Coaching/Training

Leadership in Roller Derby, Part 3 (Fucking Finally)

This is part three of a super long post that I broke into three pieces.  I suggest you read at least part one, found here.  If you don’t want to, that’s fine. I respect your shitty life choices.  Have fun reading!

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6. Gossip is going to happen. Tune into it, don’t contribute to it, and use it to inform how you deal with league issues.

First off, let’s be clear about something: gossip is not inherently bad. It can be a positive thing in an organization in that it reinforces social bonds, relieves tension, communicates and reinforces norms and provides context specific information (Michaelson, Iverson, Waddington, 2010). However gossip is something that many leaders get hung up on as a solely negative thing, and the absolute wrong way to deal with it is to tell people to stop talking about problems. Aside from that completely undoing the benefits of gossip, it never actually works. This is important so I’m going to bold it: Telling people to stop talking about something NEVER actually results in them not talking about it. The gossip just becomes more pervasive, more toxic, and manifests as other problems. It also causes those who are not gossiping to view leadership and conflict averse, or in other words unable to confront and solve problems effectively. (Quast, 2013)

Organizational gossip is actually a great way for leadership to increase their awareness of the mood in an organization or individual. Being aware of a negative mood is important because if left to fester, it gets worse and later becomes a bigger problem. As a leader it is important to not contribute to the gossip, but still be aware of it. A good leader will use this knowledge to inform future decision-making and interactions in the organization. Sometimes the gossip becomes malicious and needs to be stopped (but be careful about making that judgement, because it is often made for defensive, angry reasons), and if this is the case then there are a few ways to do this.

The absolute best solution for dealing with an individual who is gossiping maliciously is to confront the person directly in a problem-solving manner. The emphasis is on problem solving manner, because the goal is to get the person talking and hear them out. This is a first step that establishes trust so that you can work your way to problem solving. Sometimes the problem solving is as simple as a ‘thanks for sharing feelings’, and a request to bring future issues to you directly. Sometimes the issue involves lack of knowledge over league issues, and in that case you just explain the circumstances surrounding it. Sometimes you can’t explain the issues surrounding it because of confidentiality issues, so you just have to ask the skater to trust you. Notice the word trust, because if you have not established trust by taking the time to listen, they’re not going to trust you and this entire conversation will be fruitless.

If you feel the need to solve the issue with a league wide meeting, the basic format needs to be the same in that the majority of the time is spent listening. If a league spends the majority of the time listening to you talk about how the gossip is so unfair, their feelings are going unheard and will come back to haunt you later.

 

7. Be transparent as much as is ethically possible to do so

Sometimes conflict in the league centers around confidential issues and it makes a full, transparent discussion impossible to have. I understand that. If that’s the case, then you need to make clear that while you understand the feelings surrounding the issue, you’re not able to talk about the details.

This is a difficult line to walk, because divulging too much can come across like bullying, and divulging too little leaves everyone upset at you for being an asshole.

I’m going to immediately get into an example, because this reads like common sense but is in actuality a very difficult situation. My derby fiancé was expelled from my former league because she got black out drunk and did stupid things. No one except for the board had the full story, including my fiancé because she never remembered what she did. She was suspended, but it came as a surprise to everyone but the board, because we were only aware of individual infractions and not the full picture. My fiancé was also messaging a multitude of people in the league complaining about being treated unfairly.

I messaged a board member to voice my disagreement with the actions they were taking. My explanation and the response I got could have been better. The board member listened to me (not actively listened, though) but offered no explanation, and I felt no better about the situation. Had she said ‘I understand, but there’s a lot more to the situation than you seem to know and that I can’t tell you about. You’re going to have to trust me and the process.’, then I would have felt a lot better. Even if you can’t divulge information, you can at least acknowledge people’s feelings and frustrations with the lack of knowledge and be crystal clear about privacy concerns being an issue.

 

8. Don’t push your ideas so hard that you forget about the process

In the post mortem of my time spent in my former league, I see a clusterfuck of issues that went into the drama and conflict I experienced and witnessed. One of the conclusions that I have drawn about the problems is that for many, what they saw as a beneficial end result was more important to them than the process. If you have a fantastic idea for the league but piss off half of the league in the process, you need to re-evaluate whether or not it is worth the angst. If it is necessary, you need to be very careful about how you go about presenting and pushing your idea through. Having a round table discussion about the reasoning is a good idea, so that positives, negatives and concerns can be shared. If active listening is involved, a consensus is usually reached. Even if some people are unhappy about it, the league can at least decide, after listening, what the right decision is based on league values and priorities.

As an example, I will use the often-contentious issue of attendance requirements. When I pushed for an attendance requirement in Mainz, we made it a round table discussion at the beginning of the year wherein I explained that the lack of an attendance requirement was becoming a safety issue. My motivation was to decrease the incidence of injuries we were experiencing, and a big part of that was people coming to bout without having come to practice or worked out. I was transparent and genuine about my reasoning, gave everyone advanced notice so that they could be prepared, and was open to feedback on it. No one felt excluded or unprepared by last minute notice, and everyone agreed with the reasoning.

 

9. Leadership takes self-awareness

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen in leadership is the phenomenon of leaders thinking that everything would be fine if ‘this’ problem would go away or ‘this’ person would just fall in line and listen to the brilliant leadership happening. Sometimes this takes the form of leadership assigning a person or group of people as the problem children and pinning, consciously or not, the league’s problems and drama on this one person.   This happens often in families as well; mom wouldn’t have to be an alcoholic if you didn’t act like such an asshole and make her drink, Becky. Obviously the problems are much deeper than that, but in assigning fault to one external person or group, leaders can avoid a genuine examination of their own faults. This is also known as scapegoating or bullying, and for a more in depth examination of it you can go here. For the purpose of this blog post I’m not as interested in the mechanics of bullying as much as the steps leadership can take to stop it.

Self examination and reflection are integral to good leadership, because it allows leaders to examine their role in negative culture and improve their leadership on a continual basis. This includes reflecting independently by examining what actions caused the most problems and how different actions could have changed the outcome, and also reflection on feedback from other people. Feedback includes constructive feedback and critical, bitchy feedback. If someone is criticizing you for forming a clique and using the roster to punish people who are not in the clique, that’s feedback about a lack of transparency and a flawed rostering process. A genuine reflection of what factors contributed to that feeling, an open conversation with active listening and steps taken based on those two things are the only way those feelings can be avoided next time.

 

10. Your job isn’t to be everyone’s best friend

Leaders often have to make tough decisions within an organization. Some decisions are for the health of the organization overall, and not everyone might agree with the decision. Even if you’re transparent, collaborative, attentive, reflective and conscientious of the process, people will sometimes still be upset. That is perfectly fine, and not something to be taken as a reflection of you as a person. As a leader you have to take it in stride and not let it negatively impact the rest of the organization.

 

 

 

To my beloved Mainz Monsters: For the past two years and counting I have been lucky to be a part of our fantastic league. I don’t know whether or not you realize it, but we do all of these things already. Although I’ve been formally trained to teach adults and have been able to do so through work, doing it in the context of a sports league has been, at times, overwhelming to me. It’s an incredible relief, however, to know through your feedback that I’ve been able to contribute to the wonderful experience of this team. Not only am I profoundly lucky to have guided you to level of play you currently are at, but I feel incredibly grateful to have been a part of this wonderful team. At a time when my former league made me lose hope in the derby community, you came in and saved the sport for me.

To everyone else: However you got to this page and whatever you are looking for, I hope this rough guide is of some help to you. Of course we need to take a stand against bullying, racism, intolerance, favoritism, sexual assault, etc., but we need to take a stronger and more conscientious stand against the unique ways that we as leaders can enable or contribute to these behaviors.

I’d like to give special thanks to my friends Kiefer Sufferland and Sand Witch of the Ring City Rollergirls for giving feedback and editing this behemoth blog post for me. Typically I just half ass something, publish something, and then maybe catch mistakes if I reread it later. However this more academic and controversial post was more important to get right, so a heartfelt thank you to you both.

 

With so much love,

-Stein

 

References

Bullet 6:

Michelson, G., Van Iterson, A., & Waddington, K. (2010). Gossip in organizations: Contexts, consequences, and controversies. Group & Organization Management35(4), 371-390.

Quast, L. (October 14, 2013). New Managers: 5 ways to stop negative gossip. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2013/10/14/new-managers-5-ways-to-stop-negative-office-gossip/#69cb6026431b

 

 

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Leadership in Roller Derby, Part 2

This is part two of what ended up being a super long post that I broke into three pieces.  I suggest you read the other first, found here.  But if not, that’s cool. I’m just a person on the internet, not the police.  You do you, rebellious boo-boo, you do you.  Anywho, onto the next three bullet points!

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3. Problems are going to happen. Don’t take it as a personal attack, don’t over-regulate people’s behavior, and set the right precedent.

This is about five closely related points rolled into one, so bear with me while I unpack it.

It is incredibly important that everyone understands that problems are going to happen in any organization. They are absolutely unavoidable, and in roller derby, where people are competitive and cycle in and out of the league, there will be more problems. There are an infinite number of reasons for conflicts that no amount of discussion will ever capture adequately. Sometimes it can be stupid personal culture things (like me not saying hello or goodbye because I came from an abusive ‘you should be not be seen or heard’ household). Sometimes problems come from a difference in priorities (is your priority as a league recreation or competition?). Or difficult personalities. Or unrealistic expectations (we all know that freshie who thinks she should skate on the A-Team). The point is that human psychology and human conflict are complicated and unavoidable.

Because this is an incredibly important point, I am going to reiterate it. Taking conflict as personal feedback and therefore as personal motivation to do better is great. Taking conflict as a personal attack and becoming defensive, frenetic and assuming negative intentions about the other person is bad. When I say not to take things personally, I am referring to the latter.

In Buddhist philosophy all frustration comes from the issue of false expectations. If your expectation for conflict is that it shouldn’t happen, you’re going to be continually frustrated and be defensive about it. Conflict is an inevitable function of a group of people working together towards a goal, and should be dealt with openly by leadership.

Conflict is something you as a leader should be prepared to turn into a positive, because every conflict is a chance to demonstrate your competence and value as a leader and set a positive precedent. You can be simultaneously frustrated by aspects of the conflict but excited by the prospect of going forward to resolve it, because they’re not mutually exclusive. Again, league culture is a top down process, so if you handle conflict in a way that makes everyone feel heard and respected, people will mimic you and handle future conflicts similarly, ultimately reducing your stress in the long term.

Over-regulating people’s behavior is a quick way to cause hurt feelings and to stress yourself out. It is unavoidable that people will be upset about things and talk amongst themselves. As a league there needs to be appropriate channels for communication. Skater representatives are an example, but they have to be independent of the board and can’t mete out punishment (because at that point they’re board representatives). If a member is using inappropriate channels of communication or complaining excessively, then a leader should figure out the root of the problem, listen to the member, and then define an appropriate way to express that. There have to be venues of expression outside of the official league channels, though. Members should be able to confide in close friends, as long as it stays confidential or they use appropriate channels to communicate a shared concern. Expecting people to not vent to each other is unrealistic, and reacting to it in anger will cause the problems to go deeper and multiply with resentment.

Sometimes it is unavoidable that feelings will be hurt. I get that. Before any conflict gets to that point, there should be multiple attempts at communicating standards on an individual basis by defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This gives you a chance to figure out what’s actually a problem and what’s just misunderstanding before an individual feels attacked. Furthermore, problems should never be taken personally. Even if someone is shit talking you in extreme ways, don’t take it in anger. Take it as a symptom of unmet expectations by the skater and un-communicated expectations by leadership. Communicate that the negative commentary is not acceptable behavior, that it doesn’t actually solve the problem, and that you want to figure out together how to solve the problem. When you take things as an attack and respond in anger, your judgment is clouded, you stop listening, things get heated, and the problems multiply. No matter how personal and upsetting it feels to you, how you handle it is about the league and a reflection of the league. To make my point I’m going to detail two different problems and two very different approaches with two very different results. They’re going to be long, so skip ahead to the TL;DR if you’re not up for it.

While coaching the Maniac Monsters Mainz we at one point had someone email our league asking if our coaching position was still open. It wasn’t, because I was the coach, but I wanted her as a trainer because more help is always appreciated. We had problems almost immediately with this person. Despite coming in on a trial basis, and having this explained to her, she introduced herself to the FM as the coach during her second practice with us. She made skaters feel awkward by staring without participating during warm ups, not coming prepared to lead practices as I had asked and gave incorrect, unsolicited advice to skaters. I reiterated my expectations in person and one-on-one multiple times, and sent clarification emails that were approved by the board each time she didn’t respond to my talks. Eventually I let her know that being a trainer was not a role we wanted for her at that time, but were open to another try the next year under the same trial terms and that she was welcome to stay in the league in the meantime. She didn’t take it well, and fired off an angry email to the board resigning from the league entirely.

The second example comes from my experience in the other league concerning me and my choice not to bout. Unfortunately the problem was myriad and complicated, because the league chose to bring up years of unaddressed frustrations that often were miscommunications. The main issue was my choice not to bout and my reasoning was anxiety. I chose not to detail my reasons because I consider it a personal issue. It took me a while to build up the skills and confidence to volunteer for a bout, but I eventually did for two bouts. League leadership took this as me refusing to play with certain people and had a meeting with me where they sought out and charged me with individual complaints from the previous three years. Things like me refusing to skate under certain trainers (which was a single instance of me forgetting my mouth-guard and going home without saying anything), refusing to skate with the A-team (never mind that I volunteered for an A-team bout first), saying negative things about league members (exclusively to a board member, because I had legitimate grievances but didn’t phrase them well), and so on. This is a simplification, because there was a lot of stupid shit and some legitimate shit I take accountability for.

TL;DR: The point of these two comparisons is this: One was taken as an unavoidable problem and was dealt with as it happened, thus setting positive precedents, the other was taken as a series of personal attacks and went unaddressed for a stupid long time, thus setting terrible precedents. The problem skater I dealt with in Mainz was an unavoidable situation, but we gave her every chance to change by talking to her and emailing her multiple times about our expectations and consequences of failing to meet those expectations. The consequences were never punitive, only whether or not she would be a trainer. At every step of the process I communicated with the board, and also with other trainers and the whole league as appropriate. Nothing I said was sudden or unexpected, because it was always building on what was previously established in crystal clear terms. As a result, the entire board and training committee and league was in agreement. There were no conflicts about things being handled poorly. If anything, we grew closer as a league and bolstered an inclusive atmosphere, because despite this person clashing with the training committee and skaters, we gave her a lot of chances and communicated clearly about those chances. Furthermore, being a part of the league was never taken away or threatened; it was only what that person’s role was within the league.

The other league did the opposite, where nothing was addressed until it built into a conflated personal attack against people, and the matter became punitive. It’s similar to a year-end review: if this is the first the employee is hearing of a negative review, you as a manger or leader are doing your job really fucking wrong (Collins, 2014). If expectations are continually unmet then that needs to be addressed as it happens, and often it will be revealed as miscommunications and not personal attacks. If it’s not addressed as it happens, then that’s your fault as a leader and the first course of action, however delayed, should not be punitive unless someone was in danger. If a punitive first step is what happens, as in the case of the other league, it sets an authoritarian culture and problems will never really go away. I decided to leave the league because I was so unhappy with the culture, and it’s highly unlikely that the league’s problems were solved with me leaving.

This difference in process is, I think, the largest reason why our skaters are happy with our league. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from skaters about the league, and it includes comments like this league being the first that feels like home, or how the high level of supportive comments encouraged skating development, or how we are able to talk about tough, contentious problems without it being a huge conflict. I pride myself on that feedback because being a leader is sometimes tough, but it means I and the other leaders are handling it well enough to create a positive culture and environment for our members.

 

4. People just want to be heard

I once heard a saying about how a smart person never misses a good opportunity to shut up.  I say once, but really I mean every other episode of Dr. Phil I watch.  Whatever, it’s some bomb ass sage wisdom, so I’m focusing on it here and you can suck my dick if you don’t like it.  The television doctor’s advice is something that many leaders, including those with a lot of experience, don’t realize the importance of. A commonality among most poor leaders is an inability to listen and a proclivity to deflect and defend every criticism that comes up. When a leader is busy deflecting and defending, he or she is missing an opportunity to shut up and listen. In an academic or conflict resolution context this is called active listening. Instead of preparing a response while the other person is talking, you follow up their statements with questions in order to fully understand the points being made and to gather more details. You can restate their points to ensure you understand them (Chastain, 2013). It doesn’t matter how right or wrong someone is, because unresolved hurt feelings will only come back in the form of other, potentially worse conflict. In conflict resolution emotional engagement with someone is actually more important than rational reasoning. It predicts whether someone walks away with positive or negative feelings about their experience, and a negative experience is often a contributor to later conflict (Eilereman, 2008). The negative experience will often justify their anger about problems in the league, as well as other peoples’. That negative feeling spreads and causes a lot more problems later on.

Sometimes problems solve themselves with just a little active listening, and it’s leadership’s job to provide that and a cultural context that allows for it.

 

5. Be clear about expectations

It is really important for leagues to have an established code of conduct on which to fall back when issues come up. It is also important that leadership addresses conduct issues as they come up. Leaders should never hold anyone accountable to expectations that were never communicated, eg, ‘you should have known this because it was common sense.’ The only exception for punishing without precedent should be in cases where a member broke the law, such as assault, theft, drinking and driving, ect., because those expectations are communicated by social law and don’t need to be reiterated by the league.

For issues that are not clear violations of a code of conduct but are problematic, a meeting needs to be had in which the skater is asked about the reason for the behavior and informed of future behavior expectations, with a commitment from leadership to address the reasons for the issue as necessary. If the problematic behavior persists despite leadership upholding their commitments, then a formal warning can take place, with signed documentation. If the problematic behavior persists then, a suspension can be issued. If the problematic behavior still persists, the player can be expelled. Each time, however, the same active listening, expectation communication and commitment needs to happen.

 

References

Bullet 4:

Chastain, A. (Dec 2, 2013). Use active listening skills to effectively deal with conflict. Michigan State University. Retrieved from http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/use_active_listening_skills_to_effectively_deal_with_conflict

Eilerman, D. (January, 2008). The significance of emotional engagement in conflict management. Everything Mediation. Retrieved from https://www.mediate.com/articles/eilermanD10.cfm

Leadership in Roller Derby, Part 1

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Leadership in the roller derby ‘verse is a really heavy topic in general, but particularly in roller derby given the recent scandals in the sport. Victorian Roller Derby most recently was accused of chronic, unaddressed racism and bullying that was tolerated by league leadership in the pursuit of winning. Sexual abuse allegations toppled the longstanding derby legend Quadzilla, with the backlash spreading to a team USA coach who expressed support for him at the men’s world cup. Bay Area Derby was the target of multiple blog posts detailing the intense bullying problems and tolerance of those problems in the league, with the suggestion that it contributed to one player’s suicide (BAD’s statement has since been deleted). These accusations and others of bullying, toxic environments and inadequate leadership have been directed towards at teams of all levels, prompting a much needed discussion of what this sport is supposed to be. As leaders in this sport, we cannot hide under the guise of ‘derby love’ and a perception of inclusivity, because perception is not reality and this sport, like any other organization, has problems. Even if a player has had the fortune of not experience bullying to that level, the topic of poor leadership hits close to home for most players. Many of us have had difficult experiences with shitty cultures, bullying and favoritism, regardless of the size of leagues. And in the discussion of all of these things, particular attention needs to be given to the role of leadership and how they can potentially cause and resolve these problems.

This issue is something that has been a concern of mine for a while, but is especially relevant right now since I’m leaving my current and beloved roller derby team, the Maniac Monsters Mainz. Since I use this blog to write about topics I want my team to be aware of, this intimidating and serious topic is next on the agenda. Hopefully in the process of laying out what makes our league relatively cohesive and how to maintain our culture (I seriously love my fucking team), this post can be of some help to someone who is struggling with the some of these issues. That being said, however, a leader has to be open to the things I will detail in order for this to be of any help whatsoever. An individual’s ability to receive the information in this article is no different than your crazy, wildly controlling grandma yelling “Yea, why do you have to be so controlling!?’ at the television during Dr. Phil. If someone does not want to see the parallels in their own lives, they won’t. This article is not a silver bullet for shitty leadership. Even the people who I ambiguously discuss in some of the negative examples of leadership would read this and think they do all of these things perfectly, when the reality is more of the opposite. People will only see what they want to see.

There are two important points I want to make clear before getting into this discussion. First, I’m not pulling this shit out of my ass. I’m pulling this information from a bachelor’s degree in general psychology, a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in teaching adults, and an associate’s of business management, all of which are wrapped up with my practical life experience through work and being a member of and a leader in roller derby. A lot of the things I’m going to say are supported by research, reputable articles and instructional texts, so to demonstrate that these are legit I’m going to cite them in American Psychological Association style, using exclusively pdf files or articles that are available to the general public. So if I make a point that intrigues you with a citation, use google scholar to look up the title and author so that you can read more in depth.

The second point is that, in using examples from my life, I’m going to use the other league I’ve been in as examples of poor leadership and culture. I’m not trying to be a douchebag and make any person or league look bad. They are my experiences from my perspective, and I do not discuss it as a representative of Maniac Monsters Mainz. While I was in the other league the culture was shitty, but that was about two years ago. League cultures are difficult to change, but it’s possible, so I’m not making any statements about current league culture. As a teacher of adults I’m motivated to use multiple mediums in order to make my points, and some people learn best from more concrete examples. I’m only going to draw from my experience in order to discuss examples when it’s relevant.  Although I tried to balance my examples, unfortunately all of my negative examples came from my previous league, despite my efforts to not put myself on a pedestal.  If it seems that I am lionizing myself, let me be clear about something: I was not perfect.  In my early twenties I was struggling with the aftermath of suicide, sexual abuse and emotional abuse, wherein my main motivation was survival, not learning how to make friends, socialize and interact like a functional person. So when I joined the league in my mid twenties, I was on a steep learning curve. I made a lot of mistakes in figuring out how to play politics and get what I wanted within an organization, so I’m no angel and was often more difficult than was necessary. I know that and I own it.

As I went about listing and explaining the different aspect of effective leadership per my experience, this shit ballooned to a stupid number of pages. Entire books have been written about the individual factors in effective leadership, so I need to break this up into separate posts. While the theory of the adult human attention span being 20 minutes has little to no empirical support, I don’t want to take any chances, so here’s part one.

 

  1. Everything is leadership’s fault. Drop the defensive attitude and the intense emotionality and take responsibility for the problem and the solution.

In the movie ‘A bug’s life’ from Pixar, one of the characters (Hopper, if anyone gives a shit) makes such an astoundingly succinct and insightful point for a kids’ movie that I’m obligated to quote it for this blog post. He says “The first rule of leadership: everything is your fault.”

One of the most fatal mistakes someone in a leadership position can make is being defensive and thinking that an organization’s issues are someone else’s fault. It is a way to avoid responsibility for leadership’s role in the situation and ends up exacerbating whatever problem there is. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding an issue, if you are the leader then it is your fault. That applies to both individual leaders and groups of leadership, such as a board of directors. A leader is responsible for setting examples of league culture, setting up effective channels of communication, for utilizing effective communication, paying attention to organizational problems and circumventing problems before they arise or become significantly problematic. If a leader dissolves him or herself of responsibility for a problem at any level, the leader is abdicating his or her ability to solve the problem. The things that happen around a leader are often a result of the leader’s actions, attitude and leadership style, which can both create and solve problems.

The point of not being defensive merits special consideration. Often people will give the advice ‘don’t take things personally’ because they confuse defensiveness with taking things personally. Those are actually two separate phenomena. Research indicates that a good leader WILL take problems personally, because he or she views problems as his or her responsibility, as a leader, to fix. He or she will be disappointed and frustrated by the problem, will seek out what happened and will learn a better way to handle future iterations of that problem. A good leader will take problems personally insofar as they can figure out, solve, and grow from the problem (Coombe, 2016). Even if defensiveness is a default knee jerk reaction, there is always opportunity to reflect and find lessons in something after the fact. Late is certainly better than never.

No matter how impossible a situation is a good leader will learn something from it. Maybe the problem went unaddressed for too long and got out of control. Maybe leadership intervened but didn’t hear the person out and only exacerbated their frustration. Maybe leadership didn’t create a safe enough environment for that person to express their concerns, and it exploded. No matter how bad a situation is, a really good leader will find a lesson in it instead of just writing it off as someone else’s fault.

In dealing with the problem and solution, a leader also has to limit how emotional he or she is about it. An excess of anger or sadness or whatever is off putting in different ways. You can easily alienate people by being too aggressive or shut down conversation by being too sad and making yourself the victim. Emotional attachment isn’t bad, but letting it dictate your engagement with a solution is.

For this I’m going to get into something I fucked up as a leader. We played a scrimmage that was tough to watch, because it looked like everything we had worked on went out the window. We were falling apart, not working together, not doing any of the techniques we had drilled. I was angry at myself for not preparing them enough, and my negativity and anger came through when I talked about the scrimmage at the next practice. It upset a lot of people and undermined their pride in their own personal accomplishments during the scrimmage. I let my anger dictate the conversation, and I damaged the league environment and my relationship with the skaters. I should have collected myself more or waited longer before engaging in that conversation.

 

  1. League culture is a top down phenomenon

The hard truth about problems in leagues is that they tend to mirror the examples set by leadership. How leaders deal with problems determines whether or not a problem is actually solved and what happens after. How leaders interact with others sets the example of how people treat each other. What leaders tolerate in a league determines what issues persist and escalate in an organization. How leaders listen to criticism sets the standard for feedback.

This is incredibly important to understand because, to the surprise of absolutely no one, organizational culture is one of -if not the- biggest predictor of happiness and engagement in an organization (Seppala & Cameron, 2015). Leadership, organizational culture and employee/skater/member happiness is all tied together, with the most salient connection for leaders being how leadership affects the other two. Research from the scientific community bears this relationship out with significant correlations between leadership and happiness, as well as organizational culture and happiness (Tsai, 2011).

An example of this is a trainer I had in my other league who was also on the board. This trainer was often condescending without meaning to be, but got extremely defensive when I tried to approach her about it. When an issue came up with people feeling that the points system for rostering was being used selectively and unfairly, she had a meeting and spent the majority of the time defending the rostering practices, even going so far as to interrupt skaters who were voicing their concerns. To absolutely no one’s surprise except hers, nothing was resolved, the problems escalated and the practice of not listening to each other was perpetuated by the entire league for the rest of my time in with them.

 

 

References

Bullet 1:

Coombe, D. (March 29, 2016). ‘Don’t Take It Personally’ Is Terrible Advice. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/03/dont-take-it-personally-is-terrible-work-advice

Myers, C. (March 27, 2017). Three uUndeniable Truths Ive Learned on My Leadership Journey. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrismyers/2017/03/24/3-undeniable-truths-ive-learned-on-my-leadership-journey/2/#5685123d3f9a

Bullet 2:

Seppala, E. & Cameron, K. (December 1, 2015). Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/12/proof-that-positive-work-cultures-are-more-productive

Tsai, Y. (2011). Relationship between organizational culture, leadership behavior and job satisfaction. BMC health services research, 11(1), 98.

Things I Hate: Fuck Your Poisons

Over the course of my career as a roller derby coach, there’s a few things that come up often enough that they have slowly become the bane of my existence.  So I’ve decided to write a series about all of the things I hate.  Top of the list: Poisons and hybrid wheels.

I’ve mentioned wheels before in a different blog about equipment.  I was mildly apathetic at that point, because I wasn’t responsible for anyone breaking their ankles,  and also the redundant discussion of ‘don’t skate on fucking hybrids’ hadn’t yet occupied so much of my life.  But after having that conversation so many times, I loathe those bullshit wheels.

When a skater gets new wheels she should want to find the right amount of slip and slide for her skating style.  Despite what some people say, there’s no one right setting for your equipment that works for everyone.  Cushings are a good eample of that. A lot of people prefer softer and more responsive cushings, but legendary Bonnie Thunders skates on hard cushings.  Somewhere on the spectrum of equipment, find what works for you. The same thing is true for wheels.  For some people the ratio leans towards slip, and for some that ratio leans towards grip.  Personally, I skate on wheels with more slip.  For a solid three years I skated on 92 Vanilla Backspins, which I love, and now I skate on a mix of 93/91 dual durometer wheels and those 92 Vanillas.  When finding your preference, though, there’s needs to be a balance.  My problem with poisons and hybrids in general is that they’re all grip with no slide.  That’s not only bad strategy and skills training, but also dangerous.

Before I really hulk out on why I fucking hate poisons, I’ll preface this with saying that I get why people choose hybrids.  Not everyone knows what to look for in wheels, so it often boils down to ‘can I wear these inside? The packaging says so. Can I wear these outside? The package also says so.  Ergo, I can wear them everywhere and save money on wheels!’  They also help skaters to not slide out in the curves while doing laps.  I get it, I really do.  But.  BUT.  They’re dangerous and are a barrier to learning skills and learning laps the right way.  The right way isn’t meant as ‘what I want because I’m a self-centered asshole and want it my way so do it because I’m your trainer and fuck you’ but rather as ‘the best way to keep skaters from plateauing later in their skating careers.’

I’ll start with  the dangerous part, because it’s incredibly important that you not break the fuck out of your ankle.  Obviously.  The basic premise is this: when you fall or lose control, your foot should go with you.  If your foot doesn’t go with you because its held in place by grippy wheels, it is stretched at an awkward ankle and broken.  Every major ankle break I’ve seen has been on some bullshit hybrid wheel.  When Cole Izzion royally fucked her ankle, it was on poisons.  She was on a sticky floor, skating slowly, no contact, and she fell.  Her foot stayed in the same position, and consequently broke in four places, completely tore the tendon and was dislocated.  Germanätrix had poisons on for her ankle break, and her xray also looked like the aftermath of Bob the Builder’s seizure.  Two other people whose names I can’t remember because I don’t care about them broke their ankles on poisons.  When I broke my ankle, it was the least serious ankle break I’ve seen in this sport (I didn’t even need a cast, which was incredibly disappointing after having spent five whole minutes searching pinterest for fucking sweet cast designs).  It was not on poisons.   I wasn’t even aware of this blatantly obvious trend until Kiki Urhaz, who I reference constantly, came to my league and pointed it out.  She explained that in her much longer and more storied career, she also has seen Poisons involved in almost every major ankle break.  As if God just wanted to send a confirmation, Cole Izzion broke her foot the next day. Go figure.  When I explain this to people, there’s always the pensive ‘Yea, you’re right. A lot of the breaks were on poisons.  Huh.’  And then afterwards I get texts and messages saying ‘this person twisted her knee and GUESS WHAT WHEELS SHE WAS WEARING’.  Basically, 100% of people polled say I’m super right and that hybrids are dangerous.*  Fuck poisons.

The second reason I loathe hybrids is because it makes for sloppy skills training.  I devote a lot of time to training freshies, and I emphasize doing skills right and not taking shortcuts so that skaters don’t plateau later.  Plow stops, for example, are incredibly important, so I emphasize the fuck out of those.  In order to do them right, however, you have to be able to slide into it and then put the pressure down on your edges.  Hybrid wheels stop you from sliding and make plow stops infinitely harder and more dangerous.  I’ve loaned out a crazy amount of wheels to my team, and the universal reaction when they switch wheels is ‘wow this really makes a difference.’  Have you ever wondered why it’s impossible to do hockey stops?  If you think they’re impossible, the issue could be your wheels.  You can’t slide into a hockey stop if your wheels hold onto the floor like your grandma does onto the slim hope of you being a virgin.

Another way hybrids make for sloppy skill training, aside from just straight up stopping you from learning skills like plowing, is that they give you a false sense of edges.  If your coach or trainer hasn’t talked about edge work yet, fire them and get a new trainer.  From the abundance of trainers lined up wanting to train you, obviously. Whatever, fuck off.  Anyway, edging as a skill is incredibly important and is used in a crazy amount of skills.  When you take the curve in your laps, putting pressure on the inside wheels and using your edges is what keeps you from sliding out.  If you’re wearing hybrids, though, that stickiness gives you a false sense of having used your edges, and you never learn how to put that weight on the outside and use them.  Those sticky ass wheels are a lazy man’s shortcut to edges in the curves, and they just so happen to be slowing you down in the straights.  When skating in a bout, it’s hugely advantageous to pick and choose when you slide and when you edge.  If you’re in a wall and plow stopping, you need to slide and stop, slide and stop in order to not get a stop block and also keep your hips in line with whoever is next to you.  That requires knowing your edges, because the edges are what decide your speed in a plow stop position.

As a trainer I don’t tolerate lazy skills training and I sure as fuck don’t tolerate things that put my skaters in harms way.  Hybrids fall under both of those categories, so fuck your poisons. Change your wheels and keep safe.

 

-Stein

 

*Poll participants include my mom. Poll confidence level = 1 with a 99.99% margin of error.

Being A Great Trainer

It’s been a long ass time since I’ve written a blog post.  I know all two and a half people who read this occasionally have been anxiously waiting, so I’m sorry for the hiatus.  I’ve been spending the last year getting comfortable in my role as Head Trainer and Coach, and wanted to absorb as much knowledge as I could before pretending like I know what I’m doing in front of internet strangers.  But like everything else in my life, upcoming events have forced me to get my shit together and just get on with it.  I recently developed a training committee to help train the FM, and we have an upcoming training meeting to review the new curriculum I designed as well as go over feedback for trainers, potential new trainers, and the plan going forward.  So this blog post is for you, training committee, and whoever else on the internet might find it useful.

Before I go any further, let me explain my background a little so we can agree that there might be a tiny little bit of merit to my advice in this.  I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Child Development, with a focus on teaching adults about how kids develop.  I worked for about four years teaching toddlers and preschoolers basic life skills like writing and not biting each other, and eventually moved into a position overseeing the professional development of caregivers, particularly in regards to their lesson plans for the tiny toddler terrors.

The past year of acting as a Coach and Head Trainer has been amazing, and based on feedback, pretty successful.  Our team rating took a hit because the year I came on just to happened to be the year we had to play teams that were a LOT better than us and who had full rosters.  However I’ve seen a huge amount of improvement in the team and in individual skaters, and have gotten a fuck ton of feedback regarding my training.  My cumulative experience has given me a lot of insight into how to work with, train and motivate others, so I’m ready to put it into writing for my league and whoever else gives a shit.

There’s a fuck ton of thing that go along with being a good trainer, but for simplicity’s sake I’m going to put this in list form.

1.Basic Knowledge and Basic Resources

I really fucking hope that this point isn’t a surprise to anyone of you, because if it is you’re fucked.  In order to teach anyone about anything you have to be somewhat competent in the area you’re teaching.  You should have played roller derby for a while before stepping into a training role.  You need knowledge about rules, equipment, skills, officiating, physical fitness, NSO’ing, and so much more shit to be an effective trainer.  All of these things tie together when you’re teaching people about this incredibly complicated but amazing sport.  If you see a newbie struggling with plow stops, you have to be able to recognize that it’s because they’re wearing those bullshit hybrid wheels (I fucking hate hybrids so much) on a sticky floor, and can’t slide into the plow to save their life.  Or to save their ankles, which they will eventually break if they don’t get different wheels.  If you have a high incidence of ankle injuries in your league, you need to do appropriate off skates workouts to strengthen ankles.  If you’re working on packwork, you need to know the technical pack definitions as well as what refs are looking at when they make those calls.

I think that this is most important in the basics of skating in FM.  I’m a very technically focused trainer who will stop a drill just to point out the specifics of a plow stop, if I see multiple people struggling with it.  If you don’t understand the very basic and effective ways to do basic skills, then you’re setting your team up for failure.  When I see people plateau with their skills, it’s often because they took shortcuts with basic skills or weren’t taught the most effective and safe way to do them, so they struggle with later skills at higher levels.  If no one taught you about angling your foot in a one sided plow stop in order to use your edges, how the hell are you supposed to stop a jammer who’s pushing on you?  If no one ever noticed that you’re carrying your weight on the balls of your feet and showed you how to balance it on your heels instead, how are you supposed to correct your constant falling when someone puts pressure on you?  It’s imperative in roller derby in general, but especially in FM to know the how’s and why’s of skating.

Something I think that is underrated, though, is the fact that you have to be able to use your resources.  No one knows everything.  There might be weird situations with rules that you’re not sure about, or maybe Rogue Runner had an awesome video where she talked about muscle lines and you want to know more.  You have to be able to look up information in order to fill those gaps, which means having a working knowledge of resources available to you.  This could be internet blogs, other trainers, refs, even your local fucking library.  It’s your job to sift through all of it and build your knowledge base so that you can relay it to your players.

Also useful to having a working knowledge is having a variety of experience to pull from.  I have been lucky enough to have NSO’d bouts, officiated scrimmages, bench coached, captained and trained both large groups and small groups.  I can tell you from first hand experience how hard it is to watch feet, hips,  elbows and 10 foot lines all at once as a ref (spoiler alert: you fucking can’t).  I know what it’s like to get sassed as an official and to be sassed by a shitty, aggressive official.  I know what it’s like to be a new, lonely, isolated skater and I know what a struggle it is to balance league needs and individual needs as a leader.  I know what it’s like to teach people hard skills and what a struggle it is as a skater to get over your fears and take that apex jump.  I pull knowledge from all of these instances in order to be an effective trainer.  If you can NSO or officiate for a scrimmage, do it to get some perspective.  It helps.  I promise.

2. Build them Up, Don’t Tear them Down

Oh man, another super basic thing that somehow we all struggle with occasionally.  Some way more than others.

Look, this tends to be one of those things that everyone agrees with, but somehow so many people lack the basic insight to understand that they do the exact opposite of this.  I have a natural talent for giving good feedback, and it’s helped by having worked with kids for so long.  If you’re critical of kids, your day will be a nightmare because of the negative environment you’re creating.  You have to make it rain praise, because it creates a positive feedback loop that builds confidence and relationships.  Amazingly, we never grow out of this, because it happens the same way with adults.

The thing that a lot of people forget about feedback is that it’s more of a tool to motivate people than it is to make them perfect.  You want to recognize their successes and sympathize with their struggles.  Sure, Becky may be cutting every time she tries that Apex jump, but her form is getting better and she’s getting less afraid.  When she’s more comfortable with the form she’ll be able to focus on the cutting part, so praise her for her form getting better until she’s ready to work on a new aspect, like cutting.  Sure, Andi may be having a hard time with toe stop running, but it’s because she broker her ankle last year and is scared, so praise her for trying and tell her that it’s already getting better and is going to be great once she practices more and works through her (completely understandable) fear.   People get incredibly discouraged when you only focus on negative things, which is especially true in this demanding and physical sport.  You need to help people be positive and give them something to look forward to, and feedback is a CRITICAL part of this.

Two simple ways to accomplish a good balance are the sandwich method and the two-to-one method.  The sandwich method is simply sandwiching negative feedback in between positive feedback.  An example would be ‘You guys are doing a really good job noticing what’s going on in the pack, but you’re not reacting to it quickly enough.  I see you guys looking, which it actually the hardest part, so if you can  get your body to react quicker you’re going to be a lot more effective and have a longer time to block.’  Do you see how that’s a sandwich?  Your pack awareness is good-Your reactions are too slow- You’ve got the hardest part down already.  Positive-Negative-Positive.  The two to one method is just giving two compliments to every one criticism.  Super simple stuff, it’s just a matter of counting and self-awareness.

It’s also worth noting that the way you word things is important.  ‘Becky, stop looking down when you plow stop.’ is way more negative and less supportive than ‘Becky, I see you focusing on your plow stop, but I’m telling you that it’s pretty good.  You have the muscle memory down, and looking at your foot is just bringing your weight forward.  Take it slow and try to focus on a spot on the wall while you plow stop.’  There’s not an easy way to teach talking to people like you’re not a raging asshole, so it’s largely a matter of self-awareness.  I’ve had really good trainers before who I hated training with because they never realized how condescending they were, and that’s a shame.

3. Have a Plan

My team practice is very structured, but I think best example I can use for this is in the newly re-done FM training plan that I made and just started implementing.  I ask at the end of every practice, FM and team, for feedback regarding drills and the overall practice, and the overwhelming theme I’ve gotten from feedback is that the skaters love having a plan.  The team loves having training goals, drill goals and set intensity levels, so they know what to expect, and the FM love having a training plan that builds on itself. My experiences in my former league support this, too.  When we didn’t have training goals practice was kind of all over the place, and we never worked on anyone skill long enough for it to be useful.

I’ve found that identifying a theme to work on for a few weeks (which is dictated by team goals that everyone decides on) works for the team, and having a set progression of skills for FM to work on is really motivating for people.  On a smaller scale, having a few goals for each practice and each drill also give players something to work on.  Your drills should tie into each other and build on each other, and each drill should have a clearly defined goal.  Are you focusing on edges in this juking drill, or maybe octopus hands in the juke?  Is this apex jump drill building up to using it in a scrimmage drill, or is it more for working on explosive power and balance?  You should have a plan for what to work on and be able to identify the goals, whether it’s for a season, a week, a practice or one specific drill.  When players know what to work on they tend to be more motivated and work harder.  It’s your job as a trainer to foster that, and having a plan is a key part of it.

4. Be Flexible

I’m putting this point right after having a plan, because no matter how well planned out something is you have to be flexible about it.  You can plan an amazing practice with amazing skills, but if your players are struggling with your drills you have to be flexible enough to break it down to basics and work back up.  If you don’t have enough players to run your drill, you have to be prepared to do another drill or change something about it so you don’t need as many players.  If you have a player who’s not comfortable with a drill then you have to be able to simplify the drill for that player so they can still participate.  It can be as simple as instructing your players to not go 100% so they don’t kill the newly assessed skater, or making your players hold socks during a drill because their multiplayer blocks are fucking everything up.

You can also leave some room in your plan for players to choose drills.  I like to leave ten minutes at the end of practices during medium or low intensity weeks and have players choose a game to play, or a skill to work on that they haven’t in a while.  It gives me an idea of what they want and gives them a sense of control and fun over practice.

A really important aspect of being flexible is being able to adapt to the learning styles of different people.  Some people are audio learners, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, and still others learn in different ways.  If someone isn’t getting what you’re teaching, you have to find a different way to explain it or show it, or maybe give them some individual attention for a few minutes after training, if they’re up for it.  Be patient and be flexible, because no matter how they learn, they’re still your responsibility to grow and nurture so you have to find some way to teach them.

5. Be Aware

OH MY GOD THIS IS IMPORTANT.  You need a lot of awareness to be a trainer, and that awareness breaks down into awareness of others and self-awareness.

Awareness of others is important because it allows you to be a responsive trainer.  If you don’t see that your players are getting bored with your stop on the whistle drill, people are going to stop coming to practice because your trainings suck.  If you don’t see that a player is getting frustrated with a skill that you keep pushing, that player might just get frustrated enough to quit.  If you don’t see that players are getting tired before you do a transition during a jump drill, someone is going to get hurt.  To be completely honest with you, this is a skill that is incredibly hard to learn, but it can be learned.  You just have to really focus on the environment around you.  It also helps to have someone who is maybe better at it to help you along and point things out until you can start doing it on your own, if it’s something you struggle with.

And self-awareness.  Man, the important of self-awareness cannot be overstated.  I’ve seen some trainers who had the potential to be great but weren’t solely because they didn’t have any self-awareness.  A really really key part of this is to be able to reflect.  I’m not making that up, there’s a shit ton of literature that explores the idea of self-reflection in teaching, and it is far too much for me to cover a fucking wordpress blog.  For your convenience, here’s a short article on reflection in teaching that explains it in terms way better than I can shit out for you:

https://www.google.de/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&sqi=2&ved=0ahUKEwjZgcuflfXSAhWpDMAKHc1XDQ4QFggsMAI&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.qu.edu.qa%2Foffices%2Fofid%2Feducational_materials_e%2FThe_Role_of_Reflection_in_Teaching.pdf&usg=AFQjCNGa4kLns7LaRm6Y8f_DztojA06iFQ&sig2=F0FFwqJdUrdQL0osHdvwPA&bvm=bv.150729734,d.ZGg

In terms of reflection and self awareness, the most important advice I can give you is to accept feedback.  You know how Meghan Trainer is all about that Bass?  Well, I’m all about that feedback, and it’s helped me tremendously in growing as a trainer.  I have a pretty good idea of what my strengths and weaknesses are, and I’m able to capitalize on my strengths and help develop my weaknesses so they’re not a continuous issue.  This is largely because I seek feedback in what I do, and reflect on what I can do better.  Regardless of how much I may want to write someone’s feedback off because I hate their fucking face, I confront the idea that maybe there’s a bit of truth in what they’re saying.  Or that maybe how fucking stupid that person’s face is could be irrelevant to my  responsibility to them as a trainer, so I need to adjust my approach to this person regardless of whether or not I think they’re right.  If you want to be a great trainer you need to use every tool you have, and whether or not it’s comfortable for you, negative and positive feedback are a tool for you.  Use them.  Be better.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Have Fun

Finally, my favorite.  I am a fun person, and my practices reflect that.  Even if you’re not someone who is always making hilarious and outdated movie references like me, you can still make practice fun.  I just went to a conference in Berlin where Rhonda Housekick of the Rhein-Necker Delta Quads talked about this, and it echoed a lot of what I believe or had already been doing.  You can be creative and fun about the way you learn skills, no matter your skills level.  In fact, you actually need to in order to retain players and keep people’s enthusiasm for derby intact.  One of my favorites is to play dodgeball.  We bastardized it so we play it on a roller derby track, with the balls for one team lined up behind the other, and you have to race around the track to get them.  Being behind people is the most advantageous, so it ends up being an endurance drill.  You can play human tic tac toe, freeze tag, or whatever else.  You can have people hit each other off skates or sing karaoke while they do one on one blocking.  Be creative and have fun, because at the end of the day this is a sport.  We play for fun, so have fun and help others have fun.

Those are the basic points, and I’m not re-reading this to edit it because I have to do homework and sleep and other responsible adult things.  So I hope it helps you, minor grammatical errors and all.  As always, if you want to know anything else, let me know.

-Stein