“So why roller derby?” I get that a lot, mostly from people who don’t have any experience with it, but also from friends who complain about my lack of free time to hang out with them. It really is hard to explain to someone who isn’t involved. Even people who have been to bouts (games) might not “get it” if they haven’t themselves participated in some way. I fully understand that much of the following can be associated with other sports and activities, but there are some things that are, in fact, uniquely “derby”. I’ll do my best to describe a few of my own reasons here.
Anything athletic I did as a child was very much focused on the individual, rather than a team. I did things like archery, karate, water skiing and swimming. I didn’t participate in any team sports. I actually felt an aversion to them. They were, in my mind, filled with “the jocks” whom I saw as dumb and mean to anyone who didn’t do what they did, dress like they did, or - well, you get the idea. The whole “clique” thing. As expected, I didn’t have many friends in school. But I’ve always still been interested in challenging myself, and derby has certainly done that.
My first challenge was learning the various NSO (Non-Skating Official) positions. I started in derby as an NSO, and am very grateful to have done so. I honestly think that all referees should spend time “NSOing”. Actually, I think all skaters should spend time doing it as well. Even though it doesn’t have the same physical aspect to it, you learn a lot about what it takes to make running a bout possible. Example responsibilities are timing jams (shifts), timing penalties, tracking penalties, tracking lineups, and keeping score. NSOs are often the unsung heroes of roller derby. Without them, bouts wouldn’t be possible. They are the support structure that makes everything else work. Luckily in our league, NSOs are highly respected, and considerable effort goes into NSO training. I spent an entire year learning, practicing, and performing the duties of each of the NSO positions (well, all but Head NSOing), and it was a big help preparing me for refereeing.
Speaking of refereeing, now that has been a challenge. First off, in the beginning, I didn’t even know how to skate! I thought I could - a little - but no, I really couldn’t. Back in Roc Quarry (our fresh meat program), they lovingly used to call me “Frankenstein” for the way I would awkwardly lumber on my skates. It took me a long time to first get comfortable, improve, and finally gain confidence and build good technique. We had a mantra, “Roc Quarry: We don’t quit!” I made it my mantra. I had plenty of stumbling blocks and setbacks, including breaking my wrist - at open skate, of all places - but nothing was going to stop me.
Once you can move about freely without thinking about what your skates are doing, comes the actual job of refereeing. And let me tell you, it’s a lot more than just memorizing the rules. There’s all kinds of things a referee has to take into consideration while evaluating an action, for everyone involved in that action: Established and temporary position and trajectory, initiation, blocking zone, target zone, the action itself, the level of impact... All of this to judge a single action, when multiple actions can be happening simultaneously, several times over, involving different skaters, over the course of just one jam. Your mind has to constantly be resetting and ready for the next possible action that could occur, which also brings in proper positioning to have the best visual coverage, as well as other skills like optimal official-to-official and official-to-skater communication.
Then there is the psychology of officiating. This has been a big challenge for me, but I’m improving. Being a referee certainly isn’t a popularity contest. When you send someone to the penalty box, whether they believe it was an accurate call or not, they’re not gonna be happy. And oh boy, if they disagree with your call, you could get some nasty looks. What’s worse is if you later find out that you did in fact make a bad call, or start second-guessing yourself. You have to rebound from it, quickly. If you don’t, your head is not in the game, and if you don’t have your concentration, you are more likely to screw up. Because I am always trying to improve, I tend to be too hard on myself about such things. But thankfully I am beating myself up about stuff less and less, especially as I gain experience as a referee, and confidence in my skills.
One of the most obvious aspects of modern roller derby is that it is, by far, a predominantly female sport. There are male leagues, but the numbers - and the focus - are with the women. Much has been written about the benefits this has for women, especially with regard to female empowerment, so I’m not going to write about that here. What I would rather explain is why I think this is a good thing for men. If you are a man and want to participate in derby, your options are probably officiating or volunteering. And you know what? I like that. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against men’s derby. If people want to play a sport, let them play a sport. I’ve even officiated a couple men’s bouts. My point is that there is a lot of personal growth that can happen when one’s focus is in supporting something rather than leading something.
There is a lot of pressure our culture places on men to be strong and successful. (Oh, and bonus points for “GQ-worthy” looks.) The thing is, how these are measured is usually on things that don’t bring happiness. Like money, possessions, holding positions of power, ego-based social standing, and the like. As a man, if you’re not “large and in charge”, you’re a loser. Well, I don’t measure strength or success in that way. Certainly not manhood. One might say, “Hold on a minute - isn’t being a referee ‘holding a position of power’?” My response to that is, if you think being a referee is about wielding power, then you have a completely wrong impression about what refereeing (or officiating in general) is all about. In derby, a referee’s primary role, first and foremost, is to ensure safety. Actually, it’s explicitly stated so in the rules, and the majority of the penalties are there to minimize the chance of injury.
9.2.5 - Safety is the number one priority for referees. [...]
The secondary role for a referee is to ensure fair gameplay by impartially enforcing those rules - done as accurately, consistently, calmly, and respectfully as possible. I can tell you that we focus on, and practice toward, those aspects of officiating - a lot. It’s not about power, and it’s not about being in charge. The things we officials practice (accuracy, consistency, calmness, respect) all bubble out to, and enhance, everyday life. Being an official is a critical role, but it is a supportive role. The focus is on the players, as it should be. Learning humility brings a unique kind of peace that creates space and freedom, allowing you to concentrate on the things you should be.
No matter what your role in derby is, whether it be skater, official or volunteer, you are part of a large and inclusive family. We come from every race, religion (or non), occupation, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, social group, political association, body type, etc. that you can possibly think of. What we all have in common is a love for this thing called “roller derby” - and that’s all we require of you. You wanna join up? Awesome. Day 1, you are part of the family; you will be accepted. I’ve not been involved in any other group that can boast such an immediate, open-arms mentality. Even when you travel and visit other leagues, it’s the same story: they are extended family. For skaters, an opponent on the track could become your best friend at the after-party, and you thank her for that awesome hit that took you out just a couple hours ago.
I see this not only as a benefit of derby, but as a foundational and necessary aspect of it. None of us get paid for this; we do it because we love it. We all put in countless hours and blood, sweat and tears (all literally), and if we didn’t have each other’s support, none of us would be able to keep it up for very long. And that support is most certainly not restricted to the track. Did you sustain an injury? You will get flooded with well-wishes and offers of food and assistance. Having trouble in other areas of your life? People will be there for you. This is what we call “derby love”, and there’s no shortage of it.
For those of us that have struggled to find this kind of acceptance and support, roller derby has been a sort of saving grace. It’s also an outlet where we can constantly challenge and improve ourselves. Something we know is a positive endeavor in our lives, and something we can be proud of. I’m sure I’ll always be able to look back at these years as some of the best of my life, with some of the best people I have ever known.
This is what roller derby means to me.