Those asked to wear the star for their team receive a huge honor. After all, they’re in charge of scoring points. They can make or break a bout. The pressure is so immense that sometimes their opponents aren’t their worst enemy; it’s their teammates and themselves.
THERE ARE MANY skaters, and other derby personnel, out there who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Derby is supposed to be a safe place for everyone. It’s a place to feel safe and accepted when the world can be so vile. So what happens when one’s negative feelings about themselves or a situation are invalidated in the name of “good vibes only”?
An interesting oxymoron has started to enter the mainstream as of late: Toxic Positivity. Stewart Dunn, a writer for Medium.com, defines toxic positivity as “… the push for a mental state in which we only experience and show ‘positive’ emotions.”¹ So other than making a great derby name, what does this have to do with our beloved sport? The answer is a complicated one that deals with sports psychology, mental health, and the unique personalities that make up every league.
Let’s go back to the jammer. Let’s imagine, if you will, that she has a particularly awful jam. The offense didn’t work, she couldn’t break the seams, she couldn’t make the connection with her pivot, all the while her opposing jammer is racking up points. It was two minutes of pure derby hell. While skating back to the bench, a teammate yells “Great job!” As sweet as her teammate’s intentions are, that positivity can almost feel insulting. As Sarah Schuster writes in an article for The Mighty, “The hard-to-face truth is, supporting people isn’t about being ‘positive.’ In fact, when you force positivity down someone’s throat, it can actually have the opposite effect.”²
For athletes who tend to be hard on themselves, this seemingly positive attention can make everything that much worse.
Some players may want reassurance and an encouraging word, and that’s great. Other players may need something else, and that’s great too. What’s not great is demanding one strategy over another. If a player doesn’t enjoy random words of happiness when they feel it isn’t warranted, don’t force it. Don’t accuse them of being negative or ruining the mood on the bench. Just ask them what they need, preferably before the bout.
Toxic positivity can spread into all areas and aspects of derby. It is not exclusive to jammers by any means. It applies to teammates who bring up a concern and are told to “keep it positive!” It applies to blockers who beat themselves up and are reminded “We do this because it’s fun!” It applies to players who feel underutilized and constantly hear “Just be patient!” Everyone can feel the effects of Toxic Positivity, so what can we do about it? Licensed marriage and family therapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman recently posted a chart on her Instagram account (@sitwithwhit) with some helpful suggestions. She reminds people to try validation and hope instead of those toxic one-liners. For example, instead of “good vibes only,” remind players that all vibes are welcome. Instead of “great job” after a not-so-great jam, try “This is hard, and it’s okay to struggle.” Maybe instead of “just be happy,” try “I know it can be hard to be positive right now, but we’re all behind you no matter how you feel.” These are all just suggestions and ideas, and there are plenty more that haven’t been thought of yet. Obviously, the most effective thing would be to ask your teammates what they need, and of course, to respect their requests. My team leadership asked everyone what their “red zones” and “green zones” are. In other words, what makes each athlete upset and what keeps them calm, respectively. This is not only a great ice breaker activity for new players, but it’s fantastic way to learn about each other and get ideas about what will keep people in their “green zone.” You may even get ideas for what helps you too. However, as good teammates, it is absolutely crucial to respect what people need. If that means staying away from certain positive phrases, then do it. If that means validating not-so-positive feelings, do it. This is just another way of making the bench, and derby as a whole, a safer and more inclusive space.
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