photo courtesy of Soriso Photography

Blocking With The Head Part 1: Psychology and Roller Derby

I thought I’d had a stroke of genius when I thought up the name for this blog post series. The astute amongst you will likely point out that London Roller Girls’ Kid Block had the same epiphany back in 2013 when they posted this excellent article about the importance of the “mental game” in roller derby. But this pun is perfection (for the uninitiated: “blocking with the head” refers to 1. a penalty in roller derby and 2. the concept that playing a sport involves more than just physical fitness) and as such, I’m going to stick with it, and you’ll just have to forgive me!

I made this brief introductory video the night before our recent British Champs game (13/5/18)

Puns aside, I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while now. I took up roller derby in August 2015, completely unable to skate, but became immediately hooked. If you’re unfamiliar with roller derby, it’s a full-contact team sport, played on roller skates. You can get a quick overview of the game and its rules here.

In these few short years, I’ve come a long way. I skate for Suffolk Roller Derby (SRD), under the skate name “Asterisk”. At the end of 2016, I co-opted the role of league Treasurer, in 2017 I was league President, and this year I’ve taken on the role of Vice President. I’m one of SRD’s cross-over skaters, as I skate for both the women’s A-team (this year competing in British Championships Tier 4 Women, East) and the women’s B-team (the Suffolk Bees).

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Our Women’s A-Team, after our British Champs game against Vendetta Vixens on 13th May 2018 – we won! 218-46

Obviously, there are a lot of physical aspects that go into being a successful and effective derby skater. When I first started, I was reasonably strong (I have been lifting weights on and off for about 12 years), but had never skated before. I not only had to learn how to actually skate, but my body had to recruit muscle groups that I was simply not used to using. Any skater can tell you about those first few sessions, and waking up the next morning not being able to climb stairs!

In the early stages of becoming a derby skater, progress can be huge, as you take big steps in mastering skills. You learn to stand up and stride on skates, you learn to stop safely and effectively, you learn to transition (turn around and skate backwards in stride – this was a big challenge for me), and then, of course, you learn the contact elements of derby, such as blocking positionally and hitting other skaters in a controlled and legal way. Mastering these skills is essential for being able to play derby safely, and the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) has established “Minimum Skills Requirements” which all skaters are expected to be able to meet before bouting competitively.

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A rare photo of me jamming (photo courtesy of Martin Quadling)

Once you’ve mastered the basics, training helps us to hone physical skills. But gains can be made in other, less obvious ways. I’ve seen a few blog posts about the “mental game” in roller derby, and read one excellent book about mental toughness in the sport, but sports psychology has been largely underutilised. Although my skating skills and derby strategy are slowly improving, some of the greatest improvements in my own gameplay have been down to addressing my attitude and behaviours.

One of the main examples (that I’ve brought up with several teammates lately) is my temper. I can be a bit of a short fuse at the best of times, but last year at our first Champs game of the season, I let my anger totally ruin the game for me. A few penalties were conducted against me, and rather than let it go, I was furious. It drew my focus, I felt vengeful, I was more focused on those penalties than on playing strategically and failed to work effectively. After I had calmed down at the end of the game, I felt completely ashamed of myself: I hadn’t played my best game, I’d made myself look petty, my anger didn’t achieve anything and it reflected badly on my team. I have since learned how to keep my anger in check, which not only benefits how well I can play in a game (as I mainly remain calm and focused) but it also:

  1. makes for a more positive bench
  2. helps me to see things objectively
  3. means that I’m able to enjoy myself, regardless of the outcome of the game

Anger and Aggression comes as Part 3 of Blocking With The Head, as having discussed this with a few teammates and friends from other leagues, mine is definitely not an isolated experience. There are a number of reasons we get angry on track, but equally, there are a variety of ways that we can address it, having both personal and team benefits.

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Smiling faces and high-fives all round (photo courtesy of Soriso Photography)

As there is so little research about the psychology of roller derby specifically, I’ll be borrowing from other team sports (such as rugby and football) and psychological theory more generally, where relevant. I’ll share the bulk of this information via blog posts, but I’m aiming to produce a few short, complimentary videos where appropriate. In the long term, I’m going to do some podcasts, discussing these issues with friends, teammates and roller derby coaches.

Some of the topics this series will cover include:

  • Locus of control – how to identify things you can control, and those you can’t, and why that matters
  • Goal setting – the difference between process, performance, and outcome goals, and how goal setting can affect how we play
  • Confidence – the “sweet spot” where confidence can be most beneficial, and how to go about achieving it
  • Injury – the impact injury can have on our attitude and behaviours, and some of the ways you can deal with this

…and many more besides!

If there are specific topics related to roller derby psychology you want me to cover, please feel free to comment, email me, or send me a tweet. I want this series to be of benefit to people in a way that helps us play our best game, and get the most out of this wonderful sport!


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3 thoughts on “Blocking With The Head Part 1: Psychology and Roller Derby”

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