Boston Skyline Boston Derby Dames Boston's premier flat track roller derby. Founded 2005. A proud member of the WFTDA.



Diary of a Redliner: Break it down!

You can learn a lot of new skills in three hours.

No, let me rephrase: You can cover a lot of new skills in three hours.

Every Training and Rec Team practice includes loads of new information. I know, that can sound intimidating, but most of it builds on itself: learn to stop, then learn to stop on a track with other people, then learn to stop to try to slow down other skaters, etc. The same day you learn a skill, you’ll learn related skills—so as you learn to stop and modulate your speed, you’ll do more “pack work,” or skating in close proximity to your teammates, or as you learn to move side-to-side on your skates, you’ll also learn to move around your teammates.

Of course, when you’re covering so much material, it can really throw off your mojo if you don’t really nail one of those basic skills.

Which, you know, has happened to me a lot. I’ve gone through some sad, mojo-less periods. (Though, don’t worry—it’s back! Hooray for mojo!). It took me many, many moons to learn to stop, and I’m still figuring out how to use that footwork when I’ve got an opposing blocker slamming into me full force.

For a while, when I first was learning to skate, I tried to just keep plugging away at whatever I was working at, thinking, “Hey, if I just keep TRYING to turn around, eventually my feet will get it and I’ll do it, right?”

It took me about six months to realize that’s not the case. Yep. Highlighter amidst the box of primary-colored markers? That’s me.

Ironically, in my non-derby life, I work as a personal trainer. My clients think I’m lying, or at least seriously exaggerating, when I try to explain how hard it is for me to pick up the skills needed to play roller derby. You make a living at showing people how to exercise; it makes sense you should be good at it, too, right?

Except I first started playing around with my mom’s free weights fifteen years ago; I did my first back squat with a loaded Olympic bar maybe a year after that. I’ve been trained by at least a dozen other fitness professionals, studied countless books and articles about kinesiology and exercise science. As a result, if somebody tries to explain a new strength-training exercise to me, I can usually figure it out fairly quickly—I’ve had years of practice.

Coincidentally, the last time I put on a pair of roller skates of any sort was also about fifteen years ago.

A lot of the “basic” moves in roller derby are, in fact, multiple movements in quick succession. Take turning around: First, you start by skating forward. Then, you pick one foot up, and point it backwards. (If you ever did ballet, think first position.) Then you pick up the other foot and point it backwards. Ta-da! Now you’re facing the opposite direction, moving backwards.

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Easy enough, right? This move, the transition, has been the bane of my derby existence (Although I do probably just overthink it at this point. Another post, another time.) I would attempt to stumble through it for a long time, until I realized I needed to treat it like I would teach an exercise to one of my clients: piece by piece.

In personal training, you generally start with the basics, and then progress the movement after the client has proven she can do the exercise safely and well. In other words, if one of my clients is pressing weight over her head, but can’t get the weight in the air without shrugging her shoulders to her ears or arching her back, I’m not going to, say, ask her to press the weight over her head while standing on one leg. Hell, I may even regress the movement a bit for her, by having her sit down, giving her lighter weights, or offering some other form of assistance.

I’m realizing that I need to do the same thing for myself with skating. With transitions, I had to break the movement down into the pieces to see what was and wasn’t working. My coaches suggested practicing skating on one leg, but I realized fairly quickly that balancing wasn’t an issue. Instead, I realized that while I have the flexibility to open my hips wide enough to do the mid-point plié, I don’t actually have the strength in my stabilizing muscles to keep my hips that open, so I just stumble.

What’d I do to fix it? A lot of this exercise:

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Tip over on one leg, then open up so your chest is facing the wall, then go back so your chest is parallel to the ground, then stand up. It teaches your body to stabilize on a single leg while you externally rotate through the hip, much like you do when you’re picking up one leg to turn it in the opposite direction from the way you’re skating.

Also a lot of plies while on my skates. No pics, because it’s far less elegant than it sounds.

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Learning derby has been a good reminder for me of what it means to develop a new skill. Don’t be afraid to take it down a notch and figure out where things aren’t working out. You’re building habits and muscle memory, and the stronger you make those building blocks, the sturdier of a base you’ll have the rest of your ass-kicking derby skills.


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