Saturday, January 25, 2014

Practice Makes Perfect: Derby Edition

Me in all my derby gear
about 2 months after joining
It seems fitting, a week before my first ever bout, to reflect a little on my time so far in roller derby. It’s hard to believe that come June, I will have been doing roller derby for two years. Two and a half years ago, K. and I bought our gear, sight unseen, from the internet, strapped it all one, and hobbled around an empty parking lot on Long Island. I thought I was going to die. I had figured that since I had skated all throughout my childhood and into my teen years, it would be a snap to get back in the groove. But I was woefully mistaken. It took several weeks to feel comfortable on skates and even longer to do things like cross-overs without thinking about them overly much. But we persisted, and, eventually, we started driving out to roller rinks on Long Island to practice surrounded by people. It was at one of these rinks that we were approached by members of a derby league, who invited us to come to a practice.
I won’t lie; we almost didn’t make it to the first practice. The two of us stood there in the parking lot outside and debated whether or not to go in. Luckily, we didn’t get back in the car and drive away! Instead, we went inside and participated in our first practice. It didn’t take long before we were hooked. That’s not to say that there weren’t moments when I wanted to quit, or I felt like I wasn’t advancing quickly enough. It can be hard being on a big team, knowing that there are so many people who are better than you, feeling like you’re never going to get good enough to play as well as the girls who play really well. I knew pretty soon into joining derby that my goal was not to be the best ever derby player. My goal was simply to be the best derby player I could be. Sometimes that’s hard, because it’s easier to stay home and watch Netflix rather than go out on a cold night to derby practice. It’s easier to surf the internet in the comfort of one’s home than to go out to fundraisers, meetings, and other derby-related events. Even at practice, it’s easier to shy away from difficult jumps, strategies or activities and just tell yourself, “Well, I don’t need to be a superstar or anything. I’m just here for the workout.”
Badass roller derby dames from the past
are an inspiration, too.
But that is just where derby is able to teach you a lot about yourself. Through derby, I have learned how much you can improve when you practice. I thought I had learned this lesson already. After all, I played the piano for eight years (by the end, I could by Claire de Lune from memory); I learned Spanish, Italian and Russian in high school and college enough that I can have a conversation with someone in each of those languages beyond the simple pleasantries; and I have most certainly become a better teacher over the last eight years of practicing. But I have never really been into sports. I enjoy watching the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Cup, and I like playing things like pool, croquet or minigolf, but I’ve never been one for joining a team. I found it intimidating; I always thought to myself: well, I’m not good enough to join x team. I don’t think I ever realized that most people join a sports team not really knowing how to play the sport, instead expecting to get better at it with practice.
Derby has shown me just how much I can achieve with my body with some practice. Things that seemed impossibly difficult when I first joined derby—doing a turn-around toe stop, for example, or skating on just my back wheels—have become easy. That doesn’t mean that I never fuck them up. Because I definitely do. But it means that I have come to master them to a certain extent, and I can keep on learning and mastering new skills. All it takes is practice.
The same is undoubtedly true of playing the actual game of derby. Derby is a mental sport as much as a physical one, and it’s “mental” in two ways. The first one is what I’ve already outlined: most of us feel we can’t do something, so we don’t do it. Someone says, “Jump over this garbage can, turned on its side,” and we say, “I can’t do that. It’s impossible.” So you try to do it, and you fuck it up and sprawl out, belly flopping onto the ground. But if you keep trying, you’ll do it. The other way that derby is a mental game is that there is a lot of strategy. A lot is happening on the track when you’re out there playing, whether it’s against your own teammates, or girls from another team. You have to keep your wits about you and learn to keep track of many things that are happening on the track at the same time. In this way, I’m sure derby is like a lot of team sports that involve contact, whether it is intrinsic to the game (like football) or incidental (like soccer or basketball). It takes some getting used to. In this respect, however, practice also makes you better. The first time I scrimmaged, I had no clue what was happening around me. I tried to pay attention to my pivot (the blocker on my team giving the rest of us blockers directions), but I got distracted by trying to help our jammer (the point-scorer) get through the pack. I was so singularly focused on this one objective, that I didn’t hear my teammates both on and off the track yelling my name. Since then, I have improved a lot; I’m not perfect, but I’m a hell of a lot more aware on the track of what is happening around me. There is only one way, really, to get better at playing the game of derby, and that is to play it, in a bout, in front of a live audience.
Will I ever be able to jump as high & far as Quadzilla?
Maybe not....or maybe yes?
In one week, I will have my baptism by fire: I’ll finally be in my first bout. Unlike the bouts I was supposed to be in with my league on Long Island, which I had to bow out of due to injury and food poisoning, respectively, this bout will not be a charity bout in which one of half of the league plays against an equally-matched opposing team from our league. Instead, we are traveling to another city, to play a whole different league—one known for playing a tad, uh, aggressively. I have to remind myself, though, that it’s just another mental game. And the more bouts I play, the better I will get at bouting. A lot of girls beat themselves up over their performance on the track, both in games and at practice, and I’m trying not to be like that. I’m trying to be positive. No matter what happens, I will put forth my best effort, put on my nicest fishnets, and I will play like a beast. I’m not fresh meat anymore, but I’m not a seasoned player either. Next Saturday, let the seasoning begin.