derby lessons learned

Roller derby is all about learning and growing, and being better than you were yesterday.

IN SEPTEMBER OF 2016, I WAS leaving a warehouse full of derby girls. I fought back tears as I packed up my gear as quickly as I could, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. I couldn’t believe it. I had worked so hard and still had failed my second roller derby boot camp. My mom texted me to ask me how I did. When I texted her back to tell her what had happened, I started crying. 

Roller derby isn’t something that has ever come easy to me. I had never even been on skates before I started my first boot camp. And trust me, it showed. I was clumsy and awkward, and for a while (longer than I care to admit), I spent more time on the ground than on my feet.

I never played sports growing up. I did the obligatory ballet when I was five, and soccer when I was eight, but nothing ever stuck. Sports just weren’t my thing. When I was fifteen, I started Irish dance and loved it, but that was the extent of my athletic background. And roller derby is wildly different from Irish dance.

I didn’t even really mean to start playing roller derby. As clichéd as it sounds, I watched Whip It, and thought that maybe, if I could skate and had a higher tolerance for pain, I’d play roller derby. Then I decided to see if there was a local league so I could watch bouts. When I found the league, I saw that they had their recruitment night coming up, and I figured there was no harm in going. By the end of the recruitment night, I had decided I was going to play roller derby. The next week, I was in boot camp.

I failed that first boot camp. And the next one. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t used to not succeeding. Then again, I wasn’t used to trying to succeed in athletics either.

After the second boot camp, it was the off-season. Luckily, by that time, I’d made some friends in the league who were willing to work with me. During the offseason, we went to the local skating rink three or four times a week so I could work on my skills.

It paid off. By the time league assessments rolled around the next season, I was more prepared. It still took me all three nights to pass all of my basic assessments, but I did it! It took another eight months to be able to play in my first bout.

Honestly, if I had taken up roller derby at a different time in my life, I might’ve just given up. I’m not proud of it, but that was what I tended to do when something didn’t come easily to me. It’s not a great way to live life, but it’s what I did. But there was something about the challenge of roller derby that kept pulling me in. I loved the community of strong women supporting each other, and watching my body go through everything I put it through and come out stronger.

I haven’t looked back ever since. I’m wrapping up my second full season with my league, and I love every minute of it. Every bruise, every ache and pain, is proof that I can do hard things.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I still have my doubts. Sometimes, when I’m really struggling to feel like I can even skate, I wonder if I should keep going. Sometimes, it feels easier to just not go to practice. Sometimes, it feels easier to just give up. But that’s the time to really dig in and keep pushing yourself to be better.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the junior league in my league, as well as the new girls who start boot camp. I watch them go through what I went through. The struggles, the pain, and the uncertainty if they should continue. And I tell them all the same thing.

If roller derby is for you, you’re going to stick with it. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. But if it’s for you, you’re going to do whatever it takes to achieve your goals. Because you can. Roller derby is all about learning and growing, and being better than you were yesterday.

There’s absolutely no reason to compare yourself to anyone else in roller derby. I know veterans who have been playing for years who work so hard just to do a ‘basic’ move, and I know fresh meat who seem like complete naturals. It’s hard, I know. I watched girls I went through boot camp with excel and move on, and even girls who joined later than me join the travel team before I was even cleared to scrimmage.

But you just keep working. You are the only person you need to be better than. If I had been told three years ago that I’d be joining roller derby in a few short months, I probably would have laughed it off. But here I am, and I can’t imagine my life any other way. If you’re in the same boat I was, and sometimes still am, and sometimes wonder if you should just give up, I just want to reiterate my advice.

If roller derby is for you, you’re going to stick with it. If it’s for you, you’ll find a way to achieve exactly what you want to. All you have to do to succeed is be better than you were yesterday. So just dig in your heels, push yourself to be better, and never be afraid to ask for help. Your league members are your team, and most of the time, they’re willing to help you and want to see you succeed.

And if you fall, that’s totally okay. It just means you’re learning. Just make sure you get up one more time than you fall. If you can manage that, you can manage anything.

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