Is a Part of You Holding You Back? Internal Family Systems (IFS) For Athletes

Courtesy: Susannah Muller

What would happen if three members of a relay are excited and ready to go fast, but the fourth member is stuck, fearing failure or pain and doesn’t want to be there? Most likely the relay will bomb. There is a chance that the three excited members may be enough to pull off a decent performance. But without that fourth member being onboard, it’s a struggle to even get that. What’s clear is – it won’t be a great performance.

What if all four members of the relay are excited and ready to go without any hesitation? Clearly, the likelihood of success goes way up.

This relay example is an analogy for the parts of an individual athlete’s unconscious inner psyche. According to the evidence-based theory of IFS (Internal Family Systems) developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, our inner psyche is a multiplicity, i.e., there are different parts inside that all have their own jobs and points of view.

This is more easily understood when you think about how one part of you wants to eat that delicious chocolate cake, and a different part of you thinks it’s a bad idea. Or how one part of you wants to stay cozy in bed on a cold morning, but another part knows you need to go to morning practice if you want to improve.

All these different aspects of yourself have a good intention for you – whether it’s to enjoy that mouthwatering cake, stay cozy in bed, or to eat healthy and become a better athlete. They cause conflict because they have different beliefs about what is best for you. This same type of conflict between parts can sabotage an athlete’s performance.

According to the IFS model, each part has its own beliefs and ideas. Each part believes its job is crucial and fights to have you behave in accordance with its beliefs. Different parts may be in control at different times, which is why some days you may eat the chocolate cake and other days you may pass on it.

Through the IFS model, instead of fighting with the parts the athlete may not like, such as anxiety or fear of failure, the athletes learn to work with the parts in specific ways to settle their nervous systems down. As a result, the parts that may have been working unintentionally against an athlete are able to change their roles and stop interfering with the athlete’s performance. Once the system settles down, it allows the athlete increased access to confidence, calmness, and courage, which those fearful or anxious parts are often blocking.

While this theory may sound a bit crazy when you first hear about it, IFS is exploding in the psychology world. Currently, to get into a training course you have to enter a lottery because the demand is so high. And that is because it works.

Why Would a Part of You Sabotage Your Performance?

A fundamental principle in IFS is that every part has a good intention even though that may be hard to see at first. For example, I worked with a client who choked on water every time she swam butterfly in a race and frequently in practice. All physical causes had been ruled out. When we explored the issue with IFS we found a part in her unconscious that remembered the first time she choked during a 200 butterfly race and then panicked, thinking she might drown, which caused her to cough. This part held on to the belief that by making her cough when she swam fly, it would prevent her from drowning. It’s not something her rational brain would have come up with, but it’s not unusual for the unconscious parts to have outdated or misinformed beliefs. After working with this part and updating its information, the coughing problem went away.

As you can see in that example, the parts we’re concerned with get these ideas and points of view from experiences. Once an athlete experiences disappointment, frustration, criticism, feeling like a failure, feeling like they let down their team, their coach, or their parent, or some other distressing event, a part might decide on an unconscious level that it is their job to make sure the athlete never experiences that horrible feeling again. That part believes it is doing something good for that individual by not letting them experience that feeling of failure, criticism, disappointment, guilt, etc., but at the same time, it might be doing something that holds the athlete back.

Examples of How Parts’ Intentions Backfire and Sabotage Performance

Once a part has decided it must protect the individual from feeling that horrible feeling of being a failure again, or whatever it decides to protect against, what that may look like is an athlete who self-sabotages in some way. Let’s go over some examples.

It’s common for athletes to have a part that fears experiencing failure. One way this may show up is an athlete who tries hard consciously, but who doesn’t go out as fast as he or she could because that unconscious part believes that if the athlete doesn’t really try, it won’t feel like a failure; instead, it won’t count because the athlete knows deep inside that they didn’t really try. This belief is held in the unconscious and the athlete usually isn’t aware of this part and its intentions. The athlete is generally frustrated and upset and maybe feeling a bit guilty because they know they didn’t try as hard as they could have, even though they wanted to.

Another way I’ve seen a part sabotage an athlete is when a part of an athlete’s inner psyche decides it’s best to not get caught off guard again by failure because when that happened before, it was horribly painful and embarrassing. This athlete may have experienced something like failing to get a Future’s cut while he watched some of his teammates, who he usually beats in practice, qualify in several events. This part will feel its job is to prepare the athlete for failure before the athlete’s next race. The part works under the surface of consciousness – above the surface this looks like an athlete who is either very anxious or who is expecting to fail.

The athlete may be trying his or her best to think positively, to stay focused, to be calm and loose, but the part that is deathly afraid of getting caught off guard by feeling like a failure again, is interfering – creating doubts, undermining confidence, and causing internal struggle & physical tension. The part, while trying to help, is setting the athlete up to fail again before the race has even started.

Or let’s look at a part that decides to protect the athlete from feeling like a failure by not caring at all about the outcome. This is the athlete who gets behind the starting blocks not mentally invested in the race and/or not ready. The part that is trying to protect the athlete from experiencing failure believes this is helping the individual avoid that awful feeling, but in reality, it is setting the athlete up to experience failure again.

Understanding that parts have tunnel vision is one of the crucial facets of IFS; when working in the IFS model, we recognize that parts always have good intentions and that they genuinely don’t realize how they may be harming the person.

What Types of Parts May Be Sabotaging You?

Above, I used fear of failure for the examples because it is very common for athletes to have one or more parts that fear failure – some conscious, some unconscious. Each individual is unique and for some, there may be one fear of failure part, while for someone else, there are multiple parts that fear failure. These different parts may be triggered by different situations. For example, one might be triggered by facing the finals of the 200 back at a big meet, and one might be triggered by a difficult aerobic set during practice.

But fear of failure is not the only part that can cause sabotage. Other parts that may ruin an athlete’s performance include:

Other Fear Parts

Pain, disappointment, embarrassment, making someone angry, or letting someone down are also common fears parts may hold on to and decide they must prevent from happening again. Even a fear of success can do this.
For instance, a part holding a fear of experiencing disappointment may cause the athlete to work too hard at the beginning of a race, using up more energy than needed and resulting in a poor performance. Or a part that remembers how much it can physically hurt to die in a 500 free, may hold an athlete back at the beginning of their 500 free so it won’t hurt so much at the end.

Overthinking Parts

Parts that are causing overthinking are usually really fear parts in disguise. If you look below the surface at what is compelling the overthinking, it is usually a fear of failure or one of the other fears mentioned above.

Inner Critic Parts

Inner Critic parts are the internal voices that criticize us and berate us for perceived flaws or mistakes. For example, one part of an athlete may believe “If I don’t beat her up for not doing well, she won’t work as hard.” Or “If I call her lazy and worthless, she’ll work harder.” These inner critic parts make athletes feel bad about themselves, undermining self-worth and confidence, although they don’t realize that.

With the IFS model, instead of getting into a battle and arguing back with these parts, we educate these parts about their unintended consequences and establish a relationship with them so that when they are triggered, they will listen to us and settle down.

Perfectionist Parts

Perfectionist parts are a subset of the Inner Critic parts – that is, a part that will internally berate the athlete if it perceives the athlete performing in any way that is less than perfect, while believing it is helping the athlete to do well through its actions. It often comes from a deep seeded fear of failure. Unfortunately, the effect is often the opposite of what the part believes. Instead of helping the athlete perform well, it creates anxiety, tension, and unrealistic standards which undermine confidence.

Parts that Hold Limiting Beliefs

Limiting beliefs can take all different forms. For example, a part may believe “I’m never going to be good at…breaststroke, diving, cross-overturns, etc.” Or a part may believe “I’m not as good as that person” or “I don’t belong at Junior Nationals, everyone else here is better than I am.” Or “I must be a breaststroker because my mom was a breaststroker.” Or “I don’t really want to go to a D1 school because I saw what happened to my friend who did and ended up miserable and quitting.”

Working with parts that hold limiting beliefs can be liberating for the athlete. Getting to know why the parts hold these beliefs and gently, respectfully educating them about how these beliefs might not be true now, can release the restrictions that the athlete didn’t even realize were constricting them.

The next two categories are subsets of limiting beliefs that I see frequently in my practice.

Parts that Believe the Athlete’s Self-Worth is tied to how they Perform

Even though intellectually the athlete may understand that their worth as a human is not tied to how well or how poorly they perform, culturally this idea is reinforced constantly, and it is likely the athlete has at least one or more unconscious parts that buy into this, believing the athlete’s worth is directly connected to how they perform.

When the athlete can help this part relax and understand the individual’s worth is not related to how well the athlete does, athletes often report feeling a new freedom and joy in their sport, as opposed to the pressure and negativity they were experiencing previously. As a result of this part relaxing and the pressure being released, the athlete is more likely to perform well.

Parts that Believe It’s Better Not to Be Confident

More frequently seen in female athletes, this type of part can show up in male athletes as well. It’s often a belief that being confident equals being arrogant, obnoxious, or unfeminine. It works to keep the individual modest, believing that is more attractive and helpful for the individual than embracing confidence. It can be an uphill battle for this part to change without understanding the part’s experiences and point of view first. But with the IFS model, a relationship with the part can change how it views confidence.

Parts that Remember Injuries

After an injury, a part may decide it needs to prevent that injury from happening again and do its best to deter the athlete from any activity that might cause that problem again. For example, an athlete recovering from a shoulder injury may feel anxious as they ramp up the yardage again. Most of the time, this part won’t cause sabotage, just caution, which can be helpful. But on occasion a part will go too far in trying to protect the athlete.

For instance, I worked with an athlete who had fainted once and afterward would have panic attacks and have to get out of the pool when the athlete pushed herself enough to breathe hard. A part would jump in to protect her from fainting again and drive her anxiety up until she felt she had to get out of the pool. The part needed to be accessed, listened to, and educated that breathing hard didn’t mean she would faint. Trying to fight with the part or reasoning with it does not work.

Conscious and Unconscious Parts at Work

While one might be aware of the clash of parts over whether to eat the chocolate cake or not, often the conflict is below the surface in the unconscious mind. Signs of an unconscious part at work might be feeling anxious, doubtful thoughts popping up, or tension in an athlete’s body. The athlete may have some awareness of what that part believes – e.g., this four00 Individual Medley is going to hurt. Where the athlete is likely to get stuck is how to deal with it.

How do Most Athletes Deal with Their Potentially Sabotaging Parts?

As demonstrated with the above examples, how athletes cope with their parts is pivotal. Most athletes are unaware of how their negative thoughts and feelings are generated from their parts. This lack of awareness makes it hard to develop an effective strategy for managing them.

The most common strategies athletes self-employ are: (1) to forcibly squash down and ignore a negative part (a thought, feeling, voice, image, or sensation in the body) or (2) to fight against it with reasoning. These approaches may work occasionally or for a short time, but they are not sustainable ways to deal with these potentially sabotaging parts because they don’t go to the core of the issue.

When an athlete tries to suppress negative thoughts, feelings, or images, it is much like someone trying to hold a beach ball underwater. It takes mental energy to keep it down, and eventually, it will pop up. If the athletes fight against it with reason, it causes an internal struggle that uses up mental energy, creates anxiety, and causes physical tension in the body. It depends on willpower, a finite energy, to win the battle with the part.

As many athletes can attest, neither of these is truly a winning strategy.

A third, more recently developed strategy is to be present with these seemingly negative parts (the thoughts, feelings, images, etc.) that are uncomfortable and to accept them. While this is an improvement and it often lessens the intensity of the part, it still isn’t a completely reliable method either, as the negative part may still cause sabotage if it feels the need to protect the individual from a risk, or mental or physical pain.

How Does Traditional Sports Psychology Deal with These Parts?

Traditional sports psychology strategies only work on the surface of these issues. They teach positive self-talk without dealing with the concerns and points of view of the parts creating the negative self-talk. They teach relaxation methods without dealing with the parts that are causing tension and anxiety. These strategies sound good but often don’t work so well when applied in pressure situations because they ignore the root causes of the issues.

How IFS Work Is Different

In my practice, I offer practical tools like those strategies mentioned above, as well as the deeper work through IFS and Brainspotting (see separate article on Brainspotting). With this combination, the strategies are much more likely to be effective in real pressure situations. Some of the benefits include:

Self-Talk Changes

One of the noticeable results of an athlete working with the IFS model is that self-talk changes. Without forcing positive thinking, the athlete learns a new way of communicating with their internal parts that does not cause conflict – the way imposing positive thinking on top of a part that wants to create negative thinking does. Instead, the athlete understands the part’s perspective and how to work with it in a productive way.

For example, an athlete may be behind the blocks waiting for her 100 freestyle race and find herself thinking “what if I fail?” Imposing positive self-talk or relaxation exercises may help to some degree, or it may not work at all. Being present with the fear may calm it down some, but it’s still there trying to do its job. Being able to access the part that is the source of that thought and having the capacity to work with it, is a whole different level of psychological skill.

The Athlete Doesn’t Depend on Willpower as Much

Using willpower to forcibly try to suppress or overcome a part is exhausting and not easy to do. It’s a constant battle. Once an athlete understands how to work in the IFS model, it’s no longer a battle. It becomes a collaboration. It does not drain mental energy, trigger anxiety, or cause the muscles to tighten. That’s not to say an athlete will have zero nerves. Athletes put themselves out there by taking a risk each time they race so some level of nervousness is expected from that. But the nerves will be a lot more manageable when an athlete’s parts are in alignment with his or her goals.

Parts Don’t Run Amok Sabotaging Performance

When an anxious or fearful part is triggered, it hijacks the athlete’s internal system, and the athlete becomes focused on the fears that are being raised by that part. It takes a lot of work to switch focus as fear is a powerful motivator and naturally draws our attention. For many athletes, they are not able to let go of the fear and approach their race from a fearful mindset, which is not conducive to performance, e.g., racing not to lose or not to fail, rather than racing to win.

With IFS, athletes learn how to calm down and work with their anxious or fearful parts. Once some skill has developed in this process, the athlete can recognize when they are triggered, access the part, and communicate with it to reduce the anxiety. Depending on the situation, the athlete may be able to reduce the anxiety to a more manageable level, to channel the anxiety into excitement or confidence, or the anxiety might go away completely.

IFS Parts Work Applies Outside the Pool as Well

Athlete’s parts may also be at work sabotaging them when they struggle with eating healthy, getting enough sleep, or procrastinating. For example, an athlete may have a part that wants to stay up late socializing in the dorm with friends and another part that wants to get to sleep on time so they will be rested for morning practice. Both parts have a legitimate positive intention for the athlete, but if the athlete doesn’t know how to work with their parts, the one that will hurt their athletic performance may win out.

Or perhaps, there is an anxious part that won’t let the athlete sleep the night before a big competition or between prelims and finals. With mental discipline and relaxation exercises, the athlete may succeed in pushing that part down. But like the beach ball underwater, it will pop up again. It hasn’t been directly addressed but rather temporarily worked around. IFS provides a method of directly addressing the concerned part and calming it down.

IFS Goes Deep to Unleash Full Potential

IFS for athletes is not a quick fix. It takes time and mental energy to create and maintain the relationships between the parts and with Self (our innate capacity for love and wisdom). This article is merely an introduction. Using IFS well is an advanced psychological skill. It is nuanced and can be confusing or overwhelming at first. It takes time to learn the processes, to solidify new dynamics between the parts and to reinforce new roles parts may adopt.

The effort is well worth it. It changes the dynamics of the athlete’s inner psyche, and it gives the athlete new, powerful tools for when a part may get triggered during a pressure situation like the Olympic Trials. IFS for athletes is an effective method of getting all an athlete’s parts to work together to unleash the athlete’s full potential.

Read Two Summarized Studies On IFS:


Susannah Muller is a former competitive swimmer who competed at an international level. She was a member of the US National Team multiple years and was World-Ranked multiple years (100- & 200-meter Backstroke and 200-meter Individual Medley). She competed at both the 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials, as well as the US Swimming 1986 World Game Trials and was a finalist at the World University Games in 1989. 

She grew up swimming for a small team in Northern California, Indian Valley Aquatic Club (IVAC). She then swam at Stanford University for two years under George Haines and two years under Richard Quick, both Head Olympic Coaches.

She was a 14-time All-American swimmer for Stanford University and was Co-Captain of the varsity team her Senior year. She was a multiple finalist at NCAAs and a member of a NCAA Division I Championship 4 x 100 free relay. In her Junior year Stanford won the NCAA Division I Championship Title and in her Senior year she was the Pac-10 Conference Champion in the 200-yard Backstroke.

She went on to UCLA School of Law where she graduated second in her class. After eight years practicing law, she went back to school to become a licensed therapist and sports psychology consultant. 

As a sports psychology consultant, she has worked with athletes of all levels, in many different sports, from age-group kids to Olympic medalists. She works with the Mission Viejo Pro group as well as the Sandpipers of Nevada. 

She uses a cutting-edge, integrative, unique sports psychology program and is always seeking new ways to help her clients achieve more of their potential. Her goal is to help the athlete perform better, enjoy their sport more and to excel in their life beyond the field/pool/court.

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