Every Person in Roller Derby Has to Start Somewhere

Every player in roller derby has to start somewhere.  We don't just spring from the earth fully trained and ready to battle- although we would definitely like you to think we do! The women who comprise a team and run a roller derby league do it for the love of the game and each other.  Teammates become friends and then family. Practice is a safe space, an escape, and you work your mind and your body as a unit with your teammates.   This intense camaraderie isn't easy to find as an adult and it's one of the reasons so many people are drawn to try the sport.

Leagues are always recruiting.  Any game you've been to was planned, organized and arranged completely with volunteers; most of whom are playing in the game itself.  So we always need people. But most recruiting comes from the heart of the skaters who just want to share this incredibly amazing experience with anyone who will stand still long enough to listen.  It's not a planned spiel, we're in love and we are giddy to share it.  We want everyone from our best friend since kindergarten to strangers in restaurants to "just try it because you will love it and it makes everything in your life better!" (Yes, I have said those words to more people than I can count in the time I've been involved with this sport.)

What no one really likes to talk about is the part of roller derby where you learn how to skate, how to fall, how to take a hit and give one and how to be safe on the track. Most teams run what we all call "boot camps."  It's typically 6-8 weeks of practice twice a week to learn the skills necessary to become a player. New skaters pay the fee, buy gear and skates (which is no small investment) and then practice with a trainer who usually only works with boot camps.  While they might bond with that coach and other boot campers, there really isn't any interaction with the teammates, coaches and trainers that they're working their bruised butts off to join.

Traditional boot camps are not designed to make sure everyone makes it if they want to, that everyone finds their particular niche on the team, that everyone can be involved if they just work hard. This truly is a sport where all personalities and body types can excel if the desire is there. But without integration into team life and the encouragement that veteran skaters can give, it basically guarantees that too many new skaters quit during or at the end of boot camp and don't return to roller derby.  

None of this is intentional on the part of any league.  We're all just trying to get everything accomplished. It can be as many hours a week as a part-time job.  And even though teams want and need more skaters, what I've often heard from veteran players is that it isn't worth getting to know the newbies because they come and go so quickly.  "We'll invest in the new 'recruits' when they have passed the test and are officially able to play." The problem with that is that a huge part of the incentive to stick with the difficult process of learning to play- a family of sisters- isn't there.

East Lansing Roller Derby offers boot camps as well. Like every other league, we train you to skate and learn the minimum skills required to get on the track and playing roller derby. The difference, and what has eluded so many teams, is the attitude we have  about boot camps and new members. ELRD fully welcomes and works to incorporate every single new skater into the team culture and the team family. Immediately.  There's no waiting period to see who will "stick."  This league is all in with the freshies from Day One of boot camp.  And it makes such a difference. Enrolling in our boot camp gives everyone the feeling of solidarity that is lacking the old school style of teaching players.

Yes, new skaters need their own practice time without skaters amped up to expert level zooming around.  But at East Lansing, they are taught by the head coaches. Of the team.  Vets come to their practices to meet boot campers and offer encouragement. We set examples to new skaters and help the coaches in any way we can.  Sometimes a skill that's eluding a new player will click simply because a different person explained it. When you're just starting, you often go home after a hard practice with your body aching from the effort of building new muscles and you are somehow simultaneously proud of your accomplishments and aggravated that you aren't progressing as quickly as you want.  It's been five years, I vividly remember my "fresh meat" days.

Leaving that difficult practice after having heard from more experienced skaters that a particular skill took them months to master helps you realize that everyone reaches their milestones at a different pace and that it is worth the effort.  Knowing that vets who seem so confident cried with frustration too in the beginning (and that yes, sometimes we still do) is one of the greatest motivators.  Roller derby is intense and it is hard. It is worth every second. But if you don't hear that from people who have been there, how would you know?

The new skaters who join ELRD boot camps assimilate rapidly. They are quick to become confident that they can and will be derby players.  That happens because the league is inclusive and genuinely excited about them and for them. They are immediately invited to team bonding events. They have mentors within the team who focus on their progress and mental well-being.   Nothing sets a brand-new player more at ease than knowing that they are valued.

So they stay.  Even if they discover that playing isn't the way they want to participate in roller derby, they become referees or non-skating officials.  Every person embraced by East Lansing Roller Derby is worth the time of the established team because it embodies the words "derby love." So many leagues say it and so few practice it.

Written by Crazy Diamond #20

photo by Chantal Elise Photography

photo by Chantal Elise Photography