This post is brought to you by Deep Heat! Well, not really, but it ought to be for the amount they’ve saved my ass (literally) this past week.
The reason for this? I’ve taken up roller derby!
At least, I’ve joined my local league’s new skaters programme. It’ll be a while before I “play” the sport, but you need to learn the skills before you put them into practice. This is true for any sport, but I’d say it’s a potentially steeper learning curve with derby because, you know, other sports usually involve your feet being directly on the ground – not strapped to eight wheels that will slip out from underneath you with astounding speed if you’re not careful.
I’ve never been “sporty”. I was an incredibly unfit teenager and was always picked last in PE. I had major body confidence issues growing up – I always thought of myself as the “fat one” and I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with food. Basically, I resigned myself to never being able to play a sport. I had no interest, because to me, sport equalled being laughed at by peers and patronised by well-meaning PE teachers who only exacerbated my feelings of “otherness”.
But then I discovered roller derby.
I think, like many newcomers to the derby community, I discovered this wonderful sport through Whip It. Drawn to the film by Ellen Page, I foisted it upon all my friends at my 16th birthday “movie and food and chill” session (I am reluctant to call it a party. A party animal I was not. I am not). Fast forward a few years down the line, and I’m an 18-year-old fresher struggling with a brand new depression/anxiety diagnosis. Spur of the moment, I decide to buy a pair of skates.
I think I wore those skates about once; I totally freaked out because OH MY GOD SKATING IS REALLY SCARY AND THE GROUND IS SLIPPY, and then tucked them away in my wardrobe. I have proper derby skates now, but perhaps when I’m home I’ll take my old Rios out for a spin. After all, skates meant for casual recreational skating are built with much stickier wheels than those on derby skates. If I can skate on derby skates, I’m sure those ones will be easy peasy.
Anyway, after three years of obsessing over roller derby and watching YouTube videos and just generally being a bit of a geek, I finally plucked up the courage to go to my first bout a year ago. It was a bit intimidating, because I went alone and I often feel quite awkward and anxious when I don’t have a buddy to tag along with. What awaited me was something even more amazing than I could have ever imagined.
I immediately felt like I was with family. I remember watching one of my local league’s teams skate out and feeling the music and the exciting, fast-paced, witty commentary pulse through me. I think my jaw hung open the entire time, I was just so awed by the whole experience. I actually cried a little bit at just how overwhelmingly positive the atmosphere was. For the first time, I saw athletes who looked just like me. Chubby arms, wobbly tummies, tattoos, visible muscles, crazy leggings, short women, tall women, women of all ethnicities. All of them offered a unique blend of talents, and the crowd went wild for every single one of them.
I’m not religious, but I assume this is how a spiritual awakening feels. I knew I had to get involved. After all, this was a sport for the girls who grew up feeling like the underdog and, at times, the outcast. There was space for everyone – why couldn’t that be me? Unfortunately, this was not a good time for me to start my derby journey. I was a poor, unemployed student, and I had a dissertation to work on. Besides these fairly legitimate excuses, there was also this niggling voice inside my head telling me that I was like Bambi on skates and it would be ludicrous to even try.
In November, I went along to a full-day of derby bouting, and once again I was overcome with this feeling that I had to be doing this sport. Until then I’d told myself “maybe next time…” and “maybe once I’ve taken my skates at home out of the wardrobe and proved to myself that I can actually do it…” but this time, I realised that if I didn’t commit sooner or later, I was just going to keep making wussy excuses and I was never going to learn how to play my favourite sport in the world. I was never going to be able to create that joyous, exhilarating atmosphere for other fans. I registered my interest in Auld Reekie Roller Girls’ Skate Skills programme in December. Unfortunately, life got in the way, as it is wont to do, and I never pursued it further because I just assumed it would be too difficult to fit it around my work rota (see what I mean about creating excuses just because I’m a wuss?).
And then, one evening at the start of this month, when I was having a really horrible day, an email found its way into my inbox that said there was a space for me on the programme, should I want it. I immediately burst into tears. I had been growing increasingly frustrated with my lack of work-life balance, mainly due to the fact that my anxiety had gotten so bad that I had shunned any notion of having a social life. I wasn’t doing any clubs or activities outside of work because it just seemed like too much effort. I was convinced I had become a boring person. But derby felt like a lifeline, and I decided to grab it with both hands, an open mind, and my heart on my heavily-padded sleeve.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I’ve completed two weeks of the Skate Skills programme. I’m not a natural skater. I still feel like Bambi, especially when I take those first few strides each training session. But you know what? I think I’m getting the hang of it. I’m slow, but I’m motivated. Nothing feels better than getting home after a training session, having a nice hot bath, and reflecting on how much I’ve accomplished in just two hours. Last week, I was the slowest skater, I fell a LOT (my tailbone still hasn’t forgiven me), and I was so convinced I would never improve that I had to take ten minutes out just to have a good blub and vent to one of my fellow freshies about how stressful I was finding it. I can’t knee tap or glide on one skate yet, and my skull crushing is patchy (note to non-derby readers: this is not literal skull crushing. I know derby is a contact sport, but crushing an opponent’s skull would definitely see you sent to the sin bin. Skull crushing is actually just a way of skating without lifting your feet from the track), but since then, I’ve learnt how to pick up some speed, stop in two different ways, fall safely (i.e. on my knees, not my bum!), and recover quickly from my falls. Nothing feels better than jumping straight up onto my feet to continue skating, to continue pushing myself. If I pass no other minimum skills in this block of Skate Skills, I know at least that I am “recovery queen” (a new derby friend’s words!) and will pass that section!
Another bonus of roller derby is that EVERYONE IS SO DAMN NICE. Our league’s motto is “it’s nice to be nice”, and this definitely shows. Even when I think I’m doing the worst job ever, there’s always someone skating past me saying, “hey, that was really good!” and the coaches are incredibly patient. After all, it feels incredibly unnatural to wear skates when you’re starting out, and they really understand this. On top of this, everyone in derby is encouraged to take part in other ways as well, such as helping at bouts or joining a committee. Yesterday I did the music for a bout and it was great fun – plus everyone commented on how much they enjoyed my playlist! It’s something that a few people suggested I could do again in future, which is really pretty exciting! This community feeling extends beyond just the league – there’s a Facebook group for derby skaters (particularly freshies) worldwide, which has been an incredible source of emotional support and practical advice.
In a way, skating feels a like lot therapy. I can go in there each week the most tense, anxious person in the world, and by the end I feel like someone has given my brain a massage. I find I skate best when I employ some of the skills I learnt in therapy last year. For example, I know how to recover when my confidence takes a knock and I just want to curl up in a ball and cry (my solution is to take a quick break to re-formulate my thoughts, take several deep breaths and some water, then keep going with even more vigour – and that’s fine by the coaches, so even better!). I know that to skate my fastest, I need to go into a semi-meditative state, where I’m not thinking about my actions, I’m just staring ahead with deep focus and letting my body take over.
I’ve so far found that derby has reinforced these lessons from therapy more than anything else in my life has. It’s made me realise how to feels to want to persist, rather than doing something out of obligation to an external party.
Who knows where this new mindfulness technique will take me next?