Roller Derby? Like, Where You Knock Each Other Down?

I’ve heard some version of this question many times in the last eight months.  I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when I tell them I play derby, as they piece together some movie memory from the 70s with what they know/believe about me. Depending on their social graces, they may give me a quick once-over.  It’s ok. Yes, I noticed. I spy glimpses of questions in the eyes of new skaters, too, in the moments between excitement over ordering their gear and learning to fall, or sometimes when they see our injured players* officiating practices.

So really, how rough *is* it?

We talk a rough game… the language is a bit violent, even in offskates workouts. We talk about knocking bitches down (yes, there’s a part of me that cringes at that), we talk about our trainers killing us and beating on us, we laugh off post-training pain, applaud big hits in practice (whether giving or receiving them), and proudly show off our battle scars at the bar. Out on the track, you’re skating in extremely close proximity to other girls, sometimes really fast, and you need to be able to change your position quickly and precisely. The situation is ripe for collisions. No one wants the clumsy, trippy falls, though; derby girls have to be agile enough to deal with “incidental contact” between wheels and limbs (as WFTDA rules require).  But hitting is an essential part of derby. You’re trying to knock girls down, it’s not just about positions and plays.  Taking someone off the track by force is just good derby strategy. By knocking someone down or out of bounds, you take out a potential threat to your jammer and you make her a point (someone your jammer will easily pass). The hits are hard, and intended to knock you flat on your ass. But they’re also targeted:  not personal, not vengeful, but purposeful. It’s a game, and you’re using your body to achieve a goal in that game: get your jammer through, take out a threat to your jammer, make a space, cut off the other jammer, etc.

Ok, so it’s physical. But what sort of expectations exist out on that track, as far as the hitting?

Think football.  It won’t be an extended metaphor, because I barely understand what happens out on that field. But the central goal is the same:  get that one player of ours — the only one who can score — through a pack of girls who are just waiting to knock her down.  Only it’s like both teams have the ball AT THE SAME TIME, and they’re doing exactly the same thing.  And, instead of facing each other, we’re all moving forward, round and round, looking behind where all the action is happening. Protecting your jammer, taking out threats, physically using your body to stop people from getting to her — that’s derby.  That’s what we expect.  But we also know that everyone comes by the skills and the instincts at different rates, and that you just have to know where the danger is when you’re out on the track. Some people hit harder than others.  Some girls will knock you on the floor if you’re not watching, or just because you’re not watching. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s one of the things you have to expect when you take the track, every time. Just know where those people are, especially if you’re new.  You might not hit the hardest, you might not feel like you’re in control of the pack, but at the very least you have to watch all around you.

Maybe if you come to derby with a sports background, you have less uncertainty about the roughness, about how much you’re going to get beat up or how much beating up you’re going to have to do. Or not, I don’t know. I don’t have anything to compare it to; I have what I’ve observed and experienced in eight months, but not really much else.  I didn’t grow up with a lot of boys around (not straight ones, at least), and  I’m not a football/basketball/wrestling/soccer fan, so I have no yardstick for contact sports. At all. And it’s girls, right? How much are they really going to hit each other? We recently had a couple guest trainers, both of whom have experience playing or coaching contact sports at a high level. But derby is new for them… and the looks on their faces the first time two of us went out and hit each other, hard? About a second and a half of something that almost looked like a mix of concern and uncertainty. Another two seconds and it was biz as usual, but it was an interesting moment to observe.

This wasn’t going to be a diatribe!  But the answer to that question, how rough is it? It’s probably rougher than you think.  But come watch us and see!   Next Saturday, Bloomington Coliseum, 6:30-10ish.

*injury list in 8 months includes broken ankles, separated shoulder, dislocated shoulder, and assorted knee and ankle sprains.  Give us time.

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  1. It’s so hard to explain Derby without folks having seen a game. Someone said to me “so, what does it mean to block another player, is it always hitting” and I said “no, sometimes you just get in front of them, and just sit on them, you know?”

    Then realized they probably had a visual of me actually sitting on said player. Ooops.

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