Hot on the heels of my new running success, I started to wonder what else I could be getting up to in the name of fitness! So, it was in this new spirit of adventure that I found myself clutching my trusty roller skates in my sweaty hands, entering a local sports hall and signing up to Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby.
“Not for the faint-hearted”
I had found the Wakey Wheeled Cats on Facebook during the second lockdown. Everything was inactive at the time, but I had clicked to follow the page. Then, when they advertised for new recruits, I received the notification and here I was.
As described in Metro, the aim of roller derby is “for one member of the team, known as the Jammer, to lap the opposing team to get as many points as they can whilst the opposing team of Blockers use tactical techniques to stop them”. It is what it sounds like: “a full contact sport … and not for the faint-hearted!” What could possibly go wrong?
First-day worries put at rest by group solidarity and diversity
Now, it is no secret that I love skating, but as I watched these strong, confident skaters zooming around the track, I felt that there was a real chance that my terror was going to get the better of me. At this point the only thing that prevented me from turning round and literally running back to my car was the scared looks mirrored on the faces of all the other new recruits. Like the first day of school, we clung together (in spirit – there was a pandemic going on!) as we confessed mutual terror. Anxiety ran through my body, my throat dry, chest tight. What on earth was I doing?
If I had been asked to make a list of all my immediate worries, fairly high up on that list was the worry that I was already too old. That the team and new recruits would all be teenagers or early twenties, looking at me in disbelief that I had even thought I could try. That it would be all hotpants, long legs and knee-high socks (Instagram can be a dangerous place). But as I peered through my fog of blind panic, I realised how very wrong I was. My fellow recruits were all a wide range of ages – as were the team. I was not the oldest – phew!
My next worry would be that everyone would be super skinny. But once again, I was wrong. I was faced with a group of people as diverse as can be, every shape and age represented. Here the emphasis seemed to be on being strong rather than thin, something which I have really come to embrace.
A life-changing obsession
Here is a tribe of women and those that identify as such, all working together with a common goal which has nothing to do with the rest of their lives. When you are speeding around the track with your new friends, all sweaty and red in the face, it’s hard to imagine that they have a regular life elsewhere. They all celebrate their uniqueness through the choice of helmet, body art and skate accessories. Within a month of joining, I realised I was completely obsessed. My experience is well summed up in this further quote from Metro:
“Your life will change forever – In the best way possible – you’ll make awesome new friends; find a new love for your amazing body no matter what size or shape it is; realise that you are capable of doing crazy, terrifying things; meet people that are just as weird as you; become obsessed with a sport; find camaraderie amongst women instead of competition; stop caring what people think so much and grow in confidence and become an inspirational role model for other women and young girls everywhere!” – TrebleMaker909
Facing down fear of falling to master new skills
Yet despite all the hype, I was still worried that I would fall and hurt myself. When you become a grown up, you tend to not fall over quite so much. But here there was an environment where a spectacular fall was often greeted with a round of applause (derby style: tapping your wrist guards together). In a life where we are so often told to be careful, here there is a refreshing enthusiasm for an almost reckless commitment to trying your best.
The culture focussed on always pushing yourself to master each skill. The week we learned how to do a quick stop by kneeling down and getting back up resulted in me barely being able to drive home, the consequence being a two-day thigh hangover.
Another week we learned how to jump, first over a line on the floor, then a tiny cone and finally an enormous fence (it was actually only 6” high – but as we each faced the fence it seemed to grow to the height of something a showjumping horse should be attempting). That week the whole class spent most of the time on the floor.
I am almost proud to say that the title of “She Who Is Most Likely To Be In A Tangled Heap On The Floor” is one most often awarded to myself. In fact, my first choice of Derby name was May Day on account of the fact that I so often find myself hitting the deck. Alas, this moniker has already been claimed by a skater in Tucson, so I had to go back to the drawing board with that one.
Dangerous and physically challenging but totally feel-good
There is no doubt that Roller Derby is indeed a dangerous full contact sport. Injuries abound. I myself, fell quite badly a few weeks ago which had me sending a quick prayer of gratitude to the manufacturers of my helmet. In order to succeed at the game, you have to be able to really take some knocks.
The fact that the other team can literally bump you off the track with a well-placed hip check is really rather alarming. Never mind the fact that you are trying to negotiate a crowded track of skaters, half of whom are hellbent on barging you out of the way. So physically, the team become used to taking some impacts and not letting it impede their performance.
I had never been involved in a contact team sport before and would previously have wondered why anyone would put themselves through this. Well, now I know. As explained to the Guardian by Dr Victor Thompson, a clinical sports psychologist based in London, it’s the “Adrenaline rush, physical stimulation, endorphin release (the feel-good hormones), the challenge, the camaraderie of working in a team, the common goal … feeling like you are alive. For many, the question isn’t why would you play such sport, but why AREN’T you playing such a sport?”
Stepping out of the ordinary with encouragement and support
It is so refreshing to be encouraged to really stretch your abilities and body as far as you can. Yet, let me be quite clear, there is also a tangible ethos of support: everyone working at their own level, encouraged to push themselves within the framework of their own abilities. Skaters usually work so hard that they don’t have time to look around and compare themselves to anyone else.
The new recruits are buddied up with a more experienced team member so that they can feel supported as they struggle to master those tricky transitions and lateral cone weaves. I don’t believe that I have ever felt so welcome. Right from day one you are part of the team, this eclectic group all helping each other to improve.
For me, it’s such a step out of the ordinary. I might be that unremarkable parent during the day – standing in the playground, making tea, pretending to do housework and so forth – but twice a week I get to grab my skates and become someone else, someone completely new for an amazing couple of hours.
For more information regarding the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association gender inclusion policy, here is a helpful link.