Roller derby’s role in fighting impostor syndrome

Hosted by Neil Amato

It’s not every day that you come across a finance leader who competes in roller derby. Jen Gardner, CPA, vice president of finance at Copley Consulting Group in Rhode Island, shares how taking up the sport grew her leadership skills and helped in her fight against impostor syndrome.

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • A brief explanation of the sport of roller derby.
  • Why Gardner previously felt uncomfortable speaking up at company meetings.
  • How roller derby has helped Gardner with decision-making.
  • The ways impostor syndrome sometimes holds us back.
  • Why it’s important to accept praise when it’s given.

Play the episode below:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a JofA senior editor, at

Sponsored by:

Chase Ink


Neil Amato: Jen Gardner, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being on.

Jen Gardner: Thanks for having me.

Amato: One topic we’re going to talk about today is blockers, pivots, jammers. Another one we’ll address is impostor syndrome. So first, I’m wondering if you could tell me what the term impostor syndrome means to you.

Gardner: So, impostor syndrome to me means I often feel like kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, like maybe I’ve gotten this far just kind of flying under the radar, but at some point someone will figure out that I’m not really supposed to be here. I don’t know. It’s like a little nagging fear kind of that I don’t necessarily belong, even though, you know, logically I know I do, but it’s a little fear that maybe holds me back a little bit.

Amato: Can you point to a reason or two why you felt this is something that’s affected you either in the past or now?

Gardner: Yeah. So I think sometimes it happens when you feel a little bit like a fish out of water. For example, in my current job I came into a management team where I was the only woman and I had significantly fewer years of experience than everyone else, so I was definitely feeling maybe a little unsure of myself, and I thought they were probably all wondering what on earth is she doing here? She’s not qualified to be here.

Amato: And so that didn’t just affect you at work. I guess it also was a roller derby thing. Tell me about how maybe you got your start in roller derby and how maybe you were scared to death when you first got out there.

Gardner: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I grew up figure skating so, you know, I eventually found roller derby. I saw there was kind of a clinic where they would teach you how to play and I thought that sounded like the coolest thing ever. So, you know, I showed up but there’s all these skaters who have years of experience and they’re amazing at what they do and you kind of feel like a baby giraffe when you first show up, and at least the first year I think of doing it, I feel like a baby giraffe. You wonder how you’re ever going to fit in with these women who are so good at what they do, so it’s definitely affected me there as well.

Amato: First, I want to go back. You said ice skating. I believe in a previous podcast I’ve listened to you as a guest, you said everyone in your house played a winter sport, had to do a winter sport. Can you tell me something about that? And then also the crossover — how difficult is it to go from skating on blades on ice to roller skating?

Gardner: Yeah. So everyone’s in my mom’s generation either figure-skated or played hockey and then, you know, me and my brother and my cousins, everyone in my generation kind of did the same. It was just something we all, you know, trucked up to the ice rink every Saturday and, you know, before school, after school for everyone’s practices, so it was just something, I don’t know, we all just did, I guess. So I have a lot of years of experience on the ice and I think it translates really well to roller skating because it’s very similar edging and footwork, kind of similar boots. Actually, it’s the same company that makes my figure skating boots that makes my roller derby boots — Riedell — so definitely some crossover.

Amato: OK. Yeah, so not as hard as maybe it seems. I can’t really skate at all so all of it seems difficult.

Gardner: Yeah. However, roller derby does have significantly different level of contact than figure skating does.

Amato: Yeah, sure. I mean that could be pretty dangerous actually if there was full-contact figure skating. I mean they start throwing people around and people are trying to bounce them off. That would be a little crazy.

Gardner: It sure would. It would probably look a lot like roller derby.

Amato: So, we’re going to come back to some roller derby thoughts, but I guess maybe we’re bouncing a little bit back and forth. Maybe like a roller derby bout. I don’t know.

Gardner: Yeah.

Amato: Regarding impostor syndrome, why do you think it’s something that affects you less these days?

Gardner: I think that I’ve kind of tried to recognize that it’s going on and put it in check. I think, you know, it’s the first path to solving some of your problems is admitting that you have this little nagging fear and acknowledging it and trying to figure out ways to mitigate it and kind of try to make it go away and work on your confidence, so I’ve been definitely working on that. You know, it’s just something I think about privately. I read about it. I listen to podcasts on different leadership topics or, you know, different topics that kind of help me put it — put that little fear at ease.

Amato: So is it one of those things where you have to remind yourself, like I was promoted to the VP of finance job for a reason and kind of go back and say, OK, I have to trust the people who did this and also trust my own instincts more?

Gardner: Yes. I definitely think it helps to think back to where you were and, you know, recognize that … you have this job because recognize you have value, you have a certain skill set that you’re bringing to the organization, and I think logically you know that, but it’s hard when you walk into a meeting or you’re sitting in a meeting sometimes and, you know, that little fear kind of stops me from speaking up occasionally, and then someone else says what I was thinking and I go, “Oh, I knew I was on the right track.” So you try to remember you are here for a reason and let your instincts kind of lead you and not let your fear quash your instincts.

Amato: Plenty of people have that vision in their head when they hear the words roller derby, but really unless we’ve been to such an event or know someone who’s competed in it, we don’t really know anything beyond it. Can you tell us a little bit about the sport? I mean what the goal is for each team when you go and compete.

Gardner: Sure. Yeah. It’s definitely a little different than what people are used to because there’s no ball or puck or anything involved like a lot of sports. So each team has five skaters on the track and four of those skaters are blockers, like you mentioned before, and one skater is a jammer. So the jammer is the only person who can score points, so they start behind all the blockers and when the first whistle’s blown, they take off and the blockers are trying to block the other team’s jammer. They don’t want them to get through because they score a point by passing opposing blockers.

So, you know, you’re working on trying to keep that jammer behind you and not let them pass and maybe occasionally switching over to offense and trying to help your jammer get through so they can pass the other blockers and start scoring points.

Amato: In these competitions, your position is more that of a blocker or what?

Gardner: Yeah. I definitely block primarily.

Amato: How long have you been competing in roller derby?

Gardner: I think this might be my seventh season I’m starting right now.

Amato: And so is it a summer sport? Is it year-round? Are you traveling? Tell us about how serious you take it or how serious it is in your area, which is Rhode Island.

Gardner: Sure. So we only have one league in Rhode Island. You know, we’re the smallest state. But you can kind of take it as seriously as you want. Right now I’m only on home team level, which we don’t travel at all. We just compete against other home teams within our Rhode Island league, and we have two travel teams, kind of an A level and a B level, and I have been on that in the past, and that team does travel and competes for, you know, international rankings because there’s an international governing body. I have done that, and that is almost a year-round commitment.

You have a little maybe one- or two-month offseason when you do that, but otherwise you’re pretty much on and training the whole year and traveling maybe once a month for six months out of the year, so that’s a big commitment. You kind of can take it how you want it, and I just had a daughter two years ago, so I’ve kind of slowed it down and just doing home season right now.

Amato: So why do you love it? What keeps you coming back to roller derby?

Gardner: A few reasons. Well, what kind of got me started — it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s a really great way to exercise. I have tried the gym and jogging and other things and they just don’t capture my attention long enough for me to stick with them, but it’s a really fun way to exercise. You go get to do some full-contact skating with, you know, kind of your friends, which is nice, and it’s also a really great community of women who — it’s very inclusive, welcoming to newbies, like I said, when I was a very scared new person. I always try to now as a vet welcome the new people in with open arms and help them kind of learn and grow, and it’s a good community to belong to.

Amato: So are there things that the competition or the camaraderie of your teammates has taught you that you can apply to work?

Gardner: Definitely. I think anyone who’s been on a sports team knows that there are certainly different types of captains and coaches with different ways of motivating the team, so I’ve definitely as a teammate learned what type of leaders I prefer to work under and which styles I don’t particularly like and I try to apply that to my team as a team leader at work and I think that helps. That’s probably why, you know, when you’re applying to colleges, they’re looking for you to have some of these outside activities besides just academics. I think it helps you become more well-rounded and, you know, help with those kind of more soft skills that I think you need to succeed.

Amato: Yeah. I definitely had a former supervisor who said that one of the qualities they looked for was did a person play team sports, and so I definitely can see that value. And you’re not just a skater, a competitor, member of the team; you have previously been on the league’s board of directors. What did that experience teach you?

Gardner: So that was a really good experience. It was tough. So most roller derby leagues are run by the skaters. You know, we’re a volunteer organization. We actually pay a little bit to cover the costs of practice space and things like that, whatever our ticket sales don’t cover. So we’re also the people who are the employees of the organization, per se, so obviously when people found out you’re an accountant, you always get asked to be the treasurer. So I was on the board of directors for a couple of years, and I think I learned a lot about what kind of leader I wanted to be and maybe different ways to motivate people.

I know we as a board had some failures with getting things passed. Everything had to be passed by a league vote, and there were definitely certain times where we didn’t get things passed that I think would’ve been really good for the league, but we didn’t go about it the right way. So we learned some lessons about bringing people in a lot earlier in the process, giving them more of a voice, making it a little more democratic, so I think it was really good for that to happen. I mean maybe a little bit before I became a team leader at work.

Amato: Back to the on-track competition, is there like one or two moments that you’ll never forget that you can relive with teammates? You can say, “Oh, the such-and-such match or bout” or whatever? Just some quick moments that stand out to you from a competition standpoint and why they do stand out.

Gardner: Sure. I remember the final jam of the championship bout when I was somehow — so there’s supposed to be four blockers on the track for my team and somehow three of them got penalties and had to leave the track, and we’re down to the final minute of the bout and I was the last man standing as the blocker on my team, and I had to make a decision. It was a very close game. You know, it could’ve been either team’s game, and I had to make a decision about who to — do I help my jammer or do I try to block the jammer all by myself without my three teammate blockers helping me? And I remember the DJ started playing “Final Countdown.”

You know that song? Now whenever I hear that song, I think I get a little bit of PTSD. [Laughs] So, you know, it was really stressful in the moment, and, you know, you really want your team to win, but in the end we’re all friends, so it all worked out. We ended up not winning, unfortunately.

Amato: What did you pick in that scenario?

Gardner: You know, it was almost a near blackout scenario. I barely even remember what I decided. I think I tried to block the jammer because I figured if she got points, we were automatically going to lose the bout, so I figured — I think she was coming first, so I tried to block her. I don’t think I was extremely successful, being only one person.

Amato: You feel like — I don’t want to put words in your mouth — but that you’ve gotten to be a better manager because of time spent as both a board member and a competitor in roller derby?

Gardner: Yeah. I definitely think so. You know, I’ve kind of honed what I like about other people’s management styles and I’ve tried to take out what I don’t like. You know, you try to be more of that democratic leadership style and less autocratic, trying to bring people into the decision-making. You know, all right, what are we going to do in this jam? How do we want to strategize right before we get on the track? Not just tell people this is what I think we should do but what — let’s all agree on kind of a path here.

Amato: What about managing yourself? What did you learn about yourself, about your strengths and weaknesses in this exposure to roller derby?

Gardner: Oh, that’s a good question. I think that I learned that one of the biggest things you can do to become successful is just keep showing up and keep working hard. I definitely have had a lot of moments of fear where you kind of want to hold back and you’re not quite sure, but I think those moments of uncomfortableness, you have to dive into those and kind of try to, you know, face them because it’s a muscle. I think your confidence is a muscle. If you don’t try to face those fears, you’re just always going to let them kind of rule you. So I try to just keep showing up, keep working hard.

Amato: So the discussion of strengths and weaknesses leads back logically to impostor syndrome or trying to diminish it, mitigate it. I guess if you have a handle on what you’re good at and maybe what you need to work on, can that help you feel maybe less like a fraud, like an impostor?

Gardner: I think so. I think it’s important to, like we talked about before, chart your success, if you can see that you have grown or identify those strengths you have now that help you. I like to with my staff — we recently hired a new staff and the person who had been the newest member, I had her train the now new team member. And she came up to me and said, “You know, I didn’t realize how much I knew until I started training someone else and teaching them everything else I knew.” I kind of did that on purpose, because I had a more experienced person that could’ve trained her, but I thought it would help the person to realize what they knew that they didn’t realize, so I try to remember that.

Amato: Yeah, I think that’s a good lesson. You’re kind of empowering the trainer who didn’t maybe think they were ready to train and now they probably feel more comfortable and confident to do it better the next time.

Gardner: Yeah, definitely.

Amato: Are there some tips you’d offer someone who is feeling like an impostor?

Gardner: Sure. I think that accepting praise is a great thing to do. I think especially women, we tend to defer when we get a compliment and kind of continue putting ourselves down a little bit, but I think if you accept it and let it validate your strengths that would be great. Like we talked about before, chart your success and recognize how far you have come, and I think exercising the muscle that is your confidence is a great thing to do. I think it was Sheryl Sandberg — I think it was her who talked about that if you’re afraid to do something — like I have a fear when I go to the management meetings at work a little bit. I’m a little bit afraid to speak up. I feel like they have so many more years of experience than me that what could I possibly have to offer?

But, you know, so something like that, if you’re afraid to do it, then you push yourself to start doing it. Every time you do it, you kind of learn to build that confidence and you build that confidence muscle, kind of like any other muscles. So I think that is a big one that I’ve personally been working on, and trying to think back to the first few management meetings that I had when I started with the company and, you know, four, four-and-a-half years later how much more I participate now. So I’ve actually been working on self-reflection a lot for the last year or two to work towards kind of the C-suite eventually. You know, it’s something you have to work on, I think.

Amato: Jen, thank you so much for being on the podcast. This was a lot of fun today.

Gardner: Yeah, it was. Thank you.