roller derby – the sport

When I started playing roller derby, I had never successfully played a sport. My childhood attempts to participate resulted in failure and humiliation. In fact, it took me a few months to realize that derby was a sport. My story is a common one throughout the roller derby community. A membership comprised of mainly people from non-sports backgrounds has resulted in not only a unique sport rooted in DIY culture, but also some unique challenges. Not knowing anything about sports, it’s taken me a while to even notice that our community doesn’t really treat roller derby like other sports. When speaking with my more athletically-inclined friends about things happening in the roller derby community that, to me, seem very ordinary, I am inevitably confronted by confused expressions and questions, as they can’t comprehend the often extreme difference between roller derby and other sports or why we do some of the things we do. This has led me to the conclusion that we haven’t perfected the way we approach this whole roller derby thing yet. In fact, I would propose that many issues in our community have their roots in the fact that we still haven’t made the leap to not only thinking of roller derby as a sport, but also to viewing everything we do through this lens.

Many roller derby girls are known for their overuse of the f-word. But, in this case, I’m referring to a different f-word: feelings. In the current environment, the perfectly justified act of enforcing of the rules might receive an emotional reaction. What’s more, equally emotional peers might also support this unacceptable reaction. Emotions are not a basis for policies, game rules, or decisions that affect health and safety. The overindulgence of feelings is based on the idea that a league is more like a family rather than a sports organization or, dare I say it, a business. Bad or overly sensitive behavior becomes ingrained when it is consistently shown to be acceptable. I refuse to buy into any essentialist arguments like “well that’s what happens when women get together” and I don’t believe that women are naturally “hysterical” or in some way are not entitled to emotional reactions when they are justified, but the high priority placed on feelings and the amount of drama that ensues seems particular to roller derby, which causes it to be detrimentally different from other sports. 

The mentality that a league is more like a family also manifests itself in our sport’s heavy reliance on unpaid labor and the assumption that people are glad to donate their time to a roller derby league without receiving anything in return. It’s quite common within roller derby leagues to rely on peer leadership, rather than a non-skater sourced from outside the league providing coaching, which results in teammates teaching teammates. Skaters also almost always provide the administration for the league, sometimes in combination with coaching. It’s only recently become commonplace to offer monetary compensation to refs when, in the past, refs were lucky to receive a free t-shirt in exchange for officiating. When juxtaposing this against other sports, it’s obvious that in other sports, there is not such a heavy reliance on volunteers or for the people participating in the sport to do so much. Referees in other sports are paid, even if it’s just a high school kid looking to earn some pocket money. Plus, it’s a bit tricky to express displeasure with someone’s performance when he or she is doing you a favor just by showing up. Roller derby has a proud tradition of “for the skater, by the skater,” but since the playing and administering of a roller derby league seemingly involve so many others who are not “skaters,” it may be time for this motto to be left in the dust. The benefit of looking for paid help or for leadership from outside the league is that the skaters can focus on the real reason they joined up in the first place: playing roller derby. There’s a reason that these things are commonplace in other sports. 

Roller derby is also unique because of the lack of recognition of other levels or styles of play. There seems to be only one way to play roller derby, whereas in other sports, there is a wide spectrum of ways to participate in the sport. From pick-up basketball, to sledge hockey, to touch football, other sports have found ways of making room for people of different backgrounds and abilities to play by adding or reducing complexity where needed. This is perhaps the most important factor is our examination of how we can make roller derby more like other sports. Roller derby has always framed itself as the sport that is open to everyone regardless of size, shape or athletic ability. How many times have we all heard that familiar phrase or used it to convince a friend to come out to practice? As roller derby advances, it’s up to us to make sure that it’s really true. Bringing roller derby in line with other sports does not mean making roller derby only for “serious” players whose goal are to make it to WFTDA Champs, World Cup or (hypothetically) the Olympics. In fact, I’m arguing the opposite. Roller derby should be fun. There should be space for all different kinds of people to play it safely at all levels.

Getting serious about making it a sport doesn’t mean sucking all the uniqueness out of it. Things like derby names may stay or go as the community sees fit – although, really, who wants to wade into that debate – just as things like the widespread acceptance of tutus and fighting have already disappeared. Roller derby does well at honoring our traditions, but it’s time to examine why we do the things we do, and the answer can’t be “because we’ve always done it that way” or “that’s what we did at my old league.” Overall, I think we are moving in the right direction. The shift in penalties (under the WFTDA ruleset) from the now long-forgotten penalty wheel to a minors/majors system to the current penalty system that is akin to other mainstream sports is emblematic of our ability to change and evolve. We need to take our cue from sports that have made it into the mainstream and have global followings. This change has to come from within the roller derby community. There needs to be a profound paradigm shift in the way we approach this thing that draws us all together and, personally, I can’t wait to see the results.


Jules Doyle

drill: wolf pack

purpose: trap and slow a player down, work with partners/wall to slow down a pack or player, effectively communicate with your teammates, learn how to break through walls.

One person is designated “IT.” Make it a surprise by having all of the girls close their eyes and tapping someone to be “IT.” Everyone begins by skating on the track in derby direction. When she is ready, the “IT” sets out to trap and slow someone down. When she accomplishes this, that person becomes part of her “pack.” Then they must work together to trap and slow the next person, who will then join their pack. This continues until they have a pack of five. Communication is key once the pack forms to identify their target and execute a coordinated attack. For the skaters trying not to get caught, it is an excellent drill for breaking through walls and getting unstuck. The free skaters can band together and create strategies to disorient the wolf pack so they can all get through. It is a great way to practice stop derby and how to counter stop derby and how to counter counter-stop-derby strategies. Rules: The trapped skater is considered in the pack when the “IT”/wolf pack has legally blocked and slowed her down for three seconds. If a penalty is called on a free skater, she must exit the track, do a lap on the outside, and re-enter behind the wolf pack. If a penalty is called on a member of the wolf pack they lose a member. If a penalty is called on the “IT” before she acquires a pack, she forfeits her “IT” status. If a member of the wolf pack goes rogue, or the pack gets separated/split-up/forgets they are a pack, they forfeit a member. Make it harder: If the “IT”/wolf pack traps and sends a skater out-of-bounds, she may only become part of the pack if they effectively pull her back at least 5 feet or 10 feet. Put a time limit on how long the “IT” has to pick up her pack. Only allow positional blocking!

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