Seven Things I Wish I’d Known About Derby

by Logistic Aggression

Originally published on on March 13, 2013; re-printed here with permission from the author.

Recently, I did a lot of thinking about some things I never expected to learn when I started playing roller derby. It took me a long time to work these things out—arguably longer than it probably should have done!—so in an effort to shortcut some of this process for others, I’ve put together the following list (in no particular order) of Things I Learned. This list is a work in progress, but even in its current form, I think it may well be useful, especially to fresh meat.

Many of these things may already be obvious to others. I make no claims as to novelty or innovativeness; these are simply the things that I learned. Furthermore, it’s probably worth noting that derby has been a new experience for me in more ways than one. Not only had I never played a team sport prior to playing derby, I’d never played ANY sport before, outside of a compulsory, gym class scenario. (My initial enthusiasm for sports ended at age four when I was told that under no circumstances would I be allowed to play soccer since I was a girl.) So, it wasn’t just derby that was new to me, it was, well, EVERYTHING.

1. Not everyone learns the same way.

You need to work out how you learn best. Some people learn best by watching others. Some people learn best by listening to others. Personally, I learn best by doing: When I am learning a new skill, I need to try it 3,000 times until once—just once—I’ll do it right. When this happens, I can usually feel that something is different (e.g., if I’m learning a new stop, I’ll actually . . . stop). Then, I try it another 3,000 times, just trying to replicate that feeling.

I’m also someone who doesn’t have great body awareness. It’s often the case that I think I’m doing something correctly, when in fact I’m not. As a result, I’ve found that watching myself skate—in a mirror or on a video or even in my reflection if I’m skating outside!—can be a really helpful when I’m learning a new skill.

2. Don’t think too hard.

I’m a professor. I think about things for a living. I spend all day telling people that the only way to make progress is to think really hard about things. I thought this would apply to sports too. It turns out, I was 1000% wrong. I invariably skate worse if I think about whatever I’m trying to do. This applies all the more so when I’m trying to learn a new skill, such as a stop. Basically, when I’m skating, the most productive thing I can do is turn off my brain.

3. You need to skate outside of practice.

According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes around 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Of course, by that count, none of us are likely to become roller derby experts anytime soon, but it is worth remembering that your proficiency and progress will be directly proportional to the time and effort you put in. Skating for a few hours a week at practice isn’t nearly enough time to make significant progress—you need to work on your skills outside of practice too.

4. Adopt a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.”

I grew up in England during the 80s and 90s. The prevailing attitude within the British academic system at that point in time was one of “either you’re initially good at something, in which case you should pursue it, or you’re not, in which case there’s no point in trying.” Over the past decade or so there’s been a considerable amount of research indicating that adopting a “growth mindset” (i.e., believing that ability is something that can be cultivated via effort) rather than a “fixed mindset” (i.e., believing that ability is something that one is born with and cannot control) will lead to increased perseverance and therefore eventually success. (These findings are mostly due to Prof. Carol Dweck at Stanford University, though I first learned about them from Hill et al.’s report on the under-representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math.)

Consciously adopting a growth mindset (which, I’m embarrassed to admit, only happened surprisingly recently in either my professional or personal life) was probably the single best thing I did to improve my derby playing.

5. Nobody expects you to be a stellar derby player when you start out.

What they do expect is that you will try really, really hard. I didn’t try as hard as I could have (especially in scrimmages) when I started playing derby because I was embarrassed that I wasn’t very good and found it hard. I was worried that people were watching and judging me on the basis of my skills. I’m a perfectionist, so this made me uncomfortable. As a result, I thought I could just hide in the shadows until I was really good and then suddenly wow people with my skills. Turns out, I was 2000% wrong. No one expected me to be anything other than terrible when I started playing derby! But they did expect me to try as hard as I could and to throw myself into everything—even things I wasn’t good at.

Most importantly, you will only improve if you practice, and to practice you need to put yourself out there—which is precisely the opposite of hiding in the shadows. Not participating (or not participating 100%) because you’re not already good at something is only going to slow you down. The only way you’ll become good is by practicing (see above regarding what you get out being proportional to what you put in). So you have to suck it up and acknowledge that you’re going to be awful initially, but that trying—and failing!—AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE is the only way you’ll get better. And no one will judge you negatively for trying.

This viewpoint is consistent with recent research by Prof. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, who claims that the single personality trait that best predicts eventual success is “grit.” Duckworth defines grit as “a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.” Furthermore, Duckworth and her colleagues argue that grit is built through failure: therefore, in order to succeed, you first need to learn how to fail.

6. Derby’s not about skating.

If you like, well, just skating, then derby isn’t the sport for you. No seriously. It took me years to work this out. Derby’s about STOPPING and AGILITY. If you cannot stop like a total badass, you’re not going to be a good derby player. If you have to choose one thing to work on, make it stops. More specifically, make it snowplows, hockey stops, powerslides, and turn-around-toe stops.

And finally, something I learned very recently . . .

7. Offer to ref for a few scrimmages.

I love jamming. Sure, I find it incredibly hard endurance-wise, but I love the quick thinking and agility that it requires. However, because I don’t have much jamming experience, I’m not yet a super-awesome jammer (see above regarding practicing things that you have not yet perfected). So one of my ongoing goals is to work on my jamming skills. Earlier this year, I was unable to scrimmage due to policy reasons, so rather than leaving practice early, I offered to jam ref.

It turns out, if you want to be a jammer, spending a couple of scrimmages as a jam ref is an excellent way to learn more about jamming. You get to follow a jammer, watch everything they do in incredible detail, and have all the fun of trying to keep up with them. I learned so much from jam reffing and then learned even more by subsequently trying to put what I learned into practice.