There’s a problem in my title, I know. If there’s one think that’s super duper clearly clear in roller derby, is that you’re not supposed to think of skaters in a hierarchy of talent. Rather, we’re a collection of varying talents. We resource what our teammates are best at, and create lineups with skaters who compliment one another. We leverage our strengths to the best of our abilities. For some, that’s being fast. For others, it’s being able to sit on a jammer till she’s stopped or even to simply be so determined and resilient to fall 99 times and get up 100. For a few their biggest strength lies in being the brains of the operation; without them the pack would lack the vision and coordination necessary to win games and play smart. Every line must have a combination of skills; A fast pack with no plan fails. A pack with a plan but without the physical ability to carry out the plans fails.
I’ve struggled to figure out what it is that I’m GOOD at. I try not to compare myself to other skaters, but I’ve been tragically frustrated to see my rookie colleagues pick up skills much faster than I could. I have to keep reminding myself that if I have to work three times as hard, it just means I have to work three times as hard. I can do these things, but it won’t happen TO me, it will happen because of me. I don’t take my progress for granted; Every inch of it has been earned.
I realized somewhere along the way that my enthusiasm for derby, prancing into a frenetic near-hysteria at times, is my secret strength. I have brainspace that permits me to think of derby 24 hours a day with an intensity I dare you to match. This is probably to the detriment to all kinds of other things in my life, but clearly I’m not concerned with balance; My passion is insistent. This relentless derby mania combined with my leadership abilities, my desire to support other skaters, and my utter lack of other social commitments created a tiny, but perfect, storm for me. That storm carried me from a turbulent and sometimes unhappy first six months on skates, to a productive, happy, Captain of my home team, The Nightmares on Elm Street, my very first year playing roller derby. This role changed everything for me, but it wasn’t without its own uncertainties and heartache.
In New Hampshire Roller Derby, the training structure last season dictated that practice plans were written and coached by Captains. With three home teams and two travel teams, this meant that every 5th practice belonged to Nightmares Captains; about one practice every three weeks. It is a terrifying day when you realize that with very limited derby playing skills, and only intermediate skating skills, you will be running practices for your entire league, including your A-team skaters. I worried about how to write a practice plan, how to command attention, and if there was any way at all to be taken seriously. Every sidebar conversation at that first practice I ran felt personal. I could tell which skaters were not impressed because it read all over their faces. Then again, every “nice practice tonight” felt akin to someone saying your first born wasn’t only the smartest in the class, but the prettiest, too. It was 3 hours of pokey stabby anxiety, but the elation of feeling successful afterwards was incredible.
I came at coaching with the same level of mania as my skating; I emailed other coaches and captains that I knew. I reached out to contacts on several different leagues. I Googled the shit out of it. For that first practice, the other Nightmares Captain, Miss Chiff N. Mayhem, and I wrote a billion page, multicolored, several draft, week long version of our plan. It was eventually pared down, cleaned up, and printed out. It was our first of many joint successes.
I’ve had truly illuminating experiences this first year playing roller derby and as a Captain. It’s a strange thing, coaching skaters whose skating abilities and/or derby abilities are more developed than yours; It’s… awkward. It’s hard not to feel like a gigantasaurus fraud every time I stand up there with a whistle around my neck and a practice plan in my hand. But if you accept that it’s awkward and ignore that fraud feeling, in the end it’s doable. Not every superstar derby player is cut out to be a coach, Captain, or leader. My secret superpower hasn’t been in what I can do physically but rather in harnessing the talents and advice of better skaters, smarter skaters. It’s been in being honest at practice, teaching what I know, and explaining any lack in competency during practice. There have been drills where I asked I more advanced skaters to demonstrate a skill I was coaching because I myself could not perform the skill. In this way, we’re all one giant pack; If I know your skills, and you know mine, we can leverage those things. My practice isn’t my own, ever. It belongs to all the skaters I emailed the days before, and to all of those who show up with their skates on, participate in my drills, and give me feedback on what worked for them and what didn’t.
Recently I ran my first practice by myself, without Miss Chiff by my side. It was also the first practice I ever ran for a league outside of my own. And the first practice I ran for male skaters. I was honored and excited at the opportunity, but it was another moment, of so many moments, of discomfort and possibility. As I drove out to Lancaster to take that yellow floor at Roll On America, I wondered what Mass Maelstrom would think of me. Would my practice be challenging enough? Would they take me seriously? Would they talk through my drills? Laugh at me? How would I command their attention? In the end, the practice happened. I don’t think it was the best practice they ever had, but they were perfect gentlemen. I did the best I could, adjusted as I went along, and asked their Head of Training for feedback afterwards. I am learning, growing.
Just last week I had the privilege of captaining a mixed one-time team of NHRD skaters for a game against Providence Roller Derby. This, too, was a unique challenge. These were skaters I was not used to skating with on a roster, over half of which were just completing their rookie year, many who had never played against another league, coming together during our off-season, to bout publicly against a very talented league. This set of circumstances forced me to think differently about how I’d coach this team, and to consider carefully how to support this particular group of skaters who had elected me lead them. I relied heavily on my sense of knowing my pack that day; Who had which skills, who would work well together, and how to manage each particular situation throughout the night as it arose given the skills we were bringing to the table. Our success that night wasn’t in points, but rather in doing what we said we were going to do, working together, and pulling lessons out of defeat.
Coaching is one more way that I’m connected to this passion of ours; It’s something I love to do and somehow, surprisingly, feel good at despite my finite derby experience and skills. Being a rookie skater who is also a Captain who coaches is not without the anxiety of failure or judgment, but, if you can build and resource an extended network of skaters, and learn to quickly identify the strengths in the skaters you have on the track with you, you will succeed. It is humbling, sure, but it another opportunity to grow, develop, and practice something you love. More still, it’s an instance to accept the faith that others will put in you to lead them; I am sincerely humbled by the amount of faith the derby community has shown in me, and the opportunities that they have provided to me as result.
It’s true, I’m not the best skater out there. Not the best derby player, either…yet. I’m getting there. I’m focusing on the things I know I do well, I’m working hard, and I’m expecting results. I’m a great Captain, and I’m developing into a good coach. I will continue to email you all when I can’t think of a clever agility drill, when I’m afraid I’ve run a bad practice, or when I’m looking for advice on writing scrimmage lines. And amazingly, you’re starting to contact me for these things, too. No matter what our skating experience or skill level, let’s keep leveraging our strengths and becoming better than we are individually, together. That is the spirit of derby; You are all my pack.