Last year was my first full season of derby. I was on the B-team of a D3 league in Louisiana. Even as a B-team we were very competitive and saw a number of wins with a 200+ point differential. Near the end of last season I moved to Chicago and was unsure of how my skills would translate. My first couple of Midwest bouts were co-ed mashups and they were eye-opening. My opponents were faster, harder, and more experienced skaters than I was. Defensive walls were impenetrable. Jammers seemed impossible to catch. That first co-ed bout was the first time I was on the losing end of a huge blow-out. It was the wake-up call I needed. If I wanted to keep up I needed to step up. I needed to take a hard look at how I played and how I understood the game. Here are a few things I have learned along my journey in order get to where I am now and I am hoping some or all of them will help you too:
- Be willing to learn and relearn
I wanted to learn new moves but first I needed to revisit some of the basic skills I learned in fresh meat. My basics weren’t awful but I had accumulated some bad habits: like how I hated plow-stops so much I never worked on them. To become better all around, you need to focus on improving your basics while also be willing to try new things. Also, be open to feedback from your coaches and teammates to help break those bad habits and instill better ones.
- Be a sponge
Beyond physical training you need to do your derby research. Watch game or scrimmage footage and study players you admire. How are they succeeding? What do you like about their strategy? Reviewing these players can give you new strategies and ideas for your own game play. As a 6-foot tall jammer, I view footage of other tall jammers from a variety of teams to see and understand what works for them. You should also watch your own game and scrimmage footage. What are your strengths? Where do you get stuck? What can you work on? Seeing yourself play can give you a much better insight into your stance and your skills.
Work with players you admire! I do all the time and I am constantly asking them questions and gaining feedback. And talk with your coaching/training committee to get a feel for what positions or skills they want you to work on. Listen, absorb, and practice.
- Be ready to fall
In order to build up your derby repertoire, you will need to work outside your comfort zone. The best way to become a better player isn’t building on strengths over and over; it comes from improving weaknesses. I know I have to be ready to take risks no matter how much anxiety it gives me. Everyone falls, but we succeed when we pick ourselves up and try again.
- A loss can be a win – look at the big picture
If you’ve transferred to a higher-level league like I did, you will be playing with and against skaters with seasons of experience under their belts. Training with more skilled players will make you a better skater, but a big part of that training takes humility and perspective. I will often be outmatched offensively and defensively. The way I avoid being discouraged is focusing on my personal performance and not the numbers.
Remember that first Midwest bout where I was blown out? That was the hardest bout I ever played and yet I came out happy. When I look back, I am proud of myself for facing tougher opponents and never giving up. I was completely dominated but I played my heart out and no one can take that away from me.
- Put in the work
This can’t be said enough. In order to improve you need to put in the work. Top skaters didn’t get to where they are by talent alone. They worked tirelessly to make those stops deeper, their footwork tighter, their speed form better. And trust me, if you put in the work and never give up, people notice.
It’s easy to get disheartened during the process even in the most nurturing environments. I always want to play my best but after so many hard match-ups, I sometimes come out of practice thinking negatively and questioning my value as a player. Making the Outfit’s charter team, The Syndicate, was both amazing and terrifying. I have a certain expectation of a Syndicate skater and sometimes I question whether I can live up to it. Some practices I feel like a Syndicate, others I feel like the worst skater on the team. That is, until I started adopting a new outlook when these self-hating situations arose. If I leave a bad practice and feel all around miserable about my performance, I force myself to think of 5 things I did that I liked or was proud of. More often than not I find myself picking more than 5 and my perspective of the practice changes. I remind myself: It wasn’t a bad practice, I was simply being challenged.
I remember my teammate Shebiscuit giving us advice on how to jam very close to the track’s edge. The action is frightening because you are inches away from either successfully scoring points or cutting the track. She told us, “if you keep your eyes on where you want to go, your feet will follow. If you’re looking in-bounds, your chance of staying in-bounds rises.”
When I train, I see the player I want to be. The path to get there is both daunting and scary. When doubts start creeping into my head I just remind myself: if look at where I want to go, my feet will follow.