Minimum Mental Toughness and Self-Belief Skills for Roller Derby

Posted in Advice, Derby, Skater Life

There are few things that I’ve come across that appear to grip people as much as roller derby. In the couple of years I’ve been around, I’ve seen people show up to Beginner Nights for the first time and become completely hooked from the second they strap skates on.

It doesn’t matter if they’ve skated previously or not, you can tell those who will be coming back every week. And that is how it took me. I couldn’t wait for Mondays to come around, I started watching past WFTDA Playoffs footage, reading blogs and coming to games at The Thunderdome. It was like I’d finally found my niche, and it was an awesome feeling.

First Bootcamp!

However, one thing I’ve noticed that is quite possibly unique to roller derby (although seeing as my previous sports experience is limited to school P.E., I can’t guarantee this) is it seems to attract a remarkable number of people with a refined ability to beat themselves up. This isn’t even limited to pre-mins skaters, I’ve witnessed this from All Stars skaters to Monday night newbies. Whether or not this is human nature to conveniently “forget” our achievements, I don’t know, but speaking to a variety of teammates, lack of self-belief seems to be an ever-present issue. It was actually while I was off injured that I noticed this. Sitting on the side lines watching gives you plenty of time for introspection, and it got me thinking: if lots of people are feeling the same way I have done in the past, either all of us are terrible skaters, or none of us are. Looking at the evidence before me, I could see not a single terrible skater. I could see people who were good at some things, not so great at others; and yet, those things that were done well were rarely, if ever acknowledged.

First skate back! The leggings say “Pro”, the body language says “God help me”

However, after I tentatively put my skates on after 11 months of physio and frustration, that new-found introspection seemed to have gone out of the window. You’d think I’d be able to transfer what I’d realised and give myself a bit of a break. As you can imagine, being out of commission after a relatively small amount of time learning to skate (less than a year), when I finally did start skating again, I was a little rusty. Here’s what I could do: pretty much everything I could do previously. Here’s what I couldn’t do: crossovers. I had injured my ankle just before attempting laps for my Minimum Skills Assessment, coupled with the fact it was my left ankle I had injured, so a lot of weight would be on it during laps, my first attempt had me bailing out partway through, a big ball of tears and frustration.

Unfortunately, this inability to nail crossovers first time back was what I chose to focus on, and so I started to beat myself up:

“Literally everyone I knew at practice has moved on from newbie sessions and I’ve been left behind…everyone is going to pass mins before me…I’m never going to get to play…WHY DO WE EVEN NEED TO SKATE FOR FIVE MINUTES?

You get the general gist, but imagine that going on for about a month, over and over and over. I’d worked myself up into such a state, that when it came time to practice laps, a thick layer of dread would descend upon me, to the point where I’d squeak “no, thank you”, and run away quicker than a seasoned blocker being offered the jammer star.

This continued for several weeks until I was finally snapped out of it. I was confronted with obvious (to all but me), inarguable logic: my coach for the night very kindly, but firmly said,

“How many more laps will you get by sitting on the side?”

The revelation hit me like a ton of bricks: I’d been doing the exact same thing I’d noticed other players doing. I was letting one negative thing ruin all of the fun and what I loved about roller derby.

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway!!

Overnight, my attitude went from “I can’t do this”, to “why not have a go?”

Ever since, slowly but surely, “have a go” is turning into “I’m going to try and nail this!” Don’t get me wrong, I still have wobbles, but it’s now much easier to bring my mind set around, and get back to down to what needs to be done.

After all my revelations, I’ve decided to impart some of my “wisdom”, in the hopes it will help others. Along with all the other skills you learn while pre-mins, learning mental strength and self-belief is excellent practice for when you start playing. Here’s a select few of some of the more common phrases that I used to beat myself up with, followed what you can do to get out of that negative head space. I suppose you could call this: “I’ve beaten myself up, so you don’t have to”.

“I’m too scared to do X because of Y”

That’s ok, we all get scared of doing new things, especially if you have been injured. But the best thing to do is to say you’re nervous. Don’t ever be afraid of saying you’re scared. Tell your coach, tell a derby buddy, ask them to hold your hand, ask them to shout encouragement, hell ask them to paint themselves green and play the flute if it helps. Did you groan? Did you flinch and want to run away? Well, don’t! Take it from someone who until very recently would have rather taken bath in acid while Mick Hucknell stood outside the door serenading me than do laps, the important thing is to try. I know it sounds little bit obvious, but take it from someone who spent several weeks not practicing laps because they were scared of not being good enough: have a go. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself, maybe you’ll mess up and fall on the floor, it doesn’t matter, because you’ll still be doing better than you would be sitting on the bench.

“I might fall over!”

Sorry, but you will fall over at some point. Have you ever watch a roller derby game? Falling isn’t failing. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got is: “if you’re falling over, it means you’re giving it a proper try”. After all, there’s a reason that the first thing you learn is how to safely fall. So don’t be embarrassed; if Stef Mainey can fall over at the Champs and still be totally awesome, you can too!

Achieved despite falling on my bum numerous times during my first attempts at blocking with BLM

“I need to hurry up and pass my mins!”

I’ll let you in on a secret, but for crying out loud, don’t tell anyone

…learning minimum skills isn’t a race. You’ll pass when you’ve mastered them all, and the time it took to pass them isn’t actually a factor in the assessment, nor is it any indication of how good of a player you will be. I know there’s the excitement factor of wanting to play, but would you really want to put yourself out there when you’re not ready? Everyone learns at different rates, and some people are naturally better at some things that others; roller derby is no exception. In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t take that much skill to pass, but to be great at the basics takes practice, repetition and discipline. They’re the minimum skills for a reason- you need to be able to do all these things without even thinking about them in order to be able to focus on the chaos that is a game situation. You can’t expect to focus on what your team needs you to be doing if you’re stopping every 30 seconds thinking “how do I transition, again?” Practice of these skills doesn’t go away when you start training with a team. So take your time, however long it takes, not only will your derby career benefit, but freeing your mind of worrying about getting everything done as quickly as possible will actually help with your training.

“I’m so rubbish at *insert derby bane here*!”

You might not be good at it now, but you’ve defeated yourself already. Try saying “I want to get better at…”, even if you’d rather set fire to your skates than spend any amount of time on it. Make it your new favourite drill. Whatever is causing you to kick your (metaphorical, please) cat should be the first thing you yell out when your coach says “is there anything you’d like to work on?” Ask for the help of someone who is good at what you need work on, different people have different ways of explaining things; you may find someone else’s input finally makes what you’re struggling with click.

“Everyone else is better than me”

Ah yes, one I am all-too familiar with! There’s no gentle way to put this, so I’ll just say it:

STOP IT. NOW. Not only is it not true, you will eventually drive yourself insane, a little bit bitter, and what you started doing because you loved it so much, will become no fun at all, and nobody wants that. Comparing yourself to others in a negative way is one of the most prevalent, and yet the most psychologically detrimental, mind sets that new skaters have. Once it becomes engrained, it will become all the more difficult to break free of it. Yes, there will be some people who are better at some things than you are, that’s the way everything in life is. But your teammates are potentially the biggest resource for help and support when learning to play roller derby; so make the most of them! At the end of the day, roller derby is a team sport; it doesn’t matter if there’s one super amazing, awesome at everything, can do 27 in 5 backwards with her eyes shut skater, because they still can’t win a game all on their own. You’re all more or less in the same position as each other – starting out on what is an incredibly difficult sport to master; so help each other. Believe me, it will help no end.

Even when you can’t play yet, your teammates can help you so much.

I’m not saying all the above is easy, especially if you are in the habit of perhaps being “not all that nice to yourself”, but it can be done. Practice makes perfect, and committing to make that change will completely turn around your mental and physical game. I’m by no means an expert, but I can only pass on what I know I’ve found helpful, I really hope you do, too. Don’t forget, everyone has wobbles from time to time; take a step back, give yourself a breather, and get back to being awesome both on the track and in your head.

Good vibes,


If you’d like to learn how to play roller derby at Rainy City, come join us on a Monday night where we run drop-in beginners sessions 7:30 – 9:30pm!