Sunday, March 20, 2011

Everything I ever really needed to know, I've learned in six weeks of Fresh Meat derby practices

From the outside, derby looks like fun. And it is, but it's much more than that. It's also a test of character, a source of sisterhood, and a trial of determination. I've only been Fresh Meat for six weeks, but the connections I've made with my fellow Freshies are already strong and satisfying. We've learned and grown so much in a very small amount of time. Here are just a few of the things I've learned in my short tenure as a fledgling derby player.

Use your voice, as loudly as necessary. Derby is a cooperative sport. A bunch of uncoordinated skaters will create a chaos that the opposing team can just avoid to win. But a team that communicates on the track can formulate and execute a strategy together. Strategy, along with strong skating, wins bouts. But for strategy to be possible, each skater must find her voice, and make it heard.
When you're skating in close quarters with others, it's important to let them know where you are. Shouts of "Inside!" or "Outside!" let skaters ahead of you know you're coming up. Then they can accommodate you by making a space in the pack for you to get through safely. For skaters like me who were previously more comfortable in the library than the rink, this can be challenging. My first shouts during practice were more like squeaks--and the huge, juicy mouthguard in the way didn't help. I'm pretty sure nobody could hear me above the sound of a hundred wheels scraping the hardwood. So when one of our amazing trainers called for me to yell louder, it was hard. I think it was hard for some of the other Freshies as well. Many of us have been raised to be "nice girls" and not yell at others. But in derby, you've got to make your voice project if you want to be heard. That means yelling.

Being encouraged to shout translates into a handy dandy life lesson, too. For those of us who would be content to fade into the background and not rock the boat, derby can be an exercise in advocating for yourself. First, exactly what is it that you need? Identifying your needs is the first step in getting them met. How do you need others to accommodate you so you can get what you need? As independent as we would like to imagine we are, we can't always meet our needs all by ourselves. Sometimes we need to work with other people to get our needs met and function within a group. Once you identify your needs, figure out what you can do alone and what you need to ask for from others. And finally, perhaps the most important question: how do you expect others to know what you need unless you tell them? There's no such thing as ESP. People can't read minds. So speak up, and speak as loudly as you need to. Let people know where you're coming from, and then you can accommodate each other. Like the bumper sticker says: "Speak your mind, even if your voice trembles." Finding your voice is an essential skill in derby, as in life.

Listen at least as much as you talk. This is the flipside of the previous lesson. Yes, advocating for yourself is very important. But so is listening to others as they advocate for themselves. There's more than one reason our helmets don't cover our ears.

We've already established the importance of communication on the track. But shouting is only one half of the communication equation. If you shout out your position and your needs, but consistently ignore the needs of other skaters and bowl right over them, your team can't execute its strategy effectively. You're also liable to get a reputation as a derby diva. (Not that my team has any of these! We are all wonderful, thoughtful skaters.) A successful strategy needs each skater to listen for the communications of the other skaters, and do what needs to be done. In practice, we're told to look over our shoulders to see who is coming up, and listen for their position so we can accommodate them as they skate through the pack.

Again, this translates readily from derby to life. Imagine using all your nerve to raise your voice and ask for your needs to be met, only to be ignored. How would that make you feel? Pretty lousy, most likely. This is the Golden Rule of derby and life. If you want to be heard, listen. This is why you have two ears and only one mouth. So, listen to your teammates, in life and in derby. Help them achieve their goals, and they will help you achieve yours.

Of course, listening doesn't obligate you to always say yes, and others are not obligated to always say yes to you. But that's okay. Healthy relationships involve people who aren't afraid to make their needs known and help others meet their needs. But sometimes negotiation needs to happen to make sure everyone's boundaries are respected.

It's okay to let people help you when you're down. As a mother, I'm accustomed to being the one who wipes away tears and fixes up the boo-boos. When I decided to give derby a try, I wasn't prepared for the humbling experience of letting others take care of me.

At my last practice, I began my sprint from the starting position of the Devil's Mattress drill to find that my knee felt like someone was stabbing it with an ice pick. I supported myself on the other leg and used the gimpy one to lamely propel myself over to a toadstool. I sat down and removed my knee pad to check things out. (I'm not sure what I thought I would be able to see from the outside, but the move made sense at the time.) Everyone else was sweating their way through the drill and I didn't want to interrupt them, but I wasn't sure what had happened to my knee. Since I'm the biggest girl in the Fresh Meat crew and was probably the least fit when we started, no one is surprised when I have to sit out for a minute to catch my breath. So no one knew I was injured, and I didn't tell anyone. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed. I hadn't even fallen.

After a few minutes, one of our trainers must have noticed that I was looking pastier than usual. She skated over and asked if I was okay. "My knee," I answered, and she swooped in to get me fixed up. She removed my skates and fetched some ice. By that time, the drill was over and my teammates were skating over to join us on the toadstools. As they realized I was hurt, each one leapt into action. One offered me Ibuprofen. Another used an Ace bandage to attach the ice bag to my knee. One simply sat beside me with her arm around me. Even amongst all that derby love, I felt like a big baby who hurt her widdle knee and had to stop skating. Our trainer spoke gently and reassured me that everyone has moments like these.

Their kindnesses overwhelmed me. I lost my cool and started to cry, which just made me feel like even more of a baby. I am accustomed to being the servant, not the served. It seems counterintuitive, but it can be an exercise in humility to accept help from others. Being in the position of the helper is actually a powerful position. It's active, where being helped is passive. For those of us who prefer activity to passivity (and I'd wager that's most of us who gravitate towards derby) accepting help can be a tough pill to swallow. But since I know that if one of my teammates were down I would be thrilled to do anything to help her, I know that it gave my teammates and trainers a sense of satisfaction to have helped me.

(The knee problem, by the way, turned out to be Iliotibial Band Syndrome, an overuse injury often experienced by long-distance runners that can be aggravated by uneven training, such as skating counter-clockwise most of the time. It's easily fixed with certain stretches combined with rest, ice, and elevation. But for someone who has always been overweight and was pretty sedentary for much of my life, having an overuse injury is a certain kind of awesome. And that brings me to my final, and perhaps most important lesson.)

You're capable of things you now think are out of reach. If anyone had told me even a few short months ago that I would be joining a roller derby team, I would have laughed and called them crazy. I've always loved the sport of roller derby as a spectator, but considered actually playing it out of reach for me. I figured I was too fat and uncoordinated for derby. As a kid, I was the one who did everything she could to get out of P.E. If I had to play, I stayed far enough away from the action to never risk having to participate. I sacrificed myself early on in every dodgeball game so I could sit out. I always wished I had the confidence to participate in a sport. But a lifetime of body shame is a powerful deterrent. It creates a vicious cycle: avoiding physical activity with the excuse "I'm not fit enough to play sports" guarantees that you won't ever get fit enough to play sports.

So, two months ago when I saw that Greensboro Roller Derby was holding tryouts, at first I didn't think I would be able to participate. But I really wanted to participate in this exciting new league. I had been to their bouts, and the GSORD energy was tangible and tantalizing. When would I have another chance to be a part of something like this? So I decided to at least go to the information session, and perhaps just offer my services as a volunteer for the league.

At the information session, each prospective derby girl received a handout. Inside the handout was the Greensboro Roller Derby mission statement:

"Greensboro Roller Derby is an all-female, skater owned and operated, Flat Track Derby league that fosters sportswomanship, athleticism, and teamwork. We do not discriminate against race, religion, sexual orientation, or body type. Greensboro Roller Derby strives to make a positive impact on its members, the surrounding community, and the sport of roller derby. Greensboro Roller Derby does not endeavor to be a profit making organization, and hence will work to give any net profit back to the community via donations to charities and non-profit organizations."

Wait, what? Did I read that correctly? "We do not discriminate against... body type." There it is again! I had to read it several times for it to sink in. Maybe it wasn't so out of reach for me after all? I decided to come back for the boot camp. After boot camp, I felt invincible. Sore, but invincible. So I decided to come back for tryouts. And just like that, I became Fresh Meat.

Now, I'm not "there" yet. I still need to pass assessments, and a home team has to want me as a player enough to draft me. I don't know how long that will take--I might end up repeating the Fresh Meat process, maybe more than once--but I am determined. I'm going to do this. And this newfound determination has me wondering: what else could I do if I only knew I could do it? Could I get that PhD I've always pined for but thought I wasn't really "PhD material"? I didn't think I was derby material, either. But I'm proving that wrong, slowly but surely. That's why this is the biggest lesson I'm learning from derby: our potential is much, MUCH greater than we sometimes think it is. If you think you can't do it, then you won't even try. Don't knock yourself out of the running before you even enter the race. Try the things you want to try. You never know what you're capable of until you do.

Derby love,
Pwn of Arc


  1. FANTASTIC! Thank you Pwn of Arc.

  2. What a wonderful, insightful post Pwn. I loved it. We should post this to derbygirlsblog!

  3. Wow. What a great post... and the lessons you learned are just so very real and thoughtful. I could easily see myself breaking down if I let others help me too, after so much time invested in taking care of others as well as myself.

    I hope you make the cut and get on a team... if only that then we can start hearing the blow-by-blow of an actual game.

  4. Pwn of Arc... you took the words right outta my mouth.

  5. thank you for this. as a big girl and a 2x freshie, these are such important lessons. i am reposting this for our girls. hope you dont mind!