Five Lessons I’ve Learned from Roller Derby

Hi there! My name is Towanda. I started skating with Blue Ridge just over a year ago in their Skater Tots program. When I started skating, I knew that it was going to take dedication, hard work, and a willingness to accept change…but I really couldn’t have imagined how much I would learn from derby about life off the track. What follows is a short summary of what I have learned in my first year as a Blue Ridge Rollergirl.

1. My body is amazing.
This is not a sentiment I ever thought I would have about myself. In fact, thinking about my body as something capable of accomplishment was previously a foreign concept. Thinking of my body as an athletic body never occurred to me. I would usually wake up, go to work, come home, sit on the couch, and watch TV. Maybe I would go for a walk or do something fun on the weekend, like tubing down the river, but for the most part, I didn’t use my body or even know how to.

I don’t mean that one day I woke up and decided that I was going to play roller derby, and suddenly, I was an athlete. Really, I wish! Instead, I started going to practices, I worked the hardest I could, and I took a break when I needed to. Slowly, I noticed things I hadn’t before. I was really surprised at how long I could keep up with drills on the track and skills that my body could do. Learning knee taps, which is one of the falling tactics to regain stability quickly in play, was really difficult. I had no core strength and struggled to lift my weight up without using my hands to hoist myself up off my knee. Soon enough, though, I discovered that my body was capable of learning and being active. I am still constantly surprised when I manage to surpass a limitation I thought was just out of the cards for me.

2. Learning and growing in derby (and in life) is tough, emotional work.
It’s interesting–I have always been an emotional person. It’s just the way I am. I cry at stupid things in movies: most recently, I found myself weeping over the Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special because they showed a clip of Gilda Radner, and I was sad that she wasn’t around to perform herself anymore.

When I started training for derby, this didn’t change about me, but some things about my emotions did. At times, they were better under control.

I noticed that when I was going to practice more regularly and eating healthier, I found myself happier and not desiring to strangle someone at work. Derby had become that outlet for my emotions that I was missing in my everyday life. When I would have a shitty day at work, I could go hit people, and usually, that feeling was gone by the time practice was over. Rather than feeling shitty and unmotivated and resigning myself to sitting on the couch to watch movies and eat junk food, I went to practice. Derby was the missing piece in my attempts to move forward on my health journey. The healthy foods and exercise motivated a positive attitude and my desire to be upbeat and not miserable. This pushed me to keep going to practice and eating better so I had the energy to make it through.

That being said, my sad emotions didn’t go away. Instead, they would show up at the worst times, like when I was really tired of being taken advantage of at a job and feeling like I was not going anywhere in my career.

My emotions also showed up at practice. For instance, I was really, really struggling with plow stops. (No matter what I did, I couldn’t get my feet or legs to do what I wanted. I had it in my head what I was supposed to be doing, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate.) I decided that I was going to go into practice, and I was going to do plows until they stuck….but really what happened is I did them over and over until I fell on my butt one too many times and that wave of “I hate myself, and I can’t do this” hit. I just sat there on the floor in the middle of my designated area and cried.

I felt like an idiot…why couldn’t I get this one stupid skill? What was wrong with me that I felt so incapable? And then, I started crying about why I sucked in other areas…like why I hadn’t done anything with my career? What was a 25-year-old barista with a bachelors in comparative religion actually going to do with her life? What was wrong with me, and why was I incapable of being perfect? All of that just spilled out on the floor, and I was pretty pitiful. Eventually, Wench–my new teammate–came over and asked me what was wrong. I really admire Wench–she has the perfect balance of telling you to suck it up and push through while understanding that sometimes life sucks, and you just need a hug. All I remember is that I left that practice feeling better…not because I had accomplished anything towards making myself closer to perfect, but because I really sat down and looked around.

3. Sometimes you have to go all in, and sometimes you have to find the balance in life and derby.
This has been my biggest hangup thus far. I will get really, really excited about something and dive head in, no excuses and no exceptions. But then a week later, I am completely burned out and go the opposite direction.

One perfect example of this is my nutrition. I went and saw a nutritionist, and then right after that went directly to the supermarket and restocked my pantry with all of this great, perfectly-balanced food that was going to make me awesome. But then three days later, I started to give up. I would eat unhealthy food during busy mornings at work, and I figured if I was going to eat crap to get through a busy morning, what was the point with the rest of the day?

All of this just serves as an example of how I tend to go all in, burn out and then give up. Recently, I am learning the beauty of moderation and being able to find the balance between too much in one direction and old habits. At the same time, though, I think every new venture needs an “all in” stage followed by a quick burnout. I know that when I get off balance, I need to jump back on the horse…or skates, rather. Some nights I may fall asleep reading the WFTDA rulebook, while other nights, I just want to spend time with my husband and my dog. I think I am starting to find that moderation now.

4. Attitude is everything. Tell your inner mean girl to shut up!
Ever since I was a little girl, all I have heard are nasty, horrible things. Some of them started coming from classmates and family members who thought it was okay to tell me I was a slut because I was wearing a skirt too short, or comment on my weight, hair, etc.  When I started skating, these comments echoed in my head: “Am I good enough? Can I actually do this? Do any of the girls actually want me there? I am so fat and out of shape…I can’t do this. I CAN’T. ”

I had convinced myself that everyone hated me and that I was stupid for trying.

After scrimmaging, sometimes I spend the next two days dissecting what I should have been doing and what I actually was doing. The problem with this is my idea of where I should be wasn’t taking into consideration that I had just started skating and just started scrimmaging. I wasn’t looking at my starting point, just the target. I can say the same thing for my weight and nutrition that I have struggled with forever. I wasn’t understanding that I need to start somewhere and change is incremental…instant gratification and dramatic results aren’t realistic or expected. and by holding ourselves to those expectations, we are doing insurmountable damage.

We really need to tell that inner mean girl to shut up and keep in mind that we are a work in progress. It’s not about being the best, but being the best we can in that moment…and working towards better.

Our coach Gabe likes to remind us: an arrow can only be shot by pulling backwards. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, just imagine that it’s going to shoot you into something great.

When I am having a particularly vocal inner mean girl moment, I try to think about being the arrow. Finding myself where I am and reminding myself that the work I put in now just pushes me further. And every once in a while, I sit back and recognize how far I have come, remembering that I am scrimmaging and kicking ass, when a year ago, I never thought I would be able to get off the floor without using my hands. I am constantly amazed at where I have come from and I am so excited to see where I will go.

5. You are constantly learning, changing, and evolving…don’t try and work against it.
What started me on this journey was wanting to make a difference in my life. I kept finding myself saying that I can’t or I won’t do something. I wanted to be capable of doing all the awesome things I dreamed of. I didn’t want to be stuck anymore. So I stopped saying “I can’t,” and I resolved to change the way I think about myself. I resolved to just do it, and if I couldn’t right at that moment, this didn’t mean that I couldn’t grow or change to be able to. Nothing is out of reach now. As long as I set my sights on it, it’s mine. I needed to embrace that change is something to be developed and cultivated. By resisting the changes I was encountering this last year, I just made it harder on myself. By telling myself “I can’t,” I undid all the work I put in convincing myself that I deserved to be there, that I deserved to exist, that I deserve to be a bad ass.

When we scrimmaged with the Regulators at the beginning of our season, they were saying over and over again, “You are somebody!” How true that is. It is great that they were embracing that idea. We as women need to love ourselves, to embrace that we are constantly changing, to know we are getting better with every practice we attend, to get stronger every time we fall down, and to realize we are worth the space that we take up. By demanding that our space is recognized, we get stronger as women and become better players…both on and off the track. I am so grateful for this last year in learning that life is constantly changing, and we are constantly growing and learning in our roles. By accepting this we become stronger both as women and as players. I am excited to see what this new year brings me both in my personal life and my derby life.

– Towanda #260