In a podcast a friend shared with me, Miracle Whips (a prominent roller derby player in Toronto) sparked to life as she discussed the personal philosophies of this growing sport. At one point she asked us through her French-Canadian accent:
“Why did you get into roller derby? And why do you play now?”
The other day I went on an outdoor trail skate with a handful of girls from my roller derby league. Hungry for more, I asked one girl who had been skating for a few years, about her take on the sport. She talked of seeing new skaters coming in, wide-eyed and afraid. She confessed to her own misgivings when she signed up for her first roller derby boot camp. But the conclusions she came to still stick in my mind:
“Roller derby is so unique, because it creates a space for women to be whatever they want to be.”
These encounters fed my hunger for trying to piece together this strange new pursuit I’ve gotten myself into.
It all began with a dare. A dare to myself.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon in January. I was skating with my family at the local roller rink. The music was pulsing, the neon wall decor was aglow, and my children’s cheeks flushed pink with another lap around the rink, waving to us as they passed. My husband and I took turns skating with the girls, while the other watched our toddler in the adjacent arcade area.
Once when it was my turn in the arcade, my tiny boy stood on tip-toe to reach the cue ball on the pool table. While he toyed with this, I decided he was safe enough and began looking around. Hugging my sides, I meandered along the wall, perusing the cork-board shadowboxes showcasing other events and programs held at the rink. Speed skating. The Artistic Club. Birthday parties. I stopped when I came to the glass enclosure holding posters of roller derby. My mind flashed to the few stories I had heard: once a roller derby league hosted a mud-wrestling event at a local bar, only to have one of the girls break her arm and have to go to the hospital. No thanks. Not my scene.
The rest of that winter was unusually rainy, and we found ourselves at the rink week after week, giving the kids (and ourselves) time to exercise indoor and play together as a family. Every week I perused the posters, lingering at the roller derby ones of girls in colored hair and face paint: looking fierce in this shot, laughing at each other in that shot. There was a stack of flyers on the skate rental counter advertising introductory roller derby practices for new skaters. I picked one up: “Fresh Meat Nights,” it read, “Tuesday nights at 8pm.” It sounded like some terrifying double-dare on wheels. I exhaled, looked around, and folded the flyer into my pocket.
But I wondered.
Could I make it as a roller derby girl? Did I have what it takes?
Of course I wasn’t aggressive enough.
Or racy enough.
Or punk enough.
Or goth enough.
I was a conservative Christian writer and stay-at-home-mom. I had no tattoos. I spent my evenings with sinks of dishes and meal-plans. I liked my life. I loved my family. I staked my heart to the Lord and was building a beautiful future together with my husband. This crazy idea wasn’t a life-line to save me. It was a dare. My life was full. I just wanted to see if I could do this too. It was like a great, weird, life experiment. On wheels.
But I wondered. I thought about their low-slung skates as I packed the kids’ lunches. I pictured their shiny helmets as I did my hair in the morning.
I dared to talk it over with my husband.
Then… I showed up to a fresh meat night. Then another one, a few weeks later. Then again the next week.
By the way, do you even know how old I am?!
Miracle Whips asked, “Why did you join roller derby?”
Why did I?
Because I dared myself to.
I felt like an impostor, starting out. But this, I discovered, was part of the learning process.
Fall well, and get back up.
Let me tell you a secret of starting out in roller derby:
The physical part isn’t the hardest. Sure, you fall a million times, and have to learn to skate forward/backward/sideways/upside-down/inside-out, but that’s not the hardest part.
The mental part is the hardest.
Showing up, only to fall down, doesn’t feel inspiring. It hurts the confidence more than the tailbone. I had no point of reference for it. I didn’t picture myself as a “tough derby girl in training.” That wasn’t a concept in my mind. I felt more accurately like an aging, flop-bellied mama cheating her role at home to roll around on wheels for a few hours, like a nine-year-old.
We all have our loud reasons for feeling like inadequate failures-in-waiting.
Carol Dweck, a research professor at Stanford, calls this a “fixed mind-set:” a belief that talent is something innate and natural – something we are just born with…or without. Those who are good at something are “naturals.” Those who are bad at something are “just not made for it.” This fatalistic belief dangerously removes any difference that practice and effort would make. After all, why try? I’m just not good at it.
Conversely, she found that a person who believes they can improve with effort and practice has a “growth mind-set.” Matthew Syed calls it the “mastery-oriented” (growth) vs.“helpless” (fixed) mindset. Everything comes out of this. Entire lifelong beliefs are based on these ideas. Can you guess what their respective results produce?
A growth mindset will try, fall, and get back up. It will see failures not as a death-sentence, but as a learning experience. It understands that sustained practice is the key to mastery in anything, anything we do. Those who are naturals may have an initial leg-up, but it is we who practice, who are persevere and try again, who will gain the understanding, skill, and muscle memory of mastery. We keep trying. We know we will fall. We fall well, and get back up.
Sport vs. Lifestyle
So how does this sport fit into my life? How do I belong here?
Roller derby is an interesting amalgam of a sport and a lifestyle. It is an international sport, with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) overseeing its rules, regulations, leagues and recognized tournaments. The sport’s current structure was birthed in the early 2000’s in Texas, after lying dormant for over 20 years. It has come a long way from the brutal antics of televised roller derby in the 70’s that smacked of WWF theatrics. The parameters now are global. The skill requirements are standardized worldwide. The players are athletes, logging countless hours training and cross-training.
But even as the sport is standardized, the roller derby lifestyle is completely open to interpretation. As my friend said, “Roller derby creates a space for women to be whatever they want to be.” The leagues still have their fair share of counter-culture feminist vibes that the sport was founded on. Naturally. It is a full-contact women’s sport. Aggresive personalities gravitate here. And, it also attracts more quiet personalities, nerds, gamers, hippies, mommies, working women, and students.
My teammates are teachers, scientists, journalists, nurses, and fellow stay-at-home-moms. Some go out and party. Some stay in. And for the record, I have felt zero pressure to go mud wrestling.
What I’ve found is this: I’m still me. I just like to do this too.
I still love Jesus. And I like to skate too.
I still adore my husband. And I train among other women too.
I still parent and care for my children. And I’m learning hip-check and blocking techniques on the side.
“And why do you play now?“
Miracle Whips asked, “Why did you get into roller derby? And why do you play now?
It’s been about a year since I’ve dared myself to learn roller derby. The reasons will morph over time, as life changes. But why do I skate right now?
Because it is loads of fun. I am surprised by how much I cannot stop smiling.
Because I get to tap into that brain-body connection I had long ago, as a gymnast and an athlete. I get to feel like I’m a kid again. I get to feel at home in my body again.
Because my teammates are such a joy to skate with, as I get to know them.
But mostly it’s because the resilient themes between derby and life skills run too deep to be ignored. The physical training, the pressing in, the focus, the engaging of the core, the flexibility, the boundaries, the aggression, the playfulness, the laughter, it all has a place in life too. As I become a better skater and teammate, I become a better wife and mother too.
Outside Your Norm. Not Outside Your Priorities.
I have a question for you: Have you ever dared yourself to do something before?
Let me rephrase that question: What would you dare yourself to try, if you had the chance?
Often we don’t dare because it’s not worth it to us. At least not initially. Newness hurts too much. Being a beginner – especially as an adult – is terribly uncomfortable. It feels crazy. What if none of your friends are into it? What if your loved ones don’t get it? How would you fit it into your life? You don’t have the time. Or the bandwidth. I totally understand.
But the fun thing about a dare, is that it’s an opportunity. It’s disorienting. It’s sprung on you. Suddenly you’re considering. You’re integrating the new idea into your pre-existing idea of the way you are and the way things are. You’re evaluating what can be adjusted and what cannot be touched. It’s outside your norm, but is it outside your priorities? How does it fit with your stated goals of who you are and how you want to be?
Think about how you see yourself, or how you want to see yourself. Are you athletic? Creative? Inquisitive? Active in social issues? Generous? Adventurous? Resilient? Would it be against your life-vision to engage in new ways in these areas? No. It would be outside your norm. But not outside your priorities. It might cost you in time and money, both of which must be responsibly budgeted. But if it’s not contrary to your values, then it might possibly be a good dare for you.
If you get to exist in your own life too, what dare would you give yourself, that would be within the boundary lines of your values?
As I’ve begun this journey into skating and derby, I’ve found that I can still be me, and do something entirely new. As a younger pup, I got it into my head that in order to begin a new endeavor, I had to leave at the door that part that made me, me. That was a great way to justify a protectionist posture for life. That was a fixed-mindset. That was a great reason for never doing anything. It was suffocating. My life itself wasn’t suffocating, but my attitude about my life suffocated me. If trying new things threatened who I was at my core, then it was far too dangerous to go there.
But life, God, and my own heart have proven to be so much bigger than I ever imagined! And my dare to myself to try roller derby has helped me learn this valuable lesson.
So in light of this, how about a dare?
Try a new thing. And when you’re disoriented with the newness, hold onto yourself. Do not turn against yourself in criticism of your awkward performance. Hold your own hand. Talk it out with your trusted people. Cheer yourself on. Keep trying. Fall well. Pay attention to all you’re learning, both on and off the track. This is your growth-mindset at work.
I didn’t set out to change the world, to revolutionize the sport, or to abandon my family. I simply wanted to try it out. To see if I could hack it. I was 50/50 about whether I could or not. But there came a point a month or so in when I looked around and thought, “Oh, this is it? I have loads to learn still, but these ladies seem just like me. If they can do I, I can too.”
The game of life is much bigger and broader than we think. Jesus still reigns in my heart as I skate in racing circles around the track. People of all beliefs and lifestyles skate alongside me. I’ve discovered we’re all stressed out and self-conscious and sweaty. I can love them just as Jesus commands. We each hold onto ourselves as we practice together, clapping for each fall, and reaching out to help up. The falls are evidence of trying. This is common knowledge among us.
What is your dare to yourself? What if you told somebody about it? What if you researched how to begin? What if you could still hold onto yourself in the disorienting space of a beginner? What if you could hold onto “who you are” while expanding the scope of “what you can do?”
Go on. I dare you to dare yourself.