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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.

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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

Helpful Tips I Wish I’d Known Before FM

I’m guessing if you’re looking at this article you’re either newly assessed, fresh meat, thinking about joining the glorious world of roller derby, or completely lost and unable to navigate wordpress.  Congrats to the newly assessed, congrats to the FM with the courage to lace up, congrats to the pre-FM on your stellar taste in sports, and congrats to the person who got here by accident on getting here by accident.

In brainstorming for a decent roller derby topic to write about I considered things I wish I’d known from the beginning.  In a Siddhartha lightbulb moment I then realized that ‘Thing I Wish I’d Known’ is itself a worthy topic.  So I dedicate this to the newbies and hope this will help you in your fabulous journey of kick ass derbying.  For the ease of the reader, I’ve made the important bits bold.

Probably one of the first lessons I picked up on is the quality of the gear we wear.  With how expensive the start-up cost of skates and gear is we tend to get cheap shitty gear to start.  I totally get it, because I totally did it.  But don’t.  There are a few pieces of equipment that are absolutely worth the initial high cost, because you’ll end up buying better ones after a few weeks anyway after your body starts to feel the derby hurt.  The most important on that list is, I think, is knee pads.  Anyone who’s been through a round of FM can tell you that you do a lot of shit on your knees, like giving back alley blowjobs to refs to get out of penalties. KIDDING, guys. Kidding.  We just roll our eyes and give dirty looks. (which you should know is a sportsmanship no-no if you read the previous post)  But aside from being targets of easy blowjob jokes, FM fall a lot. The degree to which FM fall is equivalent to the degree of offensiveness in my one asshole relative talking about jew bones at Auschwitz as souvenirs (I think he’s Jewish, which makes it even more fucked up.).  THAT’S A LOT GUYS.  That sweet ass 180 degree derby stop you saw someone pull off like a god damned fairy didn’t get to be glittery and fairy like overnight.  There were a lot of falls involved in getting to that point, and our knees take a lot of the brunt.  Tailbone injuries and knee injuries are really common chronic issues in derby life, and a lot of the knee pain can be avoided by buying good, sturdy pads.  I highly recommend some form of killer 187 pro pads.  They feel awkward at first because of how bulky they are, but you get used to it fast.

Another piece of equipment that’s worth a higher initial investment is the mouthguard.  In most sports mouth guards are big clunky things that make you feel like you’re cradling Zeus’ dick in your mouth.  If you’ve watched a lot of derby you might know that talking and communication are really really ridiculously good looking big things, which you cannot do with that Olympian dick your mouth.  You also need to take out that mouth guard to drink water, which you should be doing frequently at practice.  I don’t know about you guys, but our league practice arena is a gross warehouse we share with hockey dudes, who have no qualms with teabagging the benches in between underwear changing.  That’s not an environment in which I would want to risk the hygiene of my mouthguard.  I recommend the SISU mouth guard.  It’s a thinner mouth guard, but it still does a stand up job protecting your teeth. It mold to your upper set of teeth and leaves enough room that you can talk and drink water.  It’s recommended by most derby girls for good reasons.  The thing you should cheap on out to start with is your skates.  A long as they fit you, roll, and have toe stops, you’re good to go.  By the time you’re proficient in skating, your skates will be worn to shit and it will be time to get a new pair, anyway.  By that point you’ll be able to understand and appreciate a more individualized setup, so spending more later on makes way more sense.

As long as your helmet fits and doesn’t have cracks in it, it’s a decent helmet.  There’s not as much variability in the quality of helmets as there is mouthguards and knee pads.  Elbow pads and wrist pads, because they don’t take as much impact during falls, are the equipment that you’re better off cheaping out on.  I still have the shitty elbow and wrist guards from FM.  The elbow pads need to be replaced, because at this point they can’t pass safety checks without being duct taped and they give me derby burns all the time, but they held out for a solid year and some, so they put out their money’s worth.

Speaking of derby burns, the manner of attire is something I wish I’d had a heads up on.  You’ll often see derby girls skating around in short shorts that leave little to the imagination, and no doubt at some point you’ll want to emulate that.  But before you go investing in a closet full of booty shorts, know this:  The girls who wear short shorts often pair them with tights.  This is because your thighs are prone to derby burns, which are the result of falling, sliding, and having skin scraped off as you slide.  They take eons to scab over and are incredibly uncomfortable as a result.  So when you’re stocking your derby closet, don’t skimp on leggings and tights.  My closet is overrun with black capri leggings, which I use not just for derby but for all of my workouts now.  Get yourself a few pairs of those, they will serve you well.

Speaking of things you should get, thongs.  You’re probably calling bullshit on me right now but I swear to god you will get tired of the panty lines and get thongs eventually. They have taken over my underwear drawer at this point because of how often I derby and work out.

To help you not get derby burns, it helps to of take a hard look at what kind wheels you’re on, and whether they’re appropriate for the floor you’re using.  I wrote in an earlier post about the virtues that wheels well matched to a floor can do in not breaking your ankle like David Tennant opting out of further seasons of Doctor Who broke my Whovian heart.  If you haven’t read that post and don’t know much about protecting your ankles, then you need to go read that shit.  Look in the archives of the page, and it’s titles ‘Saving Ankles’.  Following those guidelines can save you some nasty surgeries and painful physical therapy,  as well as the slipping and sliding that causes derby burns.

Derby will consume your time like my inner fat kid consumes cupcakes, but you will get out of it everything you put in.  With that being said, it’s important to maintain balance in your life.  Don’t make excuses to skip practice every week, because that’s not fair to you or your teammates, but don’t skip important shit with your family every week for derby, either.  Find a balance and stick to it.

Don’t eat like a teenager.  It’s common, almost cloyingly repeated logic that your body puts out what you put in, but it’s especially obvious when you do something as physically demanding as roller derby.  My best practices do not come after I’ve consumed a bag of cheetos and a Dr. Pepper that day.  I feel crampy and easily tired out.  When I eat healthily I can feel a difference in my body, and it reflects in my endurance and general play.  As a general rule cut out pops and sodas, and limit your intake of sugary delicious goods.  The easiest way is to just not buy them, so you don’t have that temptation in your home.

Get to know the rules.  It helps to a huge degree in your game if you study the rules early on.  You have to pass a written rules test to assess, but starting early and keeping on the rules is the way to go.  When you do assess and are cleared for scrimmages, you can do sneaky shit like tricking the opposing jammer into getting behind you when they don’t need to, or jutting your hips backwards at the last second to get them called for a cut.  It can help you form and debate strategy, like your jammer using a blocker to back block the shit out of people to make a hole through some tough defense, or the legality of awkward salmoning people before the whistle (I’ll write on article on awkward salmoning at some later point, for those curious).  More than anything, though, it helps you to not get penalties, either by making stupid mistakes or getting shit pulled on you by other rule savvy sneaky bitches.  All in all, getting to know the rules can only help you and make you look like sneaky, savvy billy rollin’ badass.

Watch derby games.  Take a chill day, night, or hour or two to relax and youtube some roller derby videos.  WFTDA has a library of WFTDA sanctioned bouts you can go through  and stream at WFTDA.tv.  There’s some matches on youtube, too.  It’s good to watch a mix of both amazing teams like Gotham and some lesser known up and coming teams, so you can see a mix of derby styles and moves in different skill levels.  I can’t emphasize enough how much you can learn in strategy, skills, rules and countless other things if you watch derby and pay attention to what the players are doing.  You can see what derby is supposed to look like, analyze your weak points, and then set goals based on that.

Last, but not least, be patient with yourself!  I’m a perfectionist, so I’m hard on myself when it comes to … well, everything.  I get frustrated when I can’t get a drill right, or have a bad day at practice.  The truth is we all have bad days, and the best players played like shit when they first put skates on.  If you’re struggling with something, ask for help, and be patient with yourself.  Hit that son of a bitch skate floor hard, with love and determination, and eventually you’ll get it.

I’m sure this list will only grow as I continue to skate, but for now I hope it serves to help someone as they start derby.  If there’s something you’d like to add to this list, feel free to comment. As always, thanks for reading.

Stein

PS. I’m not editing this as thoroughly as I edited the last few, so if there are mistakes you should probably build a bridge and deal with it.  Because you know what they say: people in glass houses sink ships (5 points if you catch that reference).