Beating Derby Depression
The first time I ever got discouraged - like deeply, existentially, discouraged - playing roller derby was about three months after I strapped on skates for the first time. I emailed my coach to tell her I didn’t think I was improving any more and she emailed back to tell me about when she got her start. She decided that she would put in extra effort for awhile until things started to come more naturally. But, she said, I was getting better every practice. Perfect advice right? Equal parts praise and encouragement exactly what you need when you’re getting started. But I think the part that really spoke to me was “for a while” - It will be hard, yes, but it will not be hard forever. Just for a little while. I worked very hard that year and for a first timer I did okay. I went from feeling paralyzed when I thought about my future to occasionally overtraining. I’m still learning how to be an athlete to this day, but skating in the moment and not getting too concerned about what lay ahead was ultimately what kicked me into gear and gave me some initial momentum.
The momentum didn’t last forever. I suffer from chronic depression and internal and external forces sometimes have conspired to slow me down. I’ve gone to practices unable to convince myself to move my legs fast enough to participate. A major depressive episode can be as taxing to my motivation as a chest cold can be to my stamina - but for whatever reason, it’s not so easy for me to call in sad.
I’m not completely rid of my depression. I’m more or less stuck with it. Even worse I’ve suffered from bouts of purely athletic depression - where I’m happy and productive most of the time and uninterested and discouraged on the track. Roller derby is not a substitute for a mental health professional. I have however, learned to manage my athletic depression so that I can stay sharp in spite of the emotional obstacles that come my way.
Most importantly, I've learned to identify depressive episodes as they come on and recognize that the depressive mind does not represent reality. When I lose confidence I remember that I am capable of taking on the challenges before me. I've always been up to the challenge and the depression will eventually lift just like it always does.
Next is the advice my coach gave me: it will not be hard forever. Maybe I don't want to practice, cross train, or otherwise take care of myself. Maybe I'm convinced I'll never succeed. But it doesn't matter whether I succeed. I remember that even though I'm plagued by negative thoughts, the training plan I'm following was written by a much smarter, more ambitious version of myself so I should shut up and stick with it. I don't worry about whether I'll take care of myself tomorrow, I just make sure that I'm skating in the moment and taking care of myself now.
I reach out to teammates and stay honest about my emotional deficit. Worrying about whether you're letting your team down is a great way to let your depression spiral out of control. The peace of mind that comes with letting everyone in on your obstacles is therapeutic.
On bout days I engage in some serious emotional calibration before I hit the track. For me, it usually involves watching a movie with a satisfying arc, meditation, and giving myself small opportunities to succeed throughout the day so that I'm primed for success. One tournament weekend I went mini-golfing. Sometimes I teach myself verses from complicated rap songs and rap along, just to prove I can accomplish things.
It’s not always immediately clear to me what sparks my athletic depression but usually with a bit of reflection I find the friction that led me to my funk. Sometimes it’s some external factor that prevented me from achieving my goals in as timely a fashion as I had hoped. Other times it’s an interruption to my routine that I haven’t yet acclimated myself to. Identifying the cause is a step on the path towards finding a solution but it's not a solution in itself.
Most of all I generally can't seek a cure to my depression in derby, I have to let it find me. Counting on a practice, a scrimmage, or a game to lift my spirits is a fast track to disappointment. Athletic depression can sometimes mean always finding something wrong with my performance. Improvement doesn't really come in fits and starts anymore. It's a slow, gradual buildup that accumulates each time I train. I can't let myself expect a sudden moment of clarity, some breakthrough that pushes me out of my funk, some stellar performance that completely turns everything around. I might have a bad practice because I'm depressed and that's okay! Temporarily losing self confidence doesn't rob me of the right to screw up.
My most recent encounter with athletic depression manifested in a serious rut of self-doubt. I was convinced that I wasn’t good enough, that soon everyone would figure out I’m not very good at this sport. The depressive episode abated when I led my first practice for the newer skaters of the Outfit. I hadn’t led a practice in a few years so I was nervous. It went really well. I realized that right now I’m as experienced as my coach was when she told me that things would only be hard for a while. In helping people out, introducing new ways to think about skills and drills they’d never done before, I felt like I accomplished something. The feeling that I was just an impostor waiting to be found out went away because I finally found evidence that I had something to offer. I wasn’t expecting that to make the difference but sometimes you just need to put your head down and let happiness find you.