Last (Wo)man Standing
The date was January 3, 2006 when I fell in love. I attended my first practice with the Tampa Bay Derby Darlins. I had no skating experience. I couldn't cross over. I couldn't stop without running into the wall. It wasn't pretty. I'd played rugby in college, so the only thing I was any good at was hitting people. It didn't really matter though, since none of us really knew much about derby. WFTDA was still a baby organization and the rules were a loose guidebook at best. We knew we skated on an oval. We knew there were jammers and blockers and we could hit each other. We were just a bunch of girls who wanted to play derby...whatever it was.
Shortly thereafter, our mismatched group of 50-60 skaters was broken down into 4 teams. Coaches Sammie and Linda made lists and hung them on the wall like a high school team tryout. I think I was on "team 3." We met the next weekend at Tampa Bay Brewing Company. I brought a blue binder and took notes. I guess they thought I was organized and I got nominated for captain. We came to a consensus on the name, "The Black Widows," and were pretty annoyed that the Vicegrip Vixens claimed the color red, so we settled for Green and Black.
Our first bout was scheduled for May 2006 and bore the name "Project Mayhem" in the style of Fight Club. We were so excited. The, on one fateful practice night in April, I fell down and broke my ankle. I took my first intro lap in a wheelchair wearing my puke-green, hand-dyed Widows jersey, black and green knee socks, and an ankle boot. We took home the championship that season and is was a sweet, sweet victory.
Fast forward 8 years. I have changed my number twice (formerly IB6UB9 and E=mc2). I have skated for the Black Widows (season 1), Cigar City Mafia (seasons 2,3,5,6, and 7), and the Switchblade Sisters (seasons 4, 8, and 9). I captained the Tantrums from season 2-6 and finally retired from the travel team after season 7. I've traveled all over the country with the team that I love. I've experienced some of the most amazing moments both on and off the track and made connections and friendships that are incomparable to any other. My derby past is full of joy and tears, wins and losses, and I don't regret a second of it.
The number of original Darlins has dwindled over the years.... you might remember some of them... Joan of Ache, Tara Fire, Princess Golddigger, Wanda Whoop Ass, Bettie Kruger... Now it is just me. I may not be as fast or as fierce or as brutal as I used to be, but I'm still in love.
Leia Flat #80D
It happens to all of us. Let me set it up for you.
Your derby life is exactly where you want it to be. You feel pretty good about how you’ve been playing for the past couple of weeks, you’ve been successful at all of the new things you’ve tried at practice, and you’ve been really on your game during scrimmage. Your team has been working together perfectly, you’re getting lead like ALL THE TIME, and you’re damn proud to be a part of this well-oiled machine. You leave each practice on a derby high and fall asleep thinking about how great you felt working with your team that night. Your confidence is through the roof, and you can’t wait to go back and do it again. Nothing could take this awesome feeling away.
And then it happens. You go to practice, and everything is wrong. You fall when trying to execute simple skills, you can’t get lead, and most of your blocks feel ineffective, at best. Your team isn’t working together well, and it’s all YOUR fault because everything you do is a mistake, you’re always in the wrong place, you can’t stay on your feet, and OHMYGOD YOU JUST REALIZED YOU'RE A HORRIBLE, SLOPPY MESS. You’re the reason your team is crumbling. You’re mad at yourself and embarrassed because now everyone is thinking about how bad you are. You go home to lay awake in bed and think about how you suck at everything.
I’ve had more sleepless nights than I can count because of practices like that. It’s especially hard when I have several bad ones in a row: it robs me of my sleep, my confidence, and optimistic mood. When I’m feeling down from a series of bad practices, I can’t think of a single thing I’ve ever done well. Everything stinks.
See, when I practice, my reward center is triggered immediately anytime I’m part of something successful. I don’t have to win a bout to feel good…I get a rush anytime my skaters work in unison to achieve a task. And when I’m having a great scrimmage night with my team, that’s like, a bazillion times per jam! Take those little rewards away, and everything feels like a stick in the eye. I never know if I want to cry or punch something when I have a night like that, but I’m pretty sure crawling in a hole is an appropriate alternative.
But here's the thing: we ALL have those nights. In fact, it’s NECESSARY for us to screw up in order for us to grow as players. Studies show that when we’re working within our comfort zone and we’re successful in 80% or more of our attempts, we’re not really learning anything. On the flipside, when we’re successful less than half the time, we’re in survival mode and fail to learn because we’re acting out of desperation. “The Talent Code” author, Daniel Coyle, tells us we have to find the sweet spot: we have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone when we’re training and stretch our skillsets so we succeed 50-80% of the time. That’s where true improvement and growth happen.
OK, so we get that, but what does it have to do with having an entirely awful night? That bad night might’ve had you in the survival zone, but consider the fact that it only feels so miserable because you were operating within your safe comfort zone in the time leading up to that. When everything is going perfectly, are you really learning anything? Inevitably, if we have a lot of successful “comfort zone days”, we’re going to hit some “survival zone days” like a head-on collision.
Although we can TRY to balance these performance swings by strategically training in the sweet spot, we know we can’t really prevent bad nights. The control freak in me is convinced there’s a way to get around this, but there’s not. They just happen. So what are some things I do to get it out of my head and move forward?
1)First and foremost, acknowledge your crappy night. Don’t try to ignore the mistakes you made: that’s one of the worst things you can do for your training and growth. We need to push our bad mood aside and be straight with ourselves about exactly WHY we had a bad night. What are the specific mistake(s) you were making? Why was that happening? What can you try to do better next time?
2)After you’ve broken down the facts, if you find yourself replaying that crappy night over and over again in your head, hit STOP and put in a new movie. You’ve already addressed the problem, now stop thinking about the past and visualize the things you want to do next time. For me, I imagine skating in a tightly knit pack with my teammates, sitting on a jammer, and working with my wall to drive her out bounds. I outline every detail in my mind so I can feel the floor through my skates, my hand on my teammate, and the jammer pushing back against my block. If I did poorly while jamming, I imagine the way my feet and body move when I counter-block an opponent or execute perfect jukes. It feels so real and invigorating that I forget all the bad things while simultaneously reaping the benefits of visualization!
We can’t control the bad nights, but we can control how we react to them. I’m not going to pretend they don’t get to me, because they absolutely do. But the best thing I can do is try to learn from them and not let my night go to waste. Replace that bad mood with constructive thoughts, and quit being so hard on yourself…someone out there thinks you’re a badass.
I have been around for awhile. I have watched roller derby grow up and demand to be recognized. I have worn fishnets. And tutus. And knee highs. And underwear with my name on it. And I have started on the pivot line. My uniform and strategy may have changed significantly over the past 8 years of this sport, but I have taken each new rule change and evolution in stride and embraced it. That is why I love this game that we play- it is always fresh and challenging. One change that is the biggest challenge for me personally is saying goodbye to skaters who have moved or retired. How could someone quit this awesome sport? Or leave our wonderful league? It is hard for me to get my head around that, but it happens. And then we get new faces and teammates that I grow to love and become attached to.
I have seen many skaters come and go and I have a place in my heart for all of them. But there is one skater who I will have a particularly hard time saying goodbye to- the legendary Bettie Kruger. If you know Kruger, you know she has a tough exterior, is a fearless player and is a feared opponent. If you don’t know her, you may not know she has a soft heart and is a truly lovable gal. I know I fell in love with her the very first time I saw her skate and she will always have a special place in my heart.
Every so often, I look through old derby pictures. I tend to always focus on myself in these pictures- my stride, my form, my stance, analyzing how I have changed as a player. Last night, I went through this again and slowly zoomed out, and looked at the big picture. And I realized how many pictures had Kruger in them, realizing that she has truly been a part of almost every great derby memory I have had over the past 8 years. It is pretty overwhelming to think about our teammates like that. We have so many wonderful moments together. I have years filled with the laughter of my teammates, and if you have heard my team laugh, you would know what a glorious sound that is.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to a great teammate, a wonderful friend, and someone I will truly never forget. And I would be remiss if I did not thank Bettie Kruger. I don’t know if she understands how much I have truly appreciated her years of support and guidance on the track. Thank you, Bettie Kruger, not only for your dedication to Tampa Roller Derby and years of service, but for pushing me to be a better player and recognizing in me something I questioned I had.
I wish the best for you. I am proud of you. And your next league is lucky to have you.