(Part 2 of a series looking at the psychology of roller derby. For an introduction, read part one of the Blocking With The Head series)
Welcome back, roller derby fans! In this part of Blocking With The Head, I’m going to be talking about locus of control. Even if the term is unfamiliar to you, I’m confident that once I’ve explained it, you’ll realise that you’ve been aware of the concept all along.
What is Locus of Control?
Locus of control is a concept originally from personality psychology, but has also been applied extensively in my own field of health psychology. It refers the degree to which we believe we have control over outcomes in the events in our lives. Broadly speaking, we can separate these into internal and external locus of control. Having an internal locus of control means you believe you have control over the outcome, while having an external locus of control means that you believe events are controlled by outside forces, which you cannot influence. People with a generally strong external locus of control tend to believe in fate, luck, and the power of other people, whereas people with a strong internal locus of control believe more in self-determination, their own effort and actions.
It’s rarely this clear cut in real life – we assume an internal locus of control in some situations (I aced that exam because I studied hard) and an external locus of control in others (I didn’t get the job because the system is against me/I’m cursed/I can’t catch a break!). How we frame a situation can significantly affect how we engage with it – think about it, in the first example, if I thought my success on an exam was down to innate ability or luck (e.g. an easy exam, a generous marker) rather than how hard I studied, would I bother studying so hard in future? In the second example, maybe I didn’t get the job because my interviewing technique wasn’t up to scratch, or I didn’t have the right skills or experience – those are things I can work on to improve.
What does this have to do with roller derby?
Relating this to roller derby, assuming an internal locus of control is particularly important for newer skaters, who might be frustrated when trying to master new skills. When I was starting out, with zero skating experience, I frequently met “the wall” and wondered if I would ever pass my minimum skills. I particularly struggled with transitions at one point (I still have a stronger side, most people do!), and caught myself saying internally “I just can’t do this”. For a while I thought it was down to innate skill – I wouldn’t master these skills because I “wasn’t a skater” (whatever that means). After some pep-talks from coaches, I resolved to just plug away at it – and lo and behold, practice makes perfect. I kept trying, I listened to guidance and advice from experienced skaters, I watched YouTube videos on technique, I fell over a lot, but the hard work paid off. By shifting to an internal locus of control, I felt more able to affect the outcome, and my effort paid off.
It’s not just newer skaters. Seasoned members of the A-team play around with learning new skills all the time, pushing themselves with longer apex jumps, doing well-timed whips, trying new blocking techniques. The ones that progress the fastest are usually the ones with a “have a go” attitude, who know that with practice, the skill will come. Had they assumed an external locus of control (that they didn’t have the innate ability to execute these more advanced skills), they probably wouldn’t put in the effort to try, fail, try again, improve, and ultimately, nail it.
By changing how we attribute locus of control, we can change how we think about events in our lives, and be more proactive in influencing change.
Cue cheesey pop-psychologist taglines “become the master of your own destiny!” etc.
Locus of control: when we win
When we win a game, why did we win? Think about your most recent derby win – when you think about the reasons for your win, what springs to mind? Do you think “my team mates and I trained really hard, worked together, and kept a cool head”? Or do you think “we were lucky – the opposition were less skilled than us, and made some mistakes, or had some key skaters off with injury”? The outcome is still the same – you won. But how you frame the circumstances for that win can really affect how you feel about your success.
By framing a win as a result of you and your teammates’ effort, actions and behaviours (internal locus of control), I guarantee you will not only feel more joy in your victory, but you will see ongoing improvement in your gameplay. You put in hard work, and see the results of that hard work, encouraging you to continue putting in the hours.
Come on, be realistic – I can’t just pretend I can control everything
OK, it’s not that simple. You can’t just say “I’m the master of my own destiny!” and then reap the rewards of all your hard work. Sometimes, things are outside of your control, and it’s important (and smart!) to recognise these things when they appear. Trying to influence things that you can’t is frustrating, disheartening, and counter-productive. The most common occurrence of this is when there are other people involved.
Those pesky other people! Well, what were you expecting? Roller derby is a competitive team sport, and as a result, there is a broad range of people involved who may influence the outcome of events you are directly invested in. Put simply: you want to win, but there are a variety of reasons why you might not. Some of these might be related to your own performance, ability and behaviours, but more often than not, it’s also tied up in a complicated bundle with the behaviours and actions of other people. In order to unpick locus of control in competitive team sport, we need to turn to its natural successor: attribution theory.
Attributing blame when we lose
Attribution theory in sport (particularly in competitive team sports) relates to the explanations that we give when evaluating performance. Instead of a win, think about your most recent derby loss. It can be easy to pat yourself on the back for your hard work when you win, but when you lose, what do you automatically do? You might find any number of things to blame, and trust me, very few of them will comfort you or feel good…
It can be tempting to resort to these attributions of blame. Blaming something or someone for a loss (even if it’s yourself) is an easy way out, as it “answers the question” for why you lost and does away with the need for a long analysis and commitment to improvement (hard work is hard…). But in the long-term, negative attributions like these decrease our confidence and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies as we expect to fail again in future.
So what can we do about it? Firstly, try to think about your loss in terms of your opponent’s win. They will likely be thinking a lot of the same things that you think when you win – that they worked hard, they played their strategy, they kept a cool head. They might even think they got a bit lucky or might talk about how you could have won if your star jammer wasn’t out with that injury. Either way, they likely have similar thought processes to you, because at the end of the day, they are playing the same sport, with the same rules, and they have the same aims. If you play your best game, every game, regardless of the outcome, can be an opportunity to enjoy yourself, and learn from the experience.
“A loss isn’t the same as a defeat.”
– Skippy the Angeroo, East Anglo Smacksons
Next up, try to think about the ways in which negative attributions benefit you. Are you thinking? Have you thought of some? No? That’s because there aren’t any. Aside from a fleeting, smug sense of satisfaction when you say “well they only won because they played dirty/the referees were crooked/out star jammer was injured”, negative attributions for losses don’t help you at all (and besides – those smug feelings, are they really associated with good sportsmanship..? Come on, now).
Negative attributions make us feel crummy, damage our confidence, can make us angry (think about my ref-rage from Part 1), and get in the way of us enjoying this game that means so much to so many of us. Some examples:
Being a martyr
Don’t be a martyr, and take all the blame for a loss. Roller derby is a team sport, and it’s wildly improbable that a game will ever be won or lost on the skills and efforts of a single person. Even when the game hinges on you scoring a few points in the final jam, the game wasn’t made in that last jam, and gameplay leading up to that point lead to the score being so close. If you overanalyse your own performance and attribute all the blame to yourself for a loss, you’re overlooking the many, many factors that affect a score and an outcome. Your confidence will suffer, and you will feel downright rotten. Try instead to identify all the things you (and your team!) did well.
The Weak Link/”I’m carrying this team!”
Similar to “being a martyr”, but aiming outwards – you blame a loss on one person you see as “the weak link”, or you blame everyone else on your team except yourself for the loss. And, as above, it just doesn’t work like this, roller derby is a team sport, and you win or lose as a team. There will always be players that are more skilled or put in a more concerted effort, but there will also be bad sportspeople or people who would rather go “lone wolf” than work as a member of a unit. If you want to work effectively as a team, try first to be a team player, and support each other. If you genuinely think that a member or members of your team could improve, work with your coaches or with those team members, rather than unproductively dishing out blame. Be supportive and have a growth mindset.
Sometimes, we feel like a game was won because the opposition played dirty. But attributing blame on this ground is harmful to everyone – not only are you accusing your opposition of not being good sportspeople, able to win on their own merits, but you are also accusing the officials of not being able to do a good job of identifying foul play. Plus, it makes you look incredibly petty. Trust your officials, play your best game, and if you genuinely suspect foul or dangerous play, ask your captain or bench coach to alert the head ref.
I have, countless times, heard skaters accuse refs of making bad calls. The majority of the time, this attribution of blame has little effect on the game, as skaters grumble a bit but ultimately get on with the game. Sometimes though, the skater loses their temper, and it has real knock-on effects for their performance (see my example in Part 1. This is followed up in Part 3: Anger & Aggression). Blaming refs for making bad calls generally doesn’t solve anything, and only makes you bitter. Remember, if you genuinely think a ref is “bad”, then (right or wrong) they’re bad for everyone, including your opposition. Remember also, that roller derby is a volunteer-run sport (no one is being paid or reimbursed for their time when volunteering to officiate, enabling you to play this sport that you love), and that refs, like you, are only human. They may make mistakes. If you suspect it’s malicious, again, talk to your captain or head coach. But it probably isn’t.
Attributing blame is a dangerous game – when you blame others for a loss, it might help you to deal with the blow of having lost, but not only is it unfair (and un-sporting!) but it gets you off the hook of taking a look at your own weaknesses, and assessing areas for growth. Blaming others is attributing an external locus of control: you can’t control what others will do, so the loss was outside of your control. While there may be some element of truth to this, it won’t be the full explanation for the outcome. It’s natural to feel down-heartened about a loss, and want to find reasons for why you didn’t win this time, but be careful of piling all of the blame at everyone else’s door. When you win, you don’t attribute the success to everyone except yourself, and a loss should be no different. Remember: roller derby isn’t a solo mission. You win as a team, and you lose as a team. As long as you can learn something and enjoy the journey, regardless of the outcome, you’re doing derby right.
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References & Further Reading:
- Locus of Control test
- J Rotter’s original 1966 Locus of Control article
- Team Attributions in Sport: A Meta-Analysis
- Sport performance attributions: a special case of self-serving bias?