Ann Arbor’s Road to Playoffs… and Impostor Syndrome

Each fall, the top 60 teams in the WFTDA are invited to compete in playoffs. The current structure involves two divisions; Division 1 (D1) includes teams ranked 1-40, and Division 2 (D2) includes teams ranked 41-60. The 2016 rankings were just released, and the Ann Arbor Brawlstars will make their playoff debut in D1! So what was the motto of the team that jumped over D2? You might be surprised to know that it was, “We thought we were going to lose all these games.” 

Going into the 2016 season, we were determined to make D2 after ending the 2015 season just below the threshold. We were excited to have a second chance at D2 playoffs in our home state, no less! Our captains planned a challenging season to help us get there, and we went into this season thinking we were going to lose. A lot.

Instead, we consistently beat predictions; for example, we swept Skate to Thrill when we were projected to lose all three bouts. When it was first suggested that we might be looking at D1 this year, we were flattered but dismissive. But then D1 started looking real—maybe a little too real. In first talking about the possibility of D1 during a team meeting, our captain (Slamlet) asked how many of us felt that we had accidentally ended up on a really good roller derby team. We all raised our hands. I looked around and laughed as I realized that the Brawlstars suffer from impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon to reflect that it is not a psychological disorder) occurs when people perceive the appearance of success but feel that those successes were not earned or are otherwise undeserved. They might attribute success to external features (such as luck or timing), rather than internal features (such as skill or ability). As a result of this mismatch between external appearance and internal experience, an individual feels like a fraud and worries about being revealed as such. You might think a team that “accidentally” shot up in the rankings enough to skip D2 would be excited by and pleased about their success. Instead, we felt like impostors pretending to be good at roller derby.

Two facts are comforting. First, impostor syndrome or phenomenon is very common. People often have this impostor feeling during transitions and after success. Keeping that in mind is challenging, though, because a feature of impostor syndrome is feeling isolated in inadequacy. Everyone else seems to be truly successful, but you are faking it.

Even very successful people have this experience:

  • “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” —Maya Angelou, award-winning author and poet 
  • “Part of you knows you’re not as good as you’re pretending to be.” —Dr. Henry March, neurosurgeon and author
  • “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.” —Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization
(... and neither does anyone else!)

(... and neither does anyone else!)

Another way to think of impostor syndrome is that you know your own mind (and doubts about your ability) but can’t see inside others’ minds (and their doubts about their ability). Even though it is easier to see others’ accomplishments than their self-doubt, we engage in social comparison between our insides and others’ outsides. Thus, it is quite common for successful people to feel like impostors.

Second, we are prone to cognitive bias in our assessments of our own knowledge and ability. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that people who have little knowledge or ability are less able to recognize their shortcomings. Thus, people with very little skill are likely to overestimate and perceive themselves as skilled. On the other hand, experts have developed enough knowledge and skill to recognize their shortcomings and may underestimate their skill.

The Dunning-Kruger effect can help understand why we feel like impostors—we are self-aware enough to know that we have areas in which we can improve. The Brawlstars ended the 2016 season with 11 wins and one loss, but we are “sore winners.” Even after winning and beating projections, we think that we could have done better and discuss our next goals. In other words, we are perfectionists. Against a standard of 100% perfection, we feel like failures and yet keep striving for that unattainable standard. Perfectionism and feeling like an impostor seem to go hand in hand.

For any skater, I think understanding impostor syndrome can be helpful. I have heard skaters in our league say that they want to be good at roller derby, like the Brawlstars. My teammates and I have to tell them that the Brawlstars are thinking the same thing. Supportive comments could help others internalize their successes, along with not letting people minimize those successes. We can take responsibility not just for our failures but also our successes!

Earlier, I said that the Brawlstars suffer from impostor syndrome, but it may be better to say that we suffer for impostor syndrome. It makes us work harder and strive to improve, and we are better (individually and as a team) as a result. Likely everyone feels like an impostor at times; this feeling is only a problem if you let it limit you. So we will continue to roll with it… all the way to D1!

Recommended reading about Impostor Syndrome:

Dr. Maims U is a blocker and pivot for the Ann Arbor Brawlstars. Off the track, she's a social psychologist and professor.

Posted on July 13, 2016 .

Mental Toughness and Roller Derby

A few weeks back, I had a really terrible scrimmage night. I was trying new things every jam, but none of them were working, and I felt like I was in the penalty box more than I was on the track. I couldn't shake anything off, couldn't leave any jam behind. Each trip around in the ref lane piled onto the next until I almost burst, snapping at the three different NSOs who told me I was soon to foul out of scrimmage. I couldn't let it go, and every time I took the track again after leaving the sin bin, I came in too hot, guns blazing, something to prove, which inevitably landed me right back where I started for another sit-down.

Everybody knows that everybody has bad days. You know it, but that doesn't always mean you can convince yourself of it in the midst of one, especially if you are prone to anxiety and overthinking like I am. It takes a certain skill set to be able to take a deep breath and evaluate what is making you feel bad in the moment, rather than later after a shower and a beer and some time away. That skill set is often referred to as "mental toughness," or the ability to roll with the punches when your brain gets to kicking its own ass.

Roller derby has taught me how to translate this mental toughness into the way I deal with problems or just all-around shitty days in my everyday life. Mental toughness is something athletes talk about a lot, and not just in roller derby. My team has recently passed around a copy of Mind Gym, a book about inner excellence in athletics. This season, I’ve been trying to figure out what it means to be on the teams that I’m on, and how to find my next steps in my derby career. One of the ways I’ve been trying to do that is by assessing what derby has taught me so far. Roller derby has taught me that you can do anything for two minutes. And then on to the next two minutes. Roller derby has taught me that when that whistle blows, either to start or to end the jam, everything else can (and should) fall away. Roller derby has taught me how to recenter myself in the midst of the chaos, because in gameplay you can't escape for a few quiet breaths alone in the bathroom—unless, of course it is halftime, in which case you should absolutely take advantage of that opportunity. 

One of the final parts of mental toughness that I've picked up through roller derby is the idea of the zen bench. In derby, it's the concept that when you're getting ready to play your next jam, you probably shouldn't watch the game or let yourself get riled up about it. Focus inward, take a deep breath, and plan some small thing that you yourself want to do in the next jam. This is much easier said than done, of course, but roller derby has taught me that it is ok for things to be hard, and for you not to be great at things that are easy to say. Because at the end of the day, mental toughness isn’t about being tough all the time. It’s about the reset. And you can do anything for two minutes, especially if you learn how to reset yourself.

Sonnet Boom is a Bruiser/Brawlternate who would write and roller skate at the same time if it were feasible, but her trainers keep telling her not to.

Posted on June 29, 2016 .

There’s No Crying in Roller Derby (Except, for Me, There is SO Much Crying in Roller Derby)

The immortal words of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own.

I’ve climbed mountains, flipped tires, put out wildfires, and taken skate bits to several tender body parts. I’m totally tough! I am also not a very sentimental person. I don’t get sappy at weddings; in fact, I despise them. I don’t cry about babies or at cute animal videos or those Sarah McLachlan commercials with dogs. I rarely cry during movies (unless it’s The Land Before Time – hello, saddest movie ever!?). But I CRY AT ROLLER DERBY all the time!!! 

The important thing to note is that while I may be physically tough, mental toughness is a whole different game. From sitting on a bench and not playing in an entire bout but remaining a calm, supportive, positive teammate, to being the powerful, reliable jammer who gets put in at the last jam and is expected to turn the score around, and everything in between. Roller derby requires a lot of mental toughness. Sometimes just getting to practice is a huge mental struggle. 

Where are my fellow Frustrated Criers at? I am the captain of the Frustration-Related Crying Team. Frustrated Crying is a vicious cycle. You’re at practice learning a new drill (or maybe it’s an old one that you’ve been working on all season) and NOTHING is going right. You’re trying really hard, but things just aren’t clicking. You’re getting frustrated! You feel like this isn’t working now and it’s NEVER going to work. The world is ending. Your eyeballs are getting hot. Are they wet? F*&%, yes, they are. You’re CRYING! What are you, a BABY? This is ROLLER DERBY practice! Then you get frustrated that you’re Frustrated Crying and the tears just Will. Never. Stop. Your teammates are all like, “It’s okay! We’re awesome! We’ll get this!” Don’t they understand that the world is ending because this drill isn’t working out? More crying. Crying on repeat. Crying on crying on crying. It’s insane. 

(Shout out to teammates everywhere who deal with Frustrated Criers on the weekly! You’re saints!)

What helps, on occasion, is to isolate myself for a moment and try to get my mind somewhere else. Go to a corner of the warehouse, step outside, skate some laps and try to clear my doomsday brain. I’ve also found that closing my eyes and breathing deeply help to calm the manic thoughts that catalyze the Frustrated Crying cycle. Sometimes the only way to get over it is to throw myself back into practice with tears rolling down my face, my lip quivering over my mouth guard, and re-focus my energy to the task at hand.

Just remember that crying in roller derby doesn’t mean you’re an ineffective skater or a bad teammate or that you’re not tough enough. You’re probably pretty awesome. You just might have a harder time processing glitches or finding that positive outlook. I know that I need to keep working on my mental toughness and it will probably always be a goal of mine. Good luck on your journey, fellow Frustrated Criers. 

Perhaps like our hero, Littlefoot, in The Land Before Time, who looks to the treestar as a symbol of hope and perseverance, I should look to the derbystar to instill in me the same confidence and optimism.

Lethal is a skater for the Brawlstars.

Posted on June 22, 2016 .

It's OK to Be OK at Roller Derby

Photo by Andrew Potter.

Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This statement rings as true in the world of roller derby as it does everywhere else. Derby is full of strong people, but even with all that strength, we can still have our anxieties. We compare ourselves to others, even though our journeys are not identical. Sometimes, we refuse to celebrate or even acknowledge our own progress because it isn’t as great as another’s. Rather than compare ourselves with where we were yesterday, last month, or last year, we instead compare ourselves to those we wish to emulate.

I love to tell my fresh meat skaters “own your progress.” Freshies tend to be quick to beat themselves up when they struggle with mastering a new skill (or the dreaded five minute endurance lap count). They fixate on the things that they cannot get the hang of and forget all about the things they can do now, things that they couldn’t do when they first put on skates, or how much faster, lower, harder they can perform these skills. Not meeting the minimum skills requirement for scrimmage safety is more often dubbed “failure” rather than a measure of progress. That’s horsefeathers, rubbish, bunk, poppycock!

After I didn’t pass my minimum skills assessment at the end of fresh meat boot camp, I was assigned a mentor to help build me up before my second chance at the assessment. Roof’s On Fire (retired Brawlstar and now a mom of two super cute bundles) gave me some advice that still resonates with me today. She told me that this derby journey is MINE. It doesn’t have to mimic the other freshies, my future teammates, or anyone else’s. She told me not to waste mental energy worrying whether I was attending as many practices as Skater-A or that I can’t complete as many laps as Skater-B. What she said was most important, was that I accomplish MY goals – not someone else’s. It seems so simple, yet so many skaters struggle with this concept (even well beyond fresh meat boot camp).

I have a lot of admiration for our Brawlstars. I am proud to be a member of a league that is climbing the ranks in flat track roller derby. I am honest enough to admit that I’d love to be able to do some of the amazing things they are able to do on skates….but I am also honest enough to admit that I might/might not have the physical ability and definitely don’t have the level of dedication or the time to devote to achieving those things. Many (most, even) skaters are hyper-competitive. However, being competitive does not mean that you have to strive for nirvana (read “World Cup”). You can compete at a level that fits your skill or that fits your life. I’m thrilled that I get to do both with the Vigilantes. 

We can all contribute to the advancement of our teams, our league and ourselves. I like to think that what I might lack on the track, I more than make up for in other areas. I use my administrative skills in my role as Co-Captain of the Vigilantes and as Head of Training for A2D2. I use my nurturing personality and desire to help people see their own potential as our league’s fresh meat trainer. I can be OK at roller derby and still be a great asset to our league.

Skim MILF is co-captain of the Ypsilanti Vigilantes and way more awesome than your mom. 

Posted on June 15, 2016 .

In Defense of Derby Names

There’s a little bit of a face-off going on in the derby-verse right now as more and more people start taking our sport seriously: Derby Names vs. Real Names. At the height of its popularity and before WFTDA, roller derby was very theatrical. There were lots of costumes and silly or provocative names, and those are some of the things that people remember most about the sport’s past. Nowadays, skaters are opting out of the outfits and names for more serious athletic clothing and real names on the backs of their jersey. These are very important changes for derby in the competitive sports world, but I think derby names still play a very important role today.

I’m Shelby Leksche, and I play roller derby. One of the first reactions I usually get from people is, “Roller derby? Aren’t you too nice for that?” And I thought they were right. Shelby is pretty quiet, respectful to her peers and bosses, and plays Harvest Moon in her free time. Derby is scary. It’s scary for the vets and especially scary for the newbies. You think, “There is no way I can do that.” But you come up with a name that means something to you, and you have a headspace to call on when you think YOU can’t do the thing. Cersei Slammister is the queen and she’s going to do whatever she wants. She is strong, graceful, disciplined, confident, and all the other adjectives that Shelby is not. Eventually it stops being “Cersei can totally do that when I can’t,” and becomes “I am Cersei, and I am doing that thing.”

The first moment I really felt that change in attitude wasn’t until my first RollerCon in 2015, a year after I put on skates. I was watching a bout on the banked track they had there and thinking, “That looks terrifying! There’s no way I could do that.” I had to laugh at myself right away because that was absurd! I already played roller derby! Nothing is out of the realm of possibility, and Cersei is really what made that possible. 

This confidence has bled into other aspects of my life. On pretty much any day of the week, Shelby would rather eat ice cream than go on a run. Cersei is going to run an extra mile AND eat that ice cream, because nobody is going to tell her what she can and cannot do. Shelby’s coworker is lazy and gets away with it, but Cersei is going to call them out. While Shelby would let backhanded comments float away, Cersei is going to speak up for those not able to. Eventually you become this person you had no idea you could be, and the people around you take notice. 

Roller derby has nothing to do with how nice you are. It has everything to do with how determined you are to kick ass and kick your own ass. It requires determination, strength, and courage. Even just the sound of most derby names seriously pack a punch just in the way they roll off your tongue. Alter egos can give you the strength, willpower, and courage to do terrifying, new, and difficult things, but it’s important to remember that the person facing all of these challenges is still you.

Cersei Slammister is a skater for the Ypsilanti Vigilantes.

Posted on June 8, 2016 .