Guest post: Nine things I’ve learned in roller derby – year one

I’m pleased to welcome teammate and guest poster Gnome Stompsky who wanted to share her experiences and insights about roller derby with you! Read on and feel free to comment and share your thoughts and experiences!!!

Stompsky (centre) holds back a jammer with help from Belt-Her Face (right) and Molly Mulisha. Photo by league photographer, ISO Foto Studios

Stompsky (centre) holds back a jammer with help from Belt-Her Face (left) and Molly Mulisha (right). Photo by league photographer, ISO Foto Studios

By Stompsky

It’s been a little over a year since I started taking derby seriously. During that time,  I’ve gone from being a rookie to I guess what one would call an intermediate skater. In jotting down these notes, I am hoping new skaters will read them and think about the months ahead of them. I suppose too my audience is people considering derby as a sport, or those who might be questioning whether they want to keep putting in the time. It is helpful to know what to expect, and it is also helpful to know that every skater is constantly working to improve, and that none of it comes easily to most mortals.

    1. I have watched lots of people improve faster than me with less work put into it. This is frustrating, but ok. I think it is fair to say that I haven’t improved as a skater as fast as I would want to, or maybe as fast as other people have, but I am learning that my pace is my pace. This is a good thing to learn. The other nice thing to learn is that roller derby is patient, and will wait for you as you take your sweet, incompetent, uncoordinated, unfit time. People are nice in roller derby, and they understand it takes hard work to get better. Nobody grew up playing this sport. Nobody expects anything from you right away, and you aren’t expected to be an immediate expert. No one else is counting the weeks or the number of practices or the number of bouts like you are – and they are not wondering why you aren’t better than you are. Only you are wondering this. Everyone else just sees that you are trying and has respect for you because of that.
    2. I have not yet had that moment where roller derby “clicks” for me. They say it happens, but it hasn’t happened to me yet. In the meantime, I feel like I struggle with  something new at every practice. Every bout is a disappointment – not just in small ways, but as a totality of the experience. And yet, I keep doing it, so it can’t be that bad. Sure, I have been recognized by my peers as doing ok-fine (a couple of MVPs and suchlike) – but honestly, I don’t see it yet, and I still don’t think I really earned any of those recognitions. I still have not had any roller derby experience  – not one practice, certainly not one game  – where I felt like I owned it. What I am saying is that roller derby is hard and takes time. Frustration is the biggest challenge to overcome. It is a testament to how much fun the sport is that I continue to try to overcome it, and I don’t let it drive me away.
    3. I am my own worst enemy, and the only way to overcome that is hard work. From Kim Janna at a rookie camp last year, to Carmen Getsome at a boot camp, to 8meanWheeler at a scrimmage in Pitt Meadows this year, to pretty much every scrimmage/ bout bench coach, to fellow skaters, everyone who knows more than I do about roller derby and has watched me play or even practice says the same thing: you think too much, you hesitate, you’re unsure of yourself. And then they tell me to “keep skating” – in other words, they think I might have it in me to be a pretty good roller derby player but that time is not now, not yet, maybe not ever ’cause I’m actually getting too old. I have decided that this means that confidence is not faked, or at least I cannot fake it. I am either good at something or I am not. So in order to overcome my hesitation, I just need to be genuinely good at it. This takes time. Most things in my life come fairly easily to me, but this is not one. My second-year derby goal is to lose my hesitations.
    4. We are athletes, and we need to treat each other and ourselves as such. I did not know, when I joined derby, how much cross-training I would come to want to do, or how it would motivate me to set and attain off-track goals like running, weight lifting, or changes to my diet (I am just coming around to the fact that I need to eat more if I want to do this sport). Derby is teaching me a respect for myself that I never really had before – to treat myself to the dignity of a good diet, of decent sleep, of regular and intense exercise. This is what spoiling yourself looks like in my world, and I am starting to learn how to do it. I suspect treating myself in such a manner has had spillover effects on my mental acuity, ability to concentrate on work, and ability to focus on my kids.
    5. If you want to play roller derby, you have to show up. To practice, to boot camp, to other teams’ practices, to your own cross-training, to help with track set-up. Time on your feet is what matters.
    6. Roller derby’s cultural aspects are usually awesome and hilarious, but almost none of the performative counter-cultural aspects matter on the track. If derby’s badassery is what attracted you, or the weird outfits or the funny names, that is great. But know that the sport is a sport. And, if I may, I think it’s important to have some respect for the sport, and as an extension of that, for ourselves as women. So think about that, is all. Wear whatever you want and call yourself whatever you like, but think about it a little bit first. I want to be clear that I think having a conversation with society via what we wear is important, and derby does that it spades – our sport yells at people with a beautiful cacophony of performance.  I will probably weep if the day ever comes that I see White Trash Flash trading in her big-bird-lookin’ yellow fuzzy leg warmers for a pair of pivotstar leggings. Diversity is the best thing ever, and all sports is performance anyway. But we are women. Let’s be smart about our reality and the conversations we are having. This topic is super complicated, but probably what I am saying is “Back Alley BJ” is not a really great choice for a derby name.
    7. Roller derby’s true countercultural contribution is its relatively sophisticated approach to feminist praxis. I would argue it is the western world’s first feminist sport. Feminist philosophers/thinkers/intellectuals in academia talk a lot about ‘praxis’ – essentially putting ideas into practice. The ideas derby puts into practice every day, in no particular order:
      a) integration of different body types into athletic activity and sports performance and therefore into what our culture sees as ‘strong’ or ‘beautiful';
      b) integration of lesbian/queer sexuality as a matter of course, not a matter of “tolerance”;
      c) doing it yourself, collectively, and pretty much non-hierarchically (bout production, fundraising, administration, coaching);
      d) upsetting traditional and/or unhelpful ideas about female “respectability” and “femininity”;
      e) dudes playing the sport as  equals to women, and men playing supportive roles in a women’s sport as women have done for men for generations;
      f) the men’s sport being as open to gay/queer sexuality as the women’s sport (I am told this is the case, and it makes me very proud of my sport when I hear it);
      g) upsetting the idea that women can’t work together or productively on projects of common interest, that women cannot work together because they are too ‘catty’ or ‘gossipy’ – if this patriarchal lie were true, derby wouldn’t be one of the world’s fastest growing sports;
      h) understanding that the best players are thus because they help others improve at the sport – a true commitment to the collective project through individual excellence. This latter point, I think, might be less obvious to outsiders than the others. Yes, derby has some irritating egos strutting around – but honestly, not much. The very best players – the ones who are truly our sport’s finest – are the ones who teach, who help others, and who give back and grow the sport by building up other good players. The tension between the individual and the collective is always present in anything we do, but what strikes me as most different between derby and other sports is the emphasis on individual excellence being tied to one’s contribution to the collective good.  This is why I can attend a Red Deer Belladonnas practice with some of the best players in Alberta, compared to whom I am a total yutz, and they welcome me, and maybe only one or two of them make fun of me behind my back (that’s a joke). No but seriously, there is something deeply right with a sport when you can show up to practice with some of its most elite players, have that be completely open to you as an intermediate skater with 18 months of experience, and have people support you, give you feedback, and genuinely want you to succeed. Derby is imbued with an ethic – at least it is now, it might change – that when others get good, it is good for our sport and good for everyone. It is not a threat. Good players want other good players to play with and against, and they want their sport to be as awesome as it can be.
    8. Is derby perfect? No. It remains overwhelmingly white, class-privileged (due to, I think, the time it takes and the cost), and it is hard for women raising families as lone parents to participate, though not impossible. Derby in other jurisdictions, as I understand it, has struggled with transgender inclusivity as well, though what I’ve seen in my own experience has been pretty progressive on the topic, and certainly better than other women’s sports.  Could we do better recruitment, could we think more critically about how we support players of different backgrounds? Probably. But the building blocks as a different kind of women’s sport – I would argue, the western world’s first feminist sport – are all there. If you think about your involvement in derby as an expression of some pretty radical values, I think you’ll get more out of your experience.
    9. Skate hard. Turn left. Hit people. Derby love.
    10. -Gnome Stompsky, #4746, Deathbridge Derby Dames

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6 thoughts on “Guest post: Nine things I’ve learned in roller derby – year one

  1. Gnomey! Really well written, you are so right that no one else is counting how quickly we progress as individuals. And for every person you see that progresses faster than us, there is someone watching us progress faster than them, and judging themselves. But we don’t notice them, we are too busy being hard on ourselves. And though I did indeed weep when my team voted to include pivotstar leggings as part of our uniform, I pulled on my fuzzy legwarmers overtop and kept skating, because I love this sport for so many more reasons than its fun names and funky outfits. (though i LOVE those a LOT!)

  2. Thanks for publishing this article. I started derby training about a month ago and it often frustrates me how slowly I’m picking up things (especially vs the other girls). Reading your article reinforced what I’ve been trying to tell myself – go at your own pace, it’s okay! I’m also enjoying reading the rest of your blog too. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas!

  3. Great post. I’m a little bit older than most for someone just getting started on this derby journey (it’s a long story) and your article was so so encouraging. All the best and may 2014 be your year!

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