Category: Musings

Things I Learned in My First Year of Roller Derby

Image source Jens Meyer

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.

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4 Lessons I Learned Playing in a Cherry Popper Tournament

Dolly Rockit Rollers first skate

What’s a cherry popper? 

Some people are okay with it; others find it cringe-worthy. Whatever you feelings about the nickname for rookie-level bouts, taking part in a ‘cherry popper’ is kind of a right of passage for new roller derby players. Limited to skaters with only a few bouts under their belt (generally  0-3 or 0-5), cherry poppers give newbies a chance to apply the skills they’ve learned so far to a real game situation, playing with and against similarly green skaters from other leagues. Some cherry poppers are tagged onto the beginning of higher-level bouts; sometimes – like the one we attended – they’re standalone events. We played short games in a tournament format – three teams, each playing two 30 minute games, with the team with the highest total points score being crowned the winner.

Some things I learned…

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Freshie Perspective: The Cost of Roller Derby

cost of roller derby

It’s probably clear even to those outside of the sport that roller derby ain’t the cheapest of hobbies to take up. Unlike some sports, roller derby requires a lot of equipment. I’ve heard that some leagues have kit that people can use for try outs, but in most cases beginners have no choice but to buy all the required kit before they even get a taste of playing. But recently I got to thinking; aside from the obvious kit-related costs, what else have I spent money on in my first 7 months or so of roller derby? I figured this kind of insight might be handy to someone thinking about giving the sport of a go, so here’s a breakdown of what I’ve spent on roller derby so far…

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Roller Derby: 6 Months In


Six months. Six months! This might be the longest I’ve ever stuck something out, not including jobs and academic stuff (and relationships!). I’ve never learned an instrument, never gotten fluent in a language, never learned a craft to a proficient level – basically I’ve never stuck at learning something that takes time and work. Roller derby is kind of a crazy thing to try to learn when you don’t even know how to skate, if you think about it. Like trying to learn how to run track when you don’t even know how to walk yet. You spend months learning how to function on skates, and just when you think I’m kind of getting the hang of this BAM you’re introduced to scrimmaging and back to learning square one.

Learning something new is exciting and infuriating and fun and HARD. You have to be the noob. You have to show up and SUCK, in front of other people – including some people who are AWESOME at the thing you’re trying to do. You have to keep showing up and sucking and falling on your butt and getting up, week after week. You have to put yourself out there and let people see you be terrible at something. You certainly have to get over your own ego, which will be bruised (along with your butt). You have to deal with the fact that you will never be ‘done’ learning this thing – there’ll always be more, always be better.

My league had its recruitment evening last night, the first since my intake in March. It got me thinking about what advice I’d give to someone just starting out. The first thing that came to mind was that, although it’s true that there are all kinds of body types in roller derby and that you don’t need to be an athlete to begin with, a base level of fitness will make things easier. I did some things to improve my fitness before I tried out, but not in a serious or structured way – some hot yoga, a spin class here and there, sporadic jogging. If I could do it all over again, I’d start the kind of regime I’m doing now (weight lifting and HIIT cardio) well before I started learning roller derby. And no – skating alone won’t be enough to get fit.

What else? Oh yeah, go to ALL THE THINGS. Go support your teams when they play. Cheer your lungs out. Offer to help out with the merch stall. Volunteer to NSO. It really will help you to understand the game better. Also, it shows that you care about helping to make bouts happen. If you’re freaked out about doing it wrong, ask if you can shadow someone else in a role before trying it yourself. Go to the social events, even if you’re shy. Oh and (of course) GO TO PRACTICE. Go to every session that you can make. Show your coaches the respect of being reliable, punctual and attentive.

My final piece of advice would probably be: get used to saying goodbye to people. Roller derby isn’t for everyone. Lots of people decide to stop coming to practice, for lots of different reasons. We’ve had people leave because they were worried about getting injured – or because they had got injured (although this didn’t account for many). We had some people just… not turn up any more. There’s a great camaraderie to being ‘fresh meat’, of being equally clueless and showing up to learn together. So it does feel a bit sad when people you’ve got used to seeing every week disappear, sometimes without saying goodbye. But it happens!

I’m excited to see where I’ll be six months from now, one year in. Although I have a bad habit of focusing on the things I can’t do well yet, I have to make myself remember the long list of things I can do now that six-months-ago-Jess would be super impressed by. I’ve loved a lot of the my first six months of roller derby but – to be completely honest – not every minute. Right now the road to playing competitively feels like a very long one for me, but that’s okay. My main focus for the rest of year will be on bringing energy to practice, not giving in to negative mind-talk, and spending as much time on my skates as possible. Bring it on!

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On reaching the ‘WTF is going on’ stage of Fresh Meat

Speaking to rookies from other leagues, my impression is that different leagues like to approach ‘fresh meat’ training differently. Some go for scrimmaging right off the bat while others, like my league, opt for a period of building up skate skills before any contact stuff. For us, this meant a few months of drills on everything minimum-skills-related – crossovers, transitions, stops, falls – easing into contact stuff with one-on-one hits and positional blocking, followed by some wall drills. Then, a few weeks ago, we stepped it up a gear with a bit of scrimmaging (practice game play).

Now, here it maybe becomes pertinent to mention that we’ve had a lot of drop out from our rookie cohort (as tends to happen) and, as we started with a small-but-perfectly formed group anyway, now don’t have enough people to simulate a game. Since scrimmaging is so important to learning the game (I mean… duh) some of our B team have been coming along to the rookie practice to help us with numbers. Our B team are awesome – as well as being super friendly and welcoming, they are bloody good. I’m super inspired every time I watch them play. But scrimmaging with them, having never done it before… yeah, kind of terrifying. All kinds.

After that first session, I felt like a fraud. All this talk of wanting to play roller derby, wishing away the weeks of practising skate skills, dying to get to the ‘real stuff’ – and I couldn’t handle a bit of friendly scrimmaging with our own B team players! After weeks and weeks plugging away at getting better, I felt like I couldn’t remember a thing we’d been taught. Nothing could have prepared me for how fast scrimmaging would be; how many things would be happening at once, how much of shock it would be to play with much more experienced skaters. I felt like crying for the first time since I started back in March. In the moment, I was so confused by everything that was going on that I couldn’t worry about the things I’d buggered up. But lying in bed that night, trying to fall asleep, I had plenty of time to dwell on my mistakes in cringe-inducing, slow-motion detail. And I wondered more than once – am I even cut out for this?

Welcome to the ‘what the fuck is going on’ stage!

You’ll be here a while.

So, it turns out I’m not a special snowflake for feeling like this. Listening to people who know better than me (always a good idea!) made me realise that it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit overwhelmed as a freshie (er, understatement). As much of an idiot as a might feel for not being able to keep up with the B team, nobody else is expecting me to be able to match them yet. What they do expect is for me to show up, put in the effort, not whine, and get used to the fact I’m going to be playing with skaters that are more experienced than me for a long time to come. On the train home with a fellow rookie after that first session, we had a heartening realisation: this is the worst we’ll ever be. Every time we come to practice (and fall down, and pick ourselves up) we get that little bit better. Even if it’s only the tiniest bit, we’re moving forwards. We’re doing things now we didn’t have a clue how to do 6 months ago – and 6 months from now we’ll be able to do even more. Onwards and upwards.

Since that first try at scrimmaging, no other times have been quite so scary. In fact, last Friday I even caught myself having fun. Who’d have thunk it! I’m still super early in my journey with roller derby, but one lesson I feel like I can pass on to others is this: sometimes, you just have to keep showing up. For a few weeks there, my usual excitement about going to weekly practice was replaced by a mild sense of dread and feeling like I wasn’t good enough. But each week I went back and, soon enough, I started looking forward to practice again. No quick fix, no magic trick. Just showing up and trying.

As well as just sticking at it, and listening to advice from our coaches, a few blog posts have really helped me get in a more positive mindset about being a beginner at roller derby. I reckon these should be required reading for anyone new to the sport:

Have you hit the ‘what the fuck is going on’ stage? How did you deal with it?


Photo credit: Darkday, Flickr CC

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The Freshie Perspective: Roller Derby and Body Image

Image credit Kelly Norwood, Flickr CC

I know body image in roller derby isn’t exactly an original topic, but I thought I’d throw in my two cents on how the sport has had a positive impact on one clueless freshie.

Recently, I was on the train home from practice with another freshie who I hadn’t seen for a number of weeks (she’d been out with an injury). As we approached my stop, I stood up to leave and she exclaimed, “Jess, your thighs and bum get bigger every time I see you!”

Now, to a lot of people, this wont sound like a positive thing. Women + large bottom half = bad, right? Maybe in other circles, but because of the context of roller derby I knew she meant it as a compliment (and you better believe I took it as one!). So buoyed was I by this ever-growing-thighs-and-bum comment that I was practically beaming by the time I walked through my front door, and couldn’t wait to relay it to the boyfriend (yup, I’m that sad). I’m aware that for many women, a comment like this has the power to trigger a nasty body-shame spiral of self-hate and biscuit-binging. It probably would have done that to me, not so long ago. What changed? Honestly, I think it’s largely down to roller derby.

Generally, women are told to occupy less space; to thin their bodies down, be concave not convex. Now, I don’t want to be smaller. The opposite, in fact – I want to take up space. And not only take it up, but to be strong enough to really own that space, and to stop anyone else from taking it. Watching amazingly talented blockers manage to be like fierce immovable objects on the track, I think about how I want to emulate them one day. Slowly, I’m starting to notice the impact of the last four-odd months of training. I can hold derby stance for longer and longer periods of time (although striving to get lower will be a never-ending goal). I can keep up with a pace line better. My 27-in-5 is almost in sight. And, yes, my quads are satisfyingly more prominent (on legs that never had muscle definition in my life). In short: roller derby has been fucking fantastic for my body image.

I think two things about roller derby have contributed to more positive body image for me: the sport itself, of course, but also the people who play it. As soon as you start watching bouts, you realise that a diverse range of body types can be successful at this sport. There is also something very grounding about being around a bunch of other women, sweating, pushing yourself, striving to do something physically demanding, and all the while not giving a shit about what you look like. Roller derby means getting red in the face, leaving sweat marks on the floor, and stinking out the sports hall, and that’s kind of liberating in a world that teaches girls to be un-perspiring, put-together and submissive (although awesome campaigns such as This Girl Can are starting to change that). Turns out being gross together is kind of fun, and looking a certain way… not so much a requirement.

For sure, I’m not saying that my body image demons have been permanently exorcised. As much as I’m trying to immerse myself in the world of roller derby, it’s impossible to avoid the bullshit messages about being ‘beach body ready’ that still dominate basically every form of media. Negative thoughts still creep in. Belly too round. Arms too jiggly. But the more I do roller derby, the quieter these thoughts get. As a former fat-kid and natural coach potato, I might be a little late to the ‘team sport is good for body image’ revelation, but hey… better late than never!

Has roller derby had a positive impact on your body image? 

Image credit: Kelly Norwood, Flickr CC

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