A year ago this month, I attended my first rookie practice with Croydon Roller Derby. In the past 12 months, I’ve had a bunch of brilliant experiences that I never would have had without roller derby: learning how to skate from scratch; going all over the country to watch games; discovering a love of team sport; being coached by some of my derby heroes; finding my own athleticism; taking on the role of Director for the league; travelling on the party coach with our A team to support them in Paris; travelling to Madrid with our B team to play in my first open door game. It feels like I started roller derby just yesterday and at the same time it feels like it’s always been a part of my life.
One year in, I still consider myself a complete derby novice. Speaking to skaters that are much further along in their roller derby career, I’ve been told that the learning never stops – there’s always a skill that could be honed further, a play that could be executed more smoothly, more hustle to be found. And I certainly believe that; I feel like I learn something new about this sport every week and I can’t imagine that stopping any time soon. But you only have one first year in roller derby; one year of going from clueless outsider to someone who does, in fact, actually know some shit about this crazy sport. These are some of the Big Things I learned in my first year of roller derby.
You will meet a heck of a lot of people who you like and make some awesome new friendships, but you won’t be besties with everyone
Roller derby attracts a wider range of individuals than somebody outside of the sport might guess. You have people of different generations, different family backgrounds, different political leanings, different music tastes… you name it. You’ll likely find yourself around a much wider range of people than you do at work, and almost certainly more diverse than your non-derby social circle. The great thing about derby is that none of this matters on the track; your teammates are your teammates. But it does mean that you might not always see eye to eye with everyone, and will naturally gravitate more towards some people than others. You’re not going to be everyone’s best friend, and that’s okay. (Just don’t be a dick).
Thought playing roller derby was just showing up to training and playing games? Ah if only that were the case! Turns out that running a sports league requires basically everyone in it to pull together and contribute their time and energy outside of practice. Roller derby is DIY in the truest sense. From coaching to organising public events, managing the social media to sorting out the league’s finances; everything is done by league members – and nobody is getting paid.
Of course, on top of all that league department work, games need the help of myriad Non-Skating Officials doing everything from score tracking to penalty box timing. I’ve met a couple of ‘career NSOs’ since starting roller derby – people who found playing wasn’t really for them but that they had an aptitude for the non-skating side of the game – but mainly these roles are fulfilled by new skaters, injured skaters or others not playing that day. In my first year, I’ve NSOd at a bunch of scrimmages and even a couple of open-door games, as well as headed up our Merch department and, since December 2015, I’ve been one of the league’s three Directors. It’s work, sure, but there’s something really satisfying about knowing that you’re contributing to the successful running of your league.
Roller derby does ‘click’ (eventually)
Back in September last year, I wrote about reaching the ‘WTF stage’ of roller derby training – when you’ve got the basic skate skills down and start doing some scrimmaging. Woah nelly was that a head fuck for me. At no other time in the last year have I felt less capable at roller derby and more like quitting. Game play felt like such a leap from the skills we’d been learning and for a while I felt completely out of my depth. In all honesty, I went home from practice and cried more than once. Heck, I even cried a time or two at practice. It felt like I’d never ‘get’ roller derby. There are so many things going on in gameplay, all at once, that I couldn’t see how anyone got to grips with it.
Then, at a practice the other week, talking with a teamie who came up through fresh meat with me, it hit us: roller derby had ‘clicked’. We could be in a scrimmage and actually do stuff! We weren’t totally useless! Don’t get be wrong, I’m not saying that these days I walk away from every practice thinking, yep, nailed it, totally kept up with everything that was going on there. But I have experienced a definite shift from ‘WTF is even happening’ to having enough track awareness to contribute something to a game and to enjoy it. I didn’t notice this shift happening; it just happened. So if you’re in the WTF stage right now, take heart. Keep showing up. Keep giving 100% effort at every practice. Cry if you need to. Some people will get there faster or slower than others, but that’s alright. Eventually, roller derby WILL click!
You will have sporadic bursts of mushy sentimental feelings towards your teammates, this sport and your life now that roller derby is in it
Roller derby didn’t save my soul; my life wasn’t lacking before I started strapping skates to my feet a few times a week. But there is something a bit magical and inexplicable about the way this sport gets under your skin until you can’t picture you’re life without it. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think that I found roller derby at just the right stage in my life; I had room for a new passion to get absorbed in, and derby was it.
With the exception of my boyfriend and work colleagues, I don’t spend as much time with anyone as I do with my leaguemates. Having never played a team sport before, roller derby is my first experience of that special kind of bond that develops between team mates; these people who have gone through the same ups and downs as you, who you’ve trained with week in, week out. I feel this even more keenly with the small group of women that came up through fresh meat at the same time as me. You only enter this sport once, and we did it together (and stuck it out!). I can be a bit of a sentimental doof sometimes, and roller derby has only exacerbated the problem. At practices, at games, at after-parties, on sweaty coaches, I find myself caught off guard by these little blooms of affection which I very occasionally actually tell people about, if I’m drunk enough. (Apparently the other night I told someone who roller derby makes my heartache. No joke, I am that much of an idiot).
You don’t need to be Scald Eagle to start thinking of yourself as an athlete
I’ve never been sporty. I enjoyed some sports at school (before roller derby I was seriously thinking about trying to rope some friends into rediscovering netball), but PE lessons are not an encouraging space for kids that are on the chunky side. I was a book-worm that read out the whole Young Adult section of the library; being athletic didn’t fit with my self-image. Like a lot of teenagers, I was excruciatingly self-conscious and sadly this held me back from ever really engaging with sport, right through university and into my twenties.
You know what roller derby has made me realise? You don’t need anyone’s permission to think of yourself as an athlete. You don’t need to be playing a sport as your full-time job, or competing at the top levels. You don’t need to be a certain size, or have a particular body type. Maybe thinking of yourself as an athlete makes you feel ridiculous. Maybe you’re worried that other people will think you’re ridiculous. I felt like that, at first, and still do sometimes when that pesky self-consciousness creeps in (you’re not the sporty type, who are you kidding?). The things about ourselves that we learned to feel bad about can be deeply embedded. But they’re bullshit. Roller derby is an athletic endeavour. If you want to sip soda water at after-work drinks the week of a game, go for it. If you want to get an early night so you can be fresh for a pre-work workout, or pass on an invitation so you can squeeze in an extra open-skate session, or get nerdy about nutrition, go for it. Maybe you’ll never make sport pay the bills, or be a star player, but so what? That doesn’t mean you can’t take yourself seriously as an athlete, if you want to.
Top image source: Jens Mayer, Flickr CC