Group Leadership & Derby Disaster Recovery

note: this was written about 9 months ago (while skating for my previous league), and I haven’t felt like it was the right time to post until now. No names, no blames, but it was a bad, bad day. The post was still in the queue, and I can’t bring myself to delete it, so here it is.

There’s a day that we sometimes refer to as “the day that shall not be named.” It was long and difficult, and we really don’t speak about it within the league. I’m going to rip the band aid off here, though, because that’s kind of the point of this blogging effort.  And because I think there are lessons underneath.

It started months ago with the acquisition of an awesome venue, and ended in big derby girl tears.  Lots of them. And in-between, a floor laid over an ice rink that started sweating like a baby freshie on her first day of practice and wouldn’t stop. And you know what? You just can’t skate on water, no matter how much you want it, no matter how hardcore you are. And that water just keeps coming, no matter how much you towel it off.

While I’ve since grown fascinated by the phenomenon of sweaty floors over ice, the really interesting thing to me is how the whole operation of the day reflected issues with league dynamics and leadership, from start to finish.  It’s one of the more interesting things to have happened to/in our league since its formation about year ago.  I mean, EXACTLY a year before the day that shall not be named. Exactly. Yeah, our anniversary blows. And we’ll never forget it.

There’s a lot of work that goes into the production of a bout: checklists and models that can be followed, but much is unpredictable not pre-plannable. It’s not that dissimilar to producing any other kind of theatrical event, except that the “talent” in derby is also the crew. There’s little room for divas in derby. No one shows up at call time with their skates in hand, asking for their bowl of m&ms and their private dressing room. Derby girls know that to be a part of the skating, a part of the big fun days of boutfits and after parties (winning, duh), you have to be a part of the production, too.

Girls only know some of this when they join a league, of course.  We tell them even before their first practice that they’ll have to join a committee by their sixth practice.  Do they really understand what they’ve just agreed to? They know that there’s a head of the Freshmeat committee who ran their tryouts and their practices, and they see a handful of other skaters helping with that. They may observe the operation of scrimmages, run by refs and the NSO coordinator and Captains, who all seem to just make it happen. Mostly, freshmeat have to learn derby culture on their own, in bits and pieces, in conversations with each other and with the more veteran skaters. A new freshie learns that contribution to events builds social capital (or something like that), that it’s fun to be involved, and even more fun to hang with her new sisters.  But she soon learns that her sisters have pretty high expectations, and that events don’t just run themselves, and what are YOU going to step forward to take on?

The day of a home bout should be driven by a plan, but a sometimes-larger part of the day is responsive. Like a theatrical or musical event, there’s a sort of stage manager and dress rehearsals and testing of technology, all highly compressed into a half-day. Coordination of “the floor” begins in earnest, as soon as possible.  Mass quantities of brightly-colored, highly sticky tape are gathered, 200′ measuring tapes and at least 4 people put to work on marking the floor.  First the track, taping down a rope so that skaters can feel the boundary.  Then suicide seating, the penalty box, and areas where the audience can and cannot be during the bout. Backstage, there’s another buzz of people coordinating the skater areas: personalizing the space, setting out food and bottled water, and the ever-present derby bananas. All the volunteers who may otherwise be on the edge of the league’s scene, or even former skaters themselves, all pop out of the woodwork to help on bout day to put the event together.  Our volunteer statisticians and referees and even some family members come to help.

It’s a huge group effort, but leadership is no less important here than in any other area of league business.  The old joke about herding cats? Try herding derby girls. No really, try. Teamwork is great, but a bout, like a ship, needs a captain.  Only some of the people in the mass of volunteers have all the information necessary for decisionmaking, or the power to make those decisions.  Who’s the venue contact? How do we get this area cleaned up? Do you have towels we can use?! How about fans?!? And OMG can your HVAC guy do something about this M-F- condensation on the floor?!?!? Just like it takes referees and NSOs and heads of each of those groups to run a scrimmage, it takes leaders to plan a bout and run the day.

Because everyone comes to derby with different work/life experiences, leadership styles can vary widely throughout a league. Some girls will be very hands-on, specific and task-oriented, others master delegators, and still others will be cheerleaders who will encourage contributors to run with their ideas and only step in and veto when things get way off the rails (if at all). Some will be around more than you’d like; others less. Some will formulate ideas and pass them down to a group for execution; others will look for consensus or for the strongest idea before moving the group forward. Some will be healthy and others may be toxic. Balancing the need for grassroots, collaborative work and for efficiency and clear vision/direction is one of the challenges of derby — and any big group effort like this. I’m often reminded, when derby planning issues come up, of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.  Many of the same issues and themes are at work there — strong women building something out of nothing. And yet the MWMF leadership and structure is FIRMLY established, with extremely well-defined procedures and rules and reporting lines and rules. Did I say rules?  Of course, we’re all BRAND NEW as a league (MWMF has been running since the 70s… hell, ALL of roller derby is still new in comparison!) and still establishing all those rules and procedures that will ultimately be just part of the culture that new girls accept and continue.

When it comes down to planning a big event like a home bout, ask yourselves: Do you have a plan? Decisions made prior to the day?  A leader for the day? Clear reporting lines throughout the group of volunteers? Does the leader have all the necessary information and authority to make decisions when the need arises (notice that I said when, not if — the need will always arise)? Does everyone know what they’re supposed to be doing and who’s in charge, and when to expect to arrive? Does your announcer have all the necessary information about intro songs, rosters, and the order of introducing players? While all the great relationships that you’ve built within the league will be helpful, neither warm fuzzy compliments nor derby love are sufficient to make the day run well — particularly if something goes catastrophically wrong.

When the southerly trajectory of our fateful day suddenly made itself clear to us at about 3pm, in the form of skaters walking off a floor they could barely stand on, leadership both disappeared and re-appeared quickly.  The leadership of the bout day, such as it was, were suddenly supplanted by league leadership.  With few words, the Board was gathered, went somewhere to vote, with news of their vote broken via lousdpeaker by our Bout Day Coordinator. That same Coordinator also rounded up the various people who would pick up the pieces of the day: ticket liaison, treasurer, PR, and more. There were alerts to be broadcast across social media and our ticketing site, plans to be made for refunds. And someone needed to make a decision about the league’s message and find a way to communicate it out to a group that had begun scattering, more out of frustration and disappointment than anything else. We found a cheerleader of sorts for the two hours we remained at the venue to greet and talk with fans we had to turn away. The former head coach of the visiting team who had flown back from the West Coast just to announce the bout for us, she was amazing in her strength and positivity and good humor about it all. She picked up a loudspeaker and entertained everyone while we tried to hold it together in public. These were our heroes of the day, and I still have massive amounts of respect for both of them and the way they kept it together. They could have fallen apart, gotten angry, or just disappeared to deal with their own feelings about the situation, but instead they did everything they could to take care of their community. To listen, move forward and stand tall and face whatever the consequences were. Whatever else you look for in a leader, I think this combination has to be at the top.

Leadership isn’t something you do for you, it’s something you do for your league. It’s the service you give to your league, not a gift bestowed to you, or your tool to be wielded at will. While I think many skaters “just want to skate,” roller derby is so much more than that. If you want to put on bouts, they’re going to cost money and require planning and commitment. As a leader, you have to recognize that derby is much bigger than you. Otherwise, you’re just playing a game of thrones.

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