the price to play

The high-contact sport can leave many injuries if the proper precautions aren’t taken, but over the years, the league and the players have taken important measures to be safe, and have lowered the number of injuries. One important aspect to reducing the number of injuries the players face is to trace back a popular injury to the source and find a solution to stop it from spreading. Fred Deprez, a derby coach for fourteen years, sees it as his responsibility to help figure out what the next injury trend is. 

“A part of my job is to discuss what trend we are seeing and reach out to other leagues in our organization all across the world,” Deprez said. “There are a number of online boards and forums to help up find the cause of the specific injury.” 

A derby team from London, for example, worked with an orthopedic surgeon who helped develop a better stance for an inverted brace that was causing many shoulder injuries to occur. Immediately after the stance was changed for every league, those injuries were reduced.

This same instance also happened with concussions. At first there was a spike in the number of players getting head injuries during game. This was traced back to the helmets the players were wearing. A change was made to better cushioned helmets to prevent the movement of the brain, and head injuries became less common.

The gear is important; cheap helmets and kneepads from Walmart are not designed to take the impact that these players take. This has led to a niche market of derby gear, with companies advancing technology to help prevent injuries from happening. Specialty helmets, knee pads, boots and wheels are now coming onto the market, made by people who know the game and what is required to not only play correctly, but safely. 

In a match, before they stand up in their skates, athletes must have all of their protective gear on. The gear, combined with the training and conditioning before the players even step foot onto the rink, is the best equation the leagues have found to prevent injury.

In the Arizona League, players are not allowed to take contact without having the foundational assessment testing to make sure that they are a solid skater before adding in the more physical elements of the game. Each player must pass the three eight-week classes and the assessments that follow. If they do not pass the assessment, they must retake the class and take the test in another eight weeks. The first class is purely on falling and how to fall safely, emphasizing the adjustment of the center of balance that players often struggle with. Rebekah Kirk, a Physical Therapist and long-time roller derby player, emphasizes the importance of the stance learned in the first class. 

“Derby stance,” or “sports stance,” is a crouched position that many athletes from other sports adapt into the game. It can be seen in football, soccer and baseball.

“It increases your center of gravity.” Kirk said. “When you are in derby stance your core is engaged, your hips are locked and your ability to move side to side is increased. You’re not as vulnerable. It is imperative to playing, and anyone who doesn’t practice proper derby stance is more likely to get injured.” 

Kirk pointed out that derby stance also helps prevent concussions, as it prevents you from falling backwards and sustaining more damage from the head hitting the ground. 

With the second class cycle, players also must pass a test on the rules as well as the official league rules. The third cycle is learning the game and getting ready to play with the other players. Lynn French, who has played in the league for fourteen seasons, recently had an injury that required surgery and was unable to play for months. Her ACL was torn in a scrimmage match when she locked skates with another player.  She immediately knew something was wrong. She was given a choice to either live with her injury or get a cadaver ligament put in so she could skate again. Her doctor asked her if she thought the surgery was worth it in order to keep playing. 

“Obviously he doesn’t know derby people, and I was just like. ‘Yeah, there’s no other option. That is why I’m doing this’,” French said. 

She also blames her injury on not conditioning as much as she should have, a reason her ACL tore so easily from a relatively small impact. Keeping in shape and training the muscles not used while competing is a big aspect of not getting injured.

The conditioning is required to help the skater take hits easier and not have it have such a harsh impact on the body. When a skater is lagging on their conditioning, they are more prone to injuries as their body is not strong enough to withstand those hard hits. Conditioning is different for each skater; some prefer running, while other team members prefer high intensity workouts such as CrossFit. Kirk agrees that conditioning is imperative to prevent injury in the intense game. 

“There are a lot of movements that are often unnatural in roller derby,” she said, “and if you don’t have the proper strength supporting those muscles in the unnatural movement, then you are more prone to injury, and you don’t have the muscle strength to prevent that injury.”

As with every sport, injuries still occur; it is virtually impossible to make a sport injury free. When a player is injured, they usually head to a physical therapist to help them recover, but since these derby injuries are relatively under-researched, it makes it difficult for a physical therapist to develop the right treatment plan for them. 

Kirk explained that most of the time, a specific plan is created for each case, but since there is not as many derby patients as there are in other sports, the plans are often forgotten between cases. Kirk also stressed the importance of players taking responsibility for their bodies and being advocates when they are not feeling up to rejoining the game, pointing out that many are often jumping back in too soon after being injured. 

“I had meniscus surgery two weeks ago and my doctor released me to play when I feel ready. I could very well skate today because she said I could,” Kirk said, “but I know I’m not ready because I haven’t skated in four weeks, and I know that if I did put skates on and go back to what I was doing before, I would probably get injured very quickly.” 

Kirk makes it a point to educate her teammates with her professional knowledge as a physical therapist to help keep them safe and to understand the importance of knowing their limits. 

She said, “There are a lot of people who don’t understand that they are doing permanent damage. You only get one body and how you take care of it prior, during and after injury is the most important thing.”

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