I was about to hop on Twitter and post this epic book of information, when I realized that I was typing “this should be a blog post” and so it shall. Nobody needs repetitive 144 character ramblings of something that I openly admit is supposed to be a narrative.
What you’ll find in this post:
- What it’s like to play for a D1 league at every level
- Suggestions of handling those crappy moments when crap is hard
What you won’t find in this post:
- Peer reviewed articles (SHOCK AND HORROR – I know)
In case you’re wondering, yes I’m working on the skills posts that I told you about, but I also have the last of 5 reports due tomorrow, so I can’t handle brain anymore today. Let’s dive in!
The Beginning – Basic Skills
I started in March or so of 2015 with a rec league out in California. It was a moment I had been waiting for since I had last wanted to play roller derby, but seriously injured my knees during tryouts (who even knows if I have an ACL/PCL at this point). Raised a rink rat – and oddly playing bouts at my childhood rink now – I had a natural flair for the quad skate that never developed on inlines. As much as I had tried when I was younger, I just always failed – but I’ll be darned if I wasn’t able to do the crossovers on quads when my classmates were struggling to stand in gym. [That’s right, my grade school had quad skating as a gym activity]
Before I had started up with the rec league (North Hollywood Rolling Ravens), I had actually sold my entire setup the prior Halloween. I had been desperate for money and someone wanted it for a costume. I cried for about an hour after I sold my derby gear because I had never wanted anything more. At any rate, I’m competitive so I quickly transitioned to a local D1 league – Angel City Derby. I tried out after some time in their learn to skate sessions and made the league, which was only the beginning of the journey.
I went through my first round of basic skills and was crushed when I didn’t move up to the second level. Of course, this wasn’t because I hadn’t passed – it was because I wasn’t available for the assessment and wasn’t given an option at the time to do it a different day. To my knowledge, that wasn’t the case after some changing of the guards, but that’s what had happened to me. I was very frustrated, and acted out the first night of practice that I was still in the first level. One of my coaches suggested that I take the time to really hone in my skills, and after some thought – I decided to do just that. The next assessment – and the final assessment for minimum skills were a breeze. There’s also just no joy in the world than making one (or now multiple) Hollywood Scarlets smile as you nail the skills by splitting a cone or hashmark on the track with your precision.
My first season
As I’m sure is not surprise, playing my first season at ACD was extremely challenging in a way that I wouldn’t change for the world. If you don’t play for a D1 league, imagine going to rollercon every single practice. Things are well-planned and the training and attention to detail is top-tier. Yes, we had practices that weren’t stellar; people are human. However those practices were few-and-far-between.
Before I even started on Rising Stars (their subpool/beginning learner option), I made it a goal to get 8 scrimmages in on my own. I was lucky because California is one of the most densely derby-populated places on the face of the planet (I feel like there’s a map for this). There was an open scrimmage every week, plus additional fun scrimmages throughout the holidays. The skill level ranged from beginner scrims where we broke down what had happened every 3-5 jams, fun/intermediate scrims where nobody really cared what happened, and then the one advanced scrim that I attended which was kind of like putting a camera on the track during a champs bout (no, really – people were zooming past me and just avoiding me – thank you for anyone who was there and did that because I barely survived that scrim). I crushed my goal, attending 11 scrims between November and late January, and gained a lot of experience that the other people who were just hanging out over the derby hiatus didn’t have. It really set me up for success – that and the hours of footage review that I would do every week on Wednesdays.
Starting on Rising Stars, I paid close attention to skills and strategy, but was frequently in my head. Knowing what I do now, this was natural development (Fitts and Posner – oops, guess I lied about sources), but felt uncomfortable at the time. I continually pushed during practice and off-skates, taking suggestions from everyone I could find and basically making people my mentors throughout the year. Everyone was happy to help, and I got noticed to the point that I began attending local travel team practices at the request of leadership so that I could prep for bouts that weren’t technically mine. I had become the liaison for the Rising Stars (consider it like a captain position, but not quite as heavy input), and served as an alt or low rotation player for competitive bouts. This was the beginning of my entire life in derby.
Playing up in D1
The reality is, if you’re in a D1 league, you’re likely going to play up for most-of if-not-entire derby career. It’s a mind f**k. But when you’re in the same league as someone who is derby famous – it’s just reality. Once you’re 8-10 years in, you’ll likely be the goal, so buckle up and enjoy the ride!
My start was quick and exciting. I made the local travel team half-way through my first season and – by some random coincidence – ended up co-captain my first season. Don’t worry, that wasn’t for skills, it was for organizational qualities. I hope you laughed if you know me personally because I am honestly the least organized person that I know. I was rostered and played, and felt incredible heading out of my first season. I was a rockstar in my mind, but hyperaware of where I was and how much growth I still had to make. Perhaps that’s what made pushing so much easier than later years.
At the end of my first season, I needed a change personally due to a toxic relationship that I was in, so I put myself first and moved back to Chicago just before the 2017 season .
The transfer to Windy was an experience. I vividly recall saying that I was definitely C team material because of where I had been learning and playing previously, but Windy was in the middle of a rebuild, so levels were easily skewed in deference to who might pan out. That was me. I was targeted for A/B travel team by the captain, who saw the push that I had and the skills I had gained, and had suggested that I not “sell [myself] short” by only putting down the C team as my target. Understanding basic social skills, I read that this meant I had misjudged my level and followed suit.
And I made the travel teams at Windy.
I was rostered as a B skater, but leadership took a chance on me early in the season and threw me on the charter to see how I handled it. I rose to the occasion as much as possible, but struggled with strategic awareness and body movements that *anyone* in their second year would struggle with. Still, I pushed myself hard to level up quickly. Admittedly, this was probably what slowed down my enjoyment of the sport that year because I couldn’t be at my level and learn where I was. At the same time, I skated at The Big O and went with the charter to Seattle for playoffs, which I had never dreamed possible as someone who was in their second year of play. I was constantly under the stress of trying to be there for my team and to improve for the sake of the team and the league. I rarely stopped to say “hey, let’s play”, it was “hey, let’s sports”.
Going to the major tournaments (e.g., Big O and Playoffs) was a wakeup call about how I was feeling about myself. I was grateful for even being there, but hypercritical about my skating ability and success or failure in the eyes of leadership during Big O. I had sustained a head injury during a scrim vs. Arch prior to playoffs and absolutely could not process the way that I had in the past, so I wasn’t even rostered at playoffs that year.
As someone constantly recognized for leveling up play, pushing, and making progress, this was my first taste of pushing hard but not getting what I really wanted. I took it in stride and accepted the fun vacation that I got out of it, and even threw my skates on for open track time. My logic there was that I had put in enough work to justify being on that track, even if I couldn’t be useful on the track for my team – and I did just that and was happy with it. I still have the video of me skating the track and the stadium where it was held as a memory (and I’ll likely be buried in that skater pass).
Shortly after that season, I was voted MVP for the season by my team as a blocker and overall – so it was easy to see that someone saw my work who wasn’t me.
Year 3 was a different kind of challenge. I had become thirsty for the charter and wanted to progress even more, so I pushed myself to do more off-skates, train harder, become better and overall shoot for that charter spot once again. I attended nearly every practice (this is my trend – 100%+ attendance), watched footage, and worked on off-skates. I researched how to be better as a trainer constantly and integrated what I knew about the brain into my practice.
It seemed to be that, no matter how hard I pushed, I wasn’t playing quite as much or wasn’t making that jump to the charter that I wanted so badly. Again, this is typical development, and I had identified it as such at that point because I had done some much research into sports development theory. I was patient. I persisted.
Towards the end of the season that year, I made a breakthrough by letting loose. I rarely get penalties, but this was the first time that I stopped thinking about my body and went into autopilot with my motor skills and game play. My coaches recognized it and told me to shoot for the charter again the next year because the spot could be mine. I felt good coming out of that season, but didn’t go to playoffs because I choked on our final scrimmage. And so it goes for D1 play. I doubt that I would have even been rostered if I hadn’t choked, but I was disappointed.
Shortly after, I became captain for my hometeam in an effort to keep us on track for the year an to continue to help us rebuild. We had a lot of transfers that year, and I was stressed about how my skills would fare against new people – so I pushed again to try and improve as I moved towards tryouts. I was stretched thin. It’s no wonder that I nearly broke my ankle at an off-season practice for Travel Teams when I got hit by one of our formidable All Star blockers, and it was a wakeup call for me to say the least. I woke up the morning after and had to use my hamper as a walker to get to the bathroom. I knew then that my year would be different for 2019.
Year 4 – Hell year
I’ve laid out before my disappointment with parts of last season, but I doubt that I’ve ever truly gotten into it in-depth with people. As the hiatus prior to tryouts presented me with a nasty sprain, I underperformed at my tryout for that year, and didn’t make the team that I had been on for so long. I was disappointed, but it was other things that had played into my decision to step back from derby for part of the season and focus on other things. A majority of it was my mental health, and for some reason I wanted to start a business. So, I distracted myself and just played for fun.
What I didn’t tell anyone on the internet was that I had made the cusp of the B team despite my injury. These skaters were to have some practices playing up, and was honestly a miracle given the fact that I had a hard brace (think of a walking boot inside of a skate) on during my tryout. I left it behind to work on me because derby had stressed me to the point that I needed to heal – both physically and mentally.
The time that I took off was for-sure the hardest as our travel teams played out a beautifully competitive season against opponents that I desperately wanted to play. They played in fun venues, and I watched my skills deteriorate from under-use. As mid-season tryouts approached, I bowed out of regular rotation at practices because I started to become a danger on the track to the brand new skaters who I would routinely launch from my controlled hits. It was time; I was ready.
I asked to be considered for the B team, but wasn’t surprised or upset when I made the C team the second time around. I had let my skills deteriorate to grow my heart and brain to a place where I could handle playing-up again. And that’s ok. I had stopped off-skates for a while because I was too depressed to do it. And that’s also ok. But when I started on that C team, I came out swinging. I remember my skating being powerful the first scrimmage we had, and during early practices – to the point that I was told to tone it down a notch. I did, but ended up ramping back up again.
My first bout with the C team, I was lower rotation. I was frustrated, but reminded myself that I was new there and had let my skills slip, so I was where I should be. I also reminded myself that this was a chance to prove that I deserved more play time – so I pushed again. And I jumped rotation by the end of the bout, and jumped rotation again by the end of the season – often playing back-to-back jams in the last bout of our year.
Year 5 – Recovery and outlook
So, here we are. Half-way through my hometeam season for the year, and speaking from experience. Where am I now? I’m moderate-to-high rotation on my hometeam. This means that I go out with the higher level players more frequently because I have the skills and knowledge to execute and help us win. It’s a nod to my work thus far, but definitely not a signal to sit back and relax. I played the best I ever have last night at our bout – and this is what I was told, not just how I felt. I jumped rotation again by the end of the bout because of performance, but again it doesn’t mean I can rest on that.
I’m in the B/C heat (just by looking at where everyone was last year) for our tryouts – meaning that I need to prove myself again, but I’m ready. My skills are where they are, and my brain is in an even better place than last year (yes, thank you and please let’s keep it that way).
While I’ve never been one to expect to be rostered or expect play time, I feel that I can handle it a lot better now because of what I’ve been through. I’ve been to the top and the bottom. I’ve been through hell and back again. I’ve been the one watched by people and envied, and I’ve envied my friends who get to do the cool things while I skate in circles on my endless basics. So what have I learned?
Never expect anything
Be grateful for what you have at all times – and I mean that. When I look at how things went for me, I was grateful even as I was at the “top” of my trajectory so far. I didn’t expect play time, but was excited when it was there for me. I never expect MVP (and honestly I never get it), but I’m always pushing for it even if I don’t get it. The reason that this is important is that you’re more flexible when you have the flexibility of disappointment or alternative outcomes in mind. I think of it this way: if I was planning on x, y, or z then violating that outcome puts me in a place emotionally where I wasn’t planning and that’s going to set me off. It doesn’t matter if it’s work, derby, love life – anything. That’s when we become upset. So, train yourself to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Do this, and you’ll reduce the likelihood that you’ll experience that dissonance in the future.
Keep pushing, except when you shouldn’t
Playing up means that you’ll always end up slightly disappointed or needing to push harder. This is just the way it is. When I think of the challenges that I’ve endured so far, I can see now that I continued to push too hard instead of knowing when to take a break – which is as dangerous for your trajectory as it would be to not push in that situation. It’s a delicate balance, but you can base it on how you feel.
If you are:
- Depressed about derby
- Anxious when it comes to doing the things you need to do to set yourself up for success (read: practice, off-skates, footage review etc)
- Getting jealous in an unhealthy way of other people or getting entitled to your spot where you are
You need a break. You need at least a few months of not derby, and I’m downright serious. You need to go learn how to use a loom or to try out long distance running or literally anything that isn’t going to trigger those emotions so that you can separate yourself from where you were. I didn’t do this. I let myself become wrapped up in where I had been instead of where I was going, and this lead to a forced break instead of one that is calculated. Periodize your life. Accept that your life as an adult has seasons just like derby (should). Accept that you will have rough times when you can’t devote yourself to the sport, and know that it isn’t forever. Do that, and you’ll get so much better in the end because you wont burn out.
Ride the wave
Find the fun stuff in your league and surrounding leagues. Go to rollercon, take a class, chill with your lower-level skater, or go to an open scrimmage. You never know how much that will help you until you do it. Enjoy the good times while they are here and you’ll always have that to hold-on to.
When I’m sad or frustrated, I take out the broken keychains that came attached to my MVP awards in 2017 and look at them. I remind myself that I was seen and that people continue to see me. I take out my skater pass from playoffs and hang it on my wall. I look at footage from Big O. I take out old emails that have been sent to me about my progress and I read them. It’s these things that will save you from the hard points and remind you that where you are is where you should be at that time. It’ll keep you going and keep you grateful for what you have.
Trust the process
This one’s hard for me. I do trust my leadership, and I’m also super anxious. But when I trust the process, it’s just 10x easier for me in the long run. Our leadership is strong for both hometeams and travel teams at Windy – so trusting them is ultimately the right move in the end. Trust your leadership too. Put onto them the responsibility that they are supposed to have, which is to care for their skaters and ensure that everyone progresses. Hold them to this when they are not fulfilling their end of the bargain, and know when to ask for more opinions. But in the long run, trust the process.
Welp, tryouts are coming. I tryout in 5 days. I’m intentionally taking time off of practice before we hit tryouts because I know that my skills are ready, and I don’t want to be possibly injured a second year in a row. I trust where I’ve been, and I’m fine with whatever outcome happens on the other side of that tryout. I’ve planned out trajectories for the season that include multiple outcomes so that I can work on my plan day-1 regardless of where I fall. If I make the B team – I’m derby come hell or high water for the season. I’ll have work, but I’ll be focusing on derby first. If I make the C team – I’m derby come hell or high water through the way that our pipeline works. That means a different set of off-skates, different types of practices to attend, and ultimately a different structure for my weekly schedule.
I’m ok with either option.
What I’m not doing is giving up. I’m not giving in on my 5th year. I’m not “ok” with just staying where I am. I’m not listening to what my brain has told me in the past. I’m pushing forward. I’m coming in hot to this season, and I don’t plan on a speed check.
And with that, let’s go.