Derby Dos – and Don’ts

A friend recently posted a list on Facebook that got me thinking about what it means to play, ref, and coach roller derby, especially junior roller derby, and what it takes to be effective in those roles. Here is her list (paraphrased and generalized):

1. Focus on developing relationships and skating abilities
1a. Patience is a virtue
1b. There are no shortcuts
2. It’s important to be able to assess yourself realistically
3. Safety is more important than image
4. Alcohol is bad while in training (at least not RIGHT after working out/intense practice; and not ‘the day of’ or ‘the day before’, either)
5. Injured skaters should NEVER be encouraged to play against doctor’s advice

I think she hit the nail on the head with each of these points; I’m just sorry that, for her, learning them cost a lot of pain (including a broken bone – ouch!) and heartache.

1. Focus on developing relationships and skating abilities

1a. Patience is a virtue
1b. There are no shortcuts

In order to play roller derby, you have to be able to skate. You cannot and should not be playing unless and until you exhibit some basic skating ability. If you push yourself too fast or too hard, or push someone else, or let your friends and teammates push you, and find yourself playing beyond your ability, you will hurt yourself or someone else.

There is an ordered list of skills* that all beginning skaters must learn in order to play roller derby. If you try to cross over before you can balance on one foot, you will fall down; notice that falling properly without hurting yourself is #1 on the list. (The WFTDA set of “minimum skills” is just that – minimum. You cannot pass your minimum skills and immediately start playing derby at the WTFDA Championships, or you will die.) Mastering this list does not happen overnight, and the only way to improve is to spend time – a lot of time – on your skates. If this prospect doesn’t appeal, you probably aren’t meant to play roller derby.

*This list covers from beginning skills up to very advanced skills, and I do not mean to imply that you need to be able to jump backward in order to play positional derby.

The JRDA level system is a perfect way to encourage new skaters to learn, without forcing them past their abilities. By splitting beginners up according to their abilities, new skaters get to play derby with others at their ability level, which means they are a lot less likely to get hurt, but they still get to play, which means they’re more likely to stick around and continue to improve.

Roller derby also introduces you to a group of strong, independent, amazing people – an instant support group. Focus on deepening those relationships just as much as you focus on learning to skate – the people who play derby, by and large, are some of the best people in the world, and it is a shame to simply skate in silent circles with those people for weeks or years, when you can be developing strong friendships that will outlast your athletic careers by decades. Chat before, during, and after practice, friend them on Facebook, learn about these new friends – and seek out or create environments that facilitate the growth of your friendships (new and old), both at practice and every day, instead of stifling them.

2. It’s important to be able to assess yourself realistically

One of the hardest things to do is to take a step back and assess your abilities objectively. “How do I know when I’m ready to step up to the next level of play?” is a hard question to answer for yourself.

Sometimes, you can ask a coach or another skater if you’re ready. Sometimes, your body lets you know – pain is one way your body tells you that you’re operating outside your ability, or that something is wrong. Fix that hot spot in your skate before it becomes a blister – yes, you’ll be out of the drill for 5 minutes, but better missed 5 minutes than skating with pain for a week or more while the blister heals. Other times, your gut is telling you to wait, and you have to respect yourself enough to listen to it.

For junior skaters, we enforce skills and rules testing between each level for exactly this reason, and in Minor Threat, our coaches are extremely critical. We know that by being hard on the skaters during testing, we’re keeping them safe during gameplay. We also enforce a code of conduct for our skaters that includes this statement: “I will not perform, on or off the track, any activity which I feel may endanger my health and safety, and will report any pressure to perform such activities to a member of the League leadership.”

Bottom line: if you as a skater are even a little bit hesitant to do something, stop. Injury will result if you ignore that hesitation.

3. Safety is more important than image

As a ref, I have to expand this one: Safety is more important than ANYTHING. The WFTDA rules state that referees must call off a jam for anything that presents a safety hazard (Section 9.2.6.2). As referees, we are reminded before each bout that safety is our primary concern – the safety of the skaters, of the fans, and our own safety. That’s why the rules are in place – that’s why they’re 50 pages long! And that’s why, when your coach tells you to do something illegal because “the refs won’t notice”, you should stop and reassess whether you really want to hurt someone by continuing to listen to that kind of advice.

If you face a choice, as an individual or as a league, between anything – appearance, price, image – ANYTHING – and safety, STOP and be safe! It may not make you “cool” right now, but it dang sure will make you look better in the long run. Karma’s a bitch that way.

4. Alcohol is bad while in training (at least not RIGHT after working out/intense practice; and not ‘the day of’ or ‘the day before’, either)

Skating while impaired – drunk, high, or distracted – is just as dangerous as driving in those conditions. Yes, you’re only moving at 15 MPH, but you don’t have a 2-ton car with millions of safety features protecting your fragile body either. Consuming alcohol right after practice – when you’re already dehydrated – is a good way to drink more than you meant to. As an athlete, you should consider carefully what you put into your body at all times; eat the right things at the right times, and your body will perform better. This is hardly controversial, but it can be hard to pass up that juicy hamburger for the turkey sandwich, especially at first. (As your body adjusts to the diet and exercise, the hamburger stops looking so appetizing, believe me.)

5. Injured skaters should NEVER be encouraged to play against doctor’s advice

When you’re injured – seriously or not – you necessarily take a step back from skating. Unless you’re a fool who doesn’t value your fully-functioning body (I know a few), you take some time off to heal. As you regain full functionality of your injured body part, you will find that you’ve lost ground on skates, and have to work to regain that lost muscle, and many times, to overcome the hesitation engendered by fear of re-injury.

While you’re recovering, you need to respect your current limits. If you can’t walk on that ankle, you sure can’t skate on it, no matter how much your teammates want to see you. Unfortunately, many derby skaters discover that, as supportive as their teammates are, the friendship may not extend to support during the period of injury – your team is happy to see you when you come back, but not willing to come over and sit with you while you’re off-skates. That lack of support may lead you to go back to where your friends are – to get back onto your skates as quickly as possible. Some skaters or coaches may actively encourage or even “require” that you get on your skates before you and your doctor agree that you are ready to do so.

When that happens, you have to ask yourself whether you place higher value on that “friend”, or on your ability to use whatever body part you injured, now and in the future. No one and nothing is worth your ability to walk, or to raise your arm above your head. Your doctor knows you want to get back on your skates. His job is to make sure that when you do, you stay on them. Listen to him.

Roller derby is a game. It’s not life-or-death, it’s not about your family, your paycheck or your sacred honor. At the end of the night, we are all a part of it because it keeps us fit, introduces us to a lot of great people, and above all because it’s fun.

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