We need to talk, ladies. We need to talk about roller derby and injuries.
When we signed on to skate, getting hurt was a thing we considered possible – maybe even probable. We’ve all seen other girls go down with broken ankles, strained knees, fucked up shoulders. We’ve taken a knee and cringed as one of our teammates hit the floor with a thud and maybe even sometimes a crack or a pop. We’ve crouched there on the ground, wondering will she be able to get up again? And if she does, will she still be able to play?
In derby, your body is a vital asset. But the very same activities that help us to train and develop that asset are activities that could take us out of the game forever. Players walk (skate?) a constant and extremely thin line between rigorous physical training and overexertion. And, unlike in other sports, we come to the track with a variety of levels of physical conditioning and capability. Some girls are marathon runners; others were dancers or gymnasts; others take on derby as their first major physical challenge. So the line between exertion and injury is different for every single player, every single day. Because of this variance, our coaches and captains and trainers can’t always be expected to know the difference between “Fuck that hurt! Let’s do it again” and “Oh shit, I think I just pulled something.” And since we can’t rely on someone else to tell us when we’ve gone too far (since “too far” is different for everyone), we have to maintain a consistent level of self-awareness; our team leaders count on us to tell them when we’ve been pushed to our limits.
The problem with this, though, is that derby is a sport that values toughness. It values bounce-back and recovery. One of the first things we teach fresh meat is that taking a fall is fine, as long as you can get up again. And we all want to see ourselves as girls who never NEVER go down for good. So when we’re faced with a choice between playing it tough or playing it safe… it’s obvious which one we’re likely to choose. Especially when we’re new, we want everyone to know we can make a comeback. We want our teammates to see that they can rely on us to be always ready, always present when we’re needed. We don’t want to fucking give up – because there’s no giving up in derby.
In a way, the physical conundrum represented in derby is part of a larger conundrum that women face everyday. Our bodies are expected to perform a multiplicity of tasks with little rest or recognition. We give birth. We menstruate. We go through menopause. We run households, carry kids on both hips, and work full-time jobs. We play basketball and soccer; we endure heartache and heartbreak; we fall down and get up again; we fly planes; we grout floors and write masters theses. We do everything we’re supposed to do – and more. When we’re first starting out, we think our bodies can do anything. But as responsibilities pile on and we collect years on our bones, we begin to learn that we’re destructible. Bones break and tendons tear. Hearts break too, and accidents happen.
Through all of it, we stand our ground. But part of standing our ground is knowing when to take a pass – when to stand aside and keep ourselves – and our tough-but-delicate bodies – out of harm’s way.
The balance comes in learning that being tough has more than one definition.
Sometimes being tough is about making hard choices. It’s about standing down when you’d rather be playing. It’s about taking care of yourself, for the sake of your team, and for the sake of your beautiful body.
When we tell our derby sisters that they’re expected to keep going no matter what, what we’re really doing is buying into the myth that action = power and inaction = weakness. Not so. Sometimes it takes more skill and strength to stand down, to sit this one out. Sometimes being part of a team means encouraging our friends to stay down, just this once.
If we can teach ourselves how to achieve that balance, we’ll be learning a lesson we can use off the track too. When I was in graduate school, I was a do-it-yourself kind of girl. I rarely asked for help; I always needed to be in charge and in control. One spring, I served as chairperson (read: overworked crazy person) for our department’s graduate student conference. I spent months preparing, driving myself insane with the workload, never asking anyone else for help. Because I thought that’s what a good academic was supposed to do: be a lone wolf, do all the work, never ask for favors. People began to shy away from even TRYING to help me because of my reputation for doing-it-all (read: reputation as a selfish bitch). And so, on the day of the actual conference, after months of solo prep work, I found myself completely alone once again. This time, though, I was alone with an ENTIRE ROOM full of furniture that needed to be rearranged before the next speaker. Finding that all of my colleagues had taken an hour for lunch, I assumed I had only one choice: to move several large conference tables on my own.
You can see where this is going. No matter how tough you are, if you’re 5’3″ and have scrawny arms, you’re really no match for a 20-foot conference table. Shortly after I began my endeavor, one of the tables slipped from my grasp and fell to the floor, crushing the big toe on my left foot.
Still, I refused to give up. Hobbling and wincing, I kept trying to slide furniture around the room until finally, FINALLY, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. I called my boyfriend at the time and begged him to come back from lunch to help me out. When he arrived, he stared at the mess – the fallen tables, my broken and swollen toe, the tears streaming down my face – and said, “Why didn’t you call me BEFORE you dropped a table on your foot?”
And he was right. Of course he was right. But it took a toe broken in 3 places to make me realize I’d taken on too much. And in taking on too much, I had been putting my entire department at risk. If the conference wasn’t a success – if the tables didn’t get moved, if the speaker’s room wasn’t ready, if anything else went wrong – I wasn’t the only one whose reputation would be on the line. Rather, my entire department – all those colleagues I’d ignored and shoved aside in the months previous – would look like we couldn’t get our shit together. I thought I was doing everyone a favor by taking on all the responsibility; but actually all I’d done was fix it so that my friends and classmates felt alienated from a conference that was supposed to belong to us ALL, not just to me.
The same is true when we play derby. The game belongs to everyone – and none of us want to see another player so hurt that she can’t skate. We don’t want anyone to sacrifice themselves for us. As players, we care about the game. But we care about each other too.
So take care of yourselves, ladies. Remember that your team is there for you, and that someone can always step in if you need them to. The game isn’t your responsibility alone; it’s ALL of our responsibilities – from the fresh meat to the players to the refs and NSOs. As individuals, we’re tough. But as a team, we’re tougher. We help each other out – and that’s what makes us TRULY scary bitches.