gaining the ‘perceived’ bulk only to get somewhat stronger but not competitively stronger! I’m scared to death that I will potentially sacrifice my body, aesthetics and fluidity in the body weight movements – the ones I excel in – to gain a kilo or so on my max lifts. 

In my mind, what I’m really scared of, is that whilst I won’t be noticeably stronger, I will look (negatively) different; that the surplus of calories will go to the places I don’t want them to go, and as a result, I will be judged! That, despite all my passion and soapboxing for CrossFit – providing a platform which allows us to celebrate and express what we can do rather than how we look, I am still a child of the 90’s and early 2000’s. Where anorexic-looking-chicks were the fashion; collar bones, rib bones and thigh gaps meant desirability, and being [perceived] overweight meant being shunned and ostracised. 

Yet, I have decided to face these fears and I am eating, sleeping, stretching and training for the sole purpose of getting stronger! I have found it hard, I had a complete wobble after getting ‘chub rub’ [laughs] after a series of 100 metre runs, but I’m also feeling more confident. 

I’m definitely terrified of failing, who isn’t, but right now I’m more scared of not achieving something I really want, just because I’m worried about how others will perceive me. Especially when, in truth, these others all have their own fears and insecurities to face. I’ve arrived at the realisation that instead of inspiring pity, I have the opportunity to inspire confidence!

So, here’s to managing my own fear and reaching my full potential …