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 .