Wednesday, July 19, 2023

A Parent’s Brief Foray into Roller Derby Officiating


What follows is an open letter I sent to my fellow parents of the 2023 Team Canada Jr roller derby players.  Did I mention I am the parent of a Team Canada Jr roller derby player?  Y'all, the last blog post here is EIGHT YEARS ago.  

Things have happened.

If you are curious about said Team Canada Jr roller derby player, my dottir of many names, you can find:
Rennie's Instagram here
Buy my Team Canada Jr skater a croissant here  

This open letter was written For Parents by A Parent, to facilitate understanding of the roles of officials in derby, and address some questions and comments I have received while officiating junior games over the past six months of preparation.  

For myself, I have been officiating on and off since 2012-ish (you can check the archives here, it probably has that information) and became much more intentional in 2019 when dottir Rennie was rostered on the 2020 Team Canada Jr.  I thought it would be lovely to be able to earn my keep as I accompanied Rennie to Worlds.  

As it all happened, 2020 was cancelled, and now 2023 is here and Rennie and I are both off to France to participate in the Junior World Cup July 28-30.  Rennie as a player and myself as an official.  

But here is the open letter now, for those parents, grandparents, assorted family and friends who will be watching their loved one compete in a sport on an international stage they barely are cognizant of before a couple months ago.  Roller derby is a strategically and tactically wild ride and very much about the skaters.  We do not make it easy for spectators.  Perhaps this can shine a little light on what the heck the referees are doing.

DISCLAIMER BEFORE THE DISCLAIMER: I am leaving the original letter more or less as I wrote it in May 2023, it is a document that exists in a certain time and towards a particular audience, and I reserve the right to change my mind, realize and clarify mistakes and to double down on any opinion I may have expressed below.  Who knows how I will feel in a year, but for now, this seems like a reasonable and instructional document.  Thank you for joining me here.  


What follows is an introductory discussion of how roller derby referees go about officiating a game of roller derby.   This is not about roller derby rules per se, but how officials see the game and the role they play, given from the perspective of a parent who is also a referee, junior coach and player.  The goal is to clarify the game structure and officiating for parents* of skaters and share the foundation of game structure and the enforcement of fair game play.  Please note that these are my words and understanding and not in any endorsed by WFTDA or JRDA.  If you stridently disagree with anything here, you can definitely let me know – one time, with respect – but this is my personal reflections shared for educational purposes and the final say on absolutely nothing.   

It is a very good idea for all parents alongside their young athletes to familiarize themselves with the rulebook and, equally important, the casebook.  Not every aspect of the rules will be of equal importance to know as a player and as someone who supports that player, but look around and get to know the language and structure of the rules.  Review in small portions at a time but make it regular part of the roller derby experience.  Travelling to derby is one excellent time to crack open the casebook and read through a couple of examples. 

First thing to know is that roller derby is an ever – and rapidly – changing sport.  Roller Derby of 2010ish, when I attended my first practice, had a spirit that feels similar to today in its grassroots, community minded inclusivity but also so different in that it had strong ties to counter culture and distinctly appreciative of the more performative aspects.  See the primacy of nom de guerres, or tough/saucy derby names.  In 2010, all defense was one-on-one.  There were no walls, never mind tripod defense. It was skate fast and take wild swings at each other.  Rockabilly, fishnets, and knee socks were only just starting to slip away as the primary aesthetic of roller derby but the afterparty was still the main thing.  There was plenty of athleticism and passion for the sport but, admittedly, it wasn’t a very good place for junior skaters.

Since then, roller derby has gone through a terrific number of gameplay and rules evolutions, become smarter, more skilled, more strategic.  Still plenty of tattoos and derby names, but as skaters and parents we are proud to bring our children to derby, to feel like we are a positive influence on young athletes.  Roller derby as a sport exists with a core value of inclusion and growth, which reflects in its changing rule sets and culture.  We have grown to not just recognize the intrinsic power and skills the youth are bringing, but to value them as equal participants in the evolution of the sport.  In fact, the youth are now leading the direction roller derby is taking.

In that spirit, JRDA rules are WFTDA rules plus a little bit more.  Over the past two decades, the WFTDA rules have changed from being a punitive system of ‘Do This, Don’t Do That’ to officiating being ‘Impact’ based.  I would like to talk more about what impact means to officials in a moment.  But first, a brief overview of the structure of a level 3 game (being a discussion with Team Canada parents, it’s best to stay focused here).  

Over all, it’s very good to remember that officials are there to oversee the framework of the game, the flow and ensure that it happens fairly, with safety and respect to all involved.  Skating officials and NSOs define the game time, the start and end, keep the time, the score, see that both teams are abiding by the rules of roller derby.  Officials mind the flow of the game and time, the personal safety and dignity of all involved.  There are many aspects to officiating, but we will be focusing today on the most visible and probably, misunderstood, part of a referee’s job: issuing penalties. 

In particular any game there are, ideally, seven skating officials.  Each jammer on track has a personal JAM REFEREE companion that follows them about counting points (again, penalties are only one task amongst many), two INSIDE PACK REFEREES that define the pack structure and observe the game from inside and three OUTSIDE PACK REFEREES (who supply the inside and jam refs with information and oversee gameplay on the far side of the track where inside officials cannot see).  Each referee has tasks singular to their position and view the game from a specific point of view.  Any ref can make any call (mostly) but they are positioned as such that they better suited to see some types of actions (and infractions) better than others.  This means teamwork and consistent standards between refs is important, since they have to rely on one another to monitor the entire game.   Officials use systems of communication between each other both standardized by the rules calls, verbal cues, whistles, hand signals and more informal systems of gestures, sharing quick words and, sometimes, meaningful glances.            

Before a ref will call penalty, they will be reasonably confident that they saw the beginning, middle and end of the action.  Putting a skater in the box, particularly a jammer, can change a game and officials need to be certain that a penalty is warranted.  An action that an official does not feel they have enough information about can have their working information supplemented by another official who did have eyes on the action.  By the nature of the game, however, referees do not often have time to have a consultation with one another over thousands of physical player interactions that take place over the course of a single game.  Obviously, there will be some actions that will have more impact on the game than others, and these ones are important for coaches and players to consider – did the action take place over a length of track, was the action rotational or happened towards the center of the track, with bodies potentially obscuring the view from any single official?  This is one good use of an official review, in that it brings the officials together to discuss what they witnessed, and the piecing together of a complex action may might be done.  At that point the action can be assessed for legality and if any penalty (or removal of a penalty) is warranted. 

If you see a zebra huddle right after a big action, especially an injury, you can be reasonably sure they are checking with each other to ensure they are in agreeance in what happened.  Any penalties determined to be relevant will be issued at that point, before the next jam begins. 

A quick note about penalties issued between jams: a referee will not blow a whistle to issue an early or late hit, or a call coming in after the four whistles.  The penalty whistle would confuse and disrupt the game flow.  Typically, the official will get a skater’s attention, verbalize colour, number and penalty with accompanying hand signals.  Skater will need to report to the box immediately. 

Penalties basically come in three flavours:

Illegal contact:
either by blocking an illegal contact zone like the back or lower leg, or by using an illegal blocking zone like the lower leg or forearm.  Also includes multiplayers or being out of play, out of bounds when contact is made.  Basically, somebody did something physically that affected fair game play.  JRDA further binds contact with skill-based levelled play.   

Illegal procedure:
an area where advantage is gained outside of the game boundaries, including the physical track boundary (such as cut tracks) and the dynamic boundaries and structures like the pack (which changes continuously but with it, literally, roller derby cannot happen), the number and types of players on the track and time.  This includes breaking the pack, failing to make a pack when there is none, being in the wrong spot when the jam starts (false start, not in bounds) and anything that interferes with the game flow.** 

Unsporting Conduct:
or misconduct, in which the safety and respect of all participants in the game (includes skaters, bench staff, officials, volunteers and spectators – basically anybody in the venue) is taken into consideration.  These penalties do not need to done with intention, such as often an insubordination call when a player fails to leave the track directly and immediately when issued a penalty (resulting in a whole minute in the box).  Other penalties include that which come from contact that is considered unexpected and/or especially hazardous in roller derby, such as leaping contact (example, the apex jump into opposing players***), or aggressive, threatening or hostile language directed towards an individual or generally considered to lack respect for the sport.  JRDA rules are very clear that disrespectful behavior from non-player participants is included here and can result in penalized skaters.   Check the JRDA Code of Conduct for specifics, as it is applicable to all in attendance including spectators.  Some spectator behaviors normalized in other sports is not acceptable at JRDA events (this includes profanity and cheering that includes directives to harm other skaters, such as Get Them, Hit Them, and the such.

Penalties are mainly called by referees but a Non-Skating Official penalty box manager can issue a misconduct to a skater who enter the box in an unsafe manner, putting box officials in danger or distracting them from effectively performing their job.


Considering Impact: Is it actually a penalty?
I am going to narrow the discussion down to contact penalties for the moment, since this is an area that seems to generate the most confusion during the game as to why penalties are Not issued.  First, contact to an illegal target zone or with an illegal blocking zone not in itself cause enough to result in a penalty.  The existence of forearms touching opposing players and moments where players have linked their arms are not singularly to be judged as something to important enough to send a player to the box.  The illegal action must have Impact on the game.  A quick imperfect guideline is, was the illegal action successful?  Did it have an impact in the game?   

Impact is not just sort of a personal judgement by officials, the criteria is defined as illegal contact that puts an opponent significantly off balance, out of bounds, changes their direction or speed, OR allows the skater who made contact to stay in bounds or upright when they would have gone out or down otherwise (think grabbing an opposing player’s jersey to stop oneself from falling).

Impact assessment does not stop at the players involved in the initial action however, it also includes any teammate who gained advantage through the use of an illegal action. 

There are some very good examples of this in the casebook and all of this is best clarified by in person discussion.  In writing right now I could either go on for days or just summarize by saying: read the casebook.  OR, if the timing is right, ask a ref.

Although Impact as a criteria has a defined meaning, referee discretion is an important part of modern officiating.  It is an ongoing discussion and by no means an uncontroversial one (there are other roller derby organizations with different rulesets that do not allow impact to be a factor), but with the WFTDA asks that an illegal action be impactful before being penalized (with some safety exceptions) and is up to the official’s assessment if Impact was observed.  There is much to talk about here and I would be happy to discuss in person, but generally the main thrust is for officials to educate themselves and other officials, and gain tons of experience, on the use of discretion on whether to call a penalty in favour of allowing gameplay to flow as smoothly as possible. 

Refs back in the day were discouraged from studying strategy, thinking that not seeing the intention more objective, but the opposite is true now.  Refs are encouraged to go to practices, study the sport, understand the strategies the teams are attempting.  This greater depth of understandings allows them to focus on the appropriate areas and better understand what they are looking at.  A brilliant thing is Not making a call on a player using their upper arms (legal blocking zone), for instance, even though their forearm (illegal blocking zone) is close to the action.  Roller derby continues to progress this way, when officials do not automatically penalize novel strategies and techniques.  This doesn’t mean that refs gloss over illegal actions, it means that sufficient impact needs to be observed because over penalizing normal roller derby action and constantly sending players to the box for illegal actions that do not overly affect the game is not desirable.  Officials allow roller derby to happen, they do not attempt to overly control or penalize it. 

Which is to bring up yet another important aspect to being a referee, and especially working with other referees, is that each official has their own Metric for deciding what is roller derby and what is not.  For instance, inside pack refs - who define the pack - it’s easy to see when an official has a spongier metric than one who uses a tighter one.  Since the action cannot be stopped to bring a tape measure out and the pack measured, each individual official has their best understanding of how far 10 feet is and that is their personal metric.  The important thing for the players involved is that the metric applied by the official is consistent so they can make adjustments within any single game and feel that it is being applied to both teams equally.  Personal metrics exist for all referees, because human, and the best attempts at fairness and consistency is made.

Who are these refs anyway?
For crews that are made up of refs from different places, and do not work with each other all the time, these individual metrics will be a point of verbal discussion and exploration amongst each other before and during the game.  The idea is for all officials to bring their own personal metric to be closer to medium of the whole crew so there is an overall consistency.

For worlds, the crews will remain together throughout the event, so that they can get to know each other, learn each other’s communications, and tighten up their own crew metric and understanding.  The crew being consistent and confident in each other is important for your tournament organizers and the head officials involved.  In fact, the crews are already introduced to one another, and are sharing personal information about their credentials and, most importantly, pictures of their pets.  Much thought and intention is being given to the officiating at worlds, all the planning, discussions, training, preparation that can be done.  The skaters will be in the best hands possible.      

Which brings us to the official who actually has and firmly upholds a very different understanding of an aspect of the game than the rest of the crew.  Sometimes officials are wrong about something and it is appropriate to question it.  However, adjustments are not as simple as telling an official to do it different.  Small variations in metrics or even incorrect calls may not be noticed by officials because of the different positioning and distinctive areas of responsibility.  In a high level game, if I the ref am busy trying to monitor another official’s performance, I stand a chance of not taking care of my job, thereby compounding a situation and putting players at additional risk.  By the nature of the game, someone outside of the working officiating crew may need to notice what is happening and there is standard and respectful protocols for doing so.  Officials are aware that they make mistakes despite best efforts, because human, and they are highly attuned to the fact that that their actions are under great scrutiny.  Trust me, we are given performance reviews often.  Official reviews, the 30 seconds between jams, the captain’s meetings before, middle and end of game are all opportunities teams have to bring up officiating concerns.  Some games are lucky enough to have an alternate official who can observe the overall officiating and gameplay and bring specific issues, better seen from outside, to the working officials.   

Before I leave this section, I just want to point out one more aspect of the unique viewpoint and impact that is not immediately evident to spectators or players.  While the audience sees what is happening of course, the proximity to the action is important to be able to help define who started it and where it landed.   Bodies are better doors than windows, and the line between a clean hit and a back block is not easily defined sometimes, even among officials.  Or there is another body in the action behind that is obscured from the front.  The errant skate that causes a fall.  It takes a good view clear view and officials spend a lot of time making sure they are in the right place to see the contact.  Which does not mean the outside viewer is wrong, just that there may be more factors in play that is hidden from them. 

Late calls 
A penalty can be issued at any point during the jam and up until the start of the next jam, which means the call being made might not be directly connected to action taking place.  That is a frustrating situation for a skater and an official can help clarify understanding by adding ‘late call’ to their verbal call, but that does not always happen.  Why a penalty may come late has a variety of reasons, sometimes official need a moment to put it together, not wanting to make kneejerk calls or they needed a moment to check with another ref to be fully confident on the call.  The game allows officials to take that time if they require.  Sometimes players do novel things that take time to process.  Sometimes a player makes a move so brazen and wild that an official can doubt their own reality.  Did that just happen?!  These skaters are so very skilled and powerful.  They do amazing things and innovate on the spot.  It is far better to give the officials the time to check their understanding than to demand they make a decision immediately.  Fewer penalties, better roller derby. 

Which is to say that officials put much thought, training, experience and a heavy feeling of responsibility to make sure things are safe, fair, and enjoyable.  I encourage all spectators, coaches and parents of skaters to also make a habit of also engaging in that reflective process, especially when speaking to junior athletes about their games, and criticisms of the officiating is made.  I do hope everyone (except the officials) gets to cheer and yell during a game.  This is supposed to be fun. Questioning and analyzing the officiating is part of it.  Respectfully. 

Refs are and should be open to scrutiny, they are not above critique, they make mistakes, they sometimes make bad calls, or they have a bad day.  Feedback to officials is a regular and necessary part of the game structure for just this reason.  It’s also true that some errors can not be fixed in a single game and may take some time after, officiating education.  Just as no one skater shows up on the first day knowing everything, same for officials.  With patience and understanding we can keep games moving, keep everyone safe, gaining experience, and have continue to evolve this sport.                    


On a similar vein, refs have much they can speak on about the game and have valuable unique insight into skater’s gameplay.  If any skater has questions, they can approach an official after the game and ask questions.  At this stage, I encourage going through or with the coaches to approach an official.  An official in stripes has some structure protocols of behavior so do not be offput by seemingly distant language, but all officials are there because they LOVE this sport and want to support the skaters.  They are there making gameplay safe and fair and no official operates with intention to frustrate or punish a skater.  There may be a disagreement on the specifics of a skill or play, but that is conversation that goes both ways. 

Myself and other parent/officials will be available this Calgary weekend to field questions and discusses whatever.  We are friendly people who have seen things.  If anyone likes we can set a formal time for a Q and A and address the million or so things I decided to omit because this was long enough, or just go ahead whenever and ask. We will make time.

As parents, we are highly invested in the success of these specific skaters and the Canadian teams, obviously, and feeling frustrated or confused with officiating is not a good use of anyone’s time and energy.  I also think that the more one understands about the game - the structures, rules, what the ref signals mean - the more enjoyable spectating is.  Knowing how the refs work will help everyone focus on what actually matters: the athletes and cheering them on. 


   * A ‘parent’ here is meant to be any parent, guardian, junior coach or influential adult in a junior skater’s life that will be speaking in a meaningful sense with the skater about a game.

**Sometimes, such as when a team simply fails to show up at the start of the jam, no one specific skater can be deemed responsible, so the team captain will serve a penalty as a blocker for the team.  JRDA also has some modifications here, allowing level one skaters accommodations regarding pack definition, recognizing that skill level and avoiding contact is an important criteria for levelled play.      

***All these potentials are penalized with the same 30 seconds in the box, but some penalties can be elevated into an expulsion (being removed from the game) if they are deemed especially dangerous or unsporting.  The one I see most often is an apex or straipex jump that makes uninitiated contact with an opponent’s illegal target zone (head, feet, back), meaning the skater’s jump resulted in contact with an opposing skater that did not move into their position during the jump (indicating that they were not intending to initiate contact or block the jumper).  The contact does not need to have knocked down the skater as leaping contact is considered unsporting (rules say a skate must be on the ground to initiate contact) and impacts to heads and back are considered dangerous.  The safety of all skaters is of upmost importance.  Please know that no expulsion happens without a discussion with the officials and the head referee is the only one who can make the final call.  This is an excellent area to spend some times looking at the rules and chatting informally with officials about, as not wanting to punish apex jumping – a beloved aspect of our sport – but also needing to consider safety is an ongoing discussion at large.       

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Surprise. I live.

Even bigger shocker, I still play derby.  I know, having not posted for two years, it seemed likely that I had gone the way of most of the people who have tried and played derby and quietly, resentfully, hung up my skates due to that dark force called Real Life Responsibilities.  Ha.  I've had a lot of time experience in dodging the adulting; it's unlikely to get at me at this stage in the game.

For the past two years I've had very little to say about the sport of roller derby or adult athletics.  Publicly, at least. So I have been quiet here.  Derby, for myself, is an inward journey of discovery. Or, if that seems a bit breezy, derby is my narcissistic preoccupation with awkward and painful activities in which I can't seem to win and must spend lots of money on.

Roller derby.  Don't talk to me about roller derby.

But not posting so much is really okay.  Reading back over some posts on Pick a Cheek here to familiarize myself with me, I noticed a stunning lack of change in attitude and environment over the past years.  Though the jerseys and locations have changed, derby is just as hard, overwhelming, awkward and exhilarating today as it was five years ago.  I love my derby people as much as I want to throttle them.  Same old, same old.

What is new, though, right now, is this funny thing my league is trying.  It's called an off-season and it's incredible.  We have two months off of practicing and playing and it's the first time I've not derby skated for that amount of time.  Which doesn't mean I haven't done league work or recreational skates, watched footage, attended meetings and socials, and even helped lead a practice with other league, but still.   Still.  Relatively speaking, this has been derby free time.

So I've been trying some new stuff.  MMA fitness classes for one.  Super fun.  And I turned forty years old. Not so much fun but, despite my efforts, it was unavoidable.

At this age in the game, with a little breathing space of an off-season, naturally I've got a few questions for myself about this derby thing and how it's working for me.  Y'know, overall.  Even more than my usual calls to defend myself against queries about why I do something that I am just so not naturally suited for.  (As if not being awesome at something is a reason to not do it.) 

Long dark tea-time of the derby soul sort of stuff.

How do I measure personal success in this sport?  If I went by sheer player ranking, I would of chucked my skates and settled down the couch with a truckload of bon bons a long time ago.  So would ninety-five percent of the skaters. Obviously, we have worth beyond being the best of the best of the best.

Health wise, derby has taken my downhill rush and angled it towards a much brighter future.  Mentally and physically.  The only thing that terrifies my husband more than me perpetually playing derby is me not playing derby.  Because that is a dark spiral of badness for my body and my brain.  Sport keeps me healthy, yo.

How about growing the sport in general and supporting the community?  Well, ahem, I feel I've done my share and, sparing you the gritty details, I will give myself a little check mark for that.  Besides helping to ensure derby exists for myself and my community, I also have a girl child who lives and breaths for skating and her derby buds who looks forward to many years of derby derby derby.

On that side note, derby has been incredibly affirming for my children.  Not lacking in complications or the occasional problem, of course, but within this sport both my junior player child and non-player child have found supportive community.  For my girl, in particular, growing up in derby has provided a wealth of positive real life role models. Okay, smelly, foul-mouthed role models, yes, but who are also strong, capable, and demonstrate self worth.  I like that when asked who her heroes are, my daughter will name real women that she knows personally, as opposed to movie or pop stars that are recited all too often.   Though, technically speaking, she's also name book characters, so we'll not get too gaspy about all this.

Health, community and positive role models are pretty good, but I think that to determine if this sport thing is successful and worth it for me, I'm going to fall back less empirical notion of personal progress.  By degrees, being better and better each day.  Since change is inevitable, all things impermanent, I would like to focus my effort on channeling change in directions I choose.  Mastery of my own fate and so on. And I'm not talking just about improving my derby play, oh no.  That's really sort of the lowest measure. The question is, is derby instrumental in helping me be a better person?

As noted above, on the most fundamental level for me derby hasn't changed all that much over the years.  It's like this endless loop (moving counter clock-wise) of challenge and duty.  Admittedly, I'm in a pretty good spot right now.  I love where I'm at and who is with me, but the nitty gritty of running a league, practicing and playing has had me splashing about in the same murky pool for five years now.  Without something drastic, like the invention of time travel, perhaps, or the introduction of portals in space that can be used legally in game play (damn, how cool would that be?), I can foresee the derby will be the derby as I know it for the time being.

I try to keep my mindset, though, on learning from every angle I can.  Meetings teach me patience and to listen to others.  Practice helps me become stronger mentally as well as physically.  Recruiting and promotions keep me in touch with the greater community and encountering new people.  Watching new skaters grow confident and overcome their own personal obstacles is inspiring. Challenges are always opportunities for personal growth and, yes, derby supplies plenty of challenges.

So I guess it's all worth it.

Now hold up, I hear you say, given that it is a mindset of growth that makes the activity valuable, wouldn't almost any activity that provided physical challenge and other people actually teach the same lessons?  Isn't it the desire to learn and improve is what is useful, not derby itself? 

Yup.  It doesn't have to be derby. 

In fact, I do derby because I like it.  I could do other things too.  And I may, if I want to.  In the meanwhile, this is still a pretty fun way to spend my Saturday night.  And Monday night.  And Thursdays.  And Sunday afternoon...


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

adult onset athletics

Today I did our travel team's version of the Filthy Fifty they used as a fitness measure for their tryouts and ongoing as a friendly competition between teammates.

 In twenty minutes I did:

50 burpees
50 squats
50 lunges
50 push ups
50 sit ups
50 tuck jumps

And then I went downstairs to my basement where my washer and dryer are to do as much laundry as possible because I know my legs are going to seize up tomorrow and I won't be able to get up and down those stairs for a few days.

I need to be practical.  I've had experience with this.

I know I've talked about this a few times here already but I am still sort of shocked that I reached my mid-thirties before I managed to find something that I could do to help me be more fit.  Coming from a non-athletic background, I was a little surprised that it turned out to be a sport (on wheels!) that became the workout I could stick to.

And then at some point, I started working out so I could play the sport. 

Sneaky, roller derby, very sneaky.

I can't talk about how I rank against other athletes in sport.  I still feel weird about thinking of myself as an athlete.  There is a whole spectrum of bodies and fitness levels and I have found it to be quite self-destructive to get all judgey and compare myself to others.   It's so easy to think that a person who is lapping you in burpees has some sort of natural burpee gift, comparable to super strength or long eyelashes, and was granted to her by the gods for good deeds done in a past life.  Or for having a famous father. 

But there is no such thing as a burpee gift. If it was true, it would be a good enough reason to just toss in the towel in this life, spending the rest of it making sacrifices to the gods to be granted the gift of easy burpees the next time around.

 More likely than a gift from the gods, you are seeing a culmination of sweat, good eating habits, and dedication.  I want to go on here about youth being a bit of a leg up as well as body composition and a childhood full of sports but I might end up convincing myself there actually is a gift of easy burpees and I'll end up all pissy about it and miss the point I wanted to make here.

The point, I think, is not to measure your fitness against others (except in tiny inspirational doses) but to measure your fitness improvements against yourself.  Especially if you are coming into roller derby with adult onset athletics.

You really need to measure and track your own trajectory.  This is vital to keeping yourself motivated while learning how to workout and, even harder, how to stick to it even when gods, genetics and time conspire to deny you the burpee-ready body.

I have a set of personal motivators that I use to keep me going whenever I don't feel like putting in the effort.  For me, it's very specific memories of three years ago when certain parts of my body that did not look or feel like something that should be a part of me.  Like how my stomach used to actually fold over onto itself after my second baby arrived.  And my ass formed a gentle slope from my hip bones down to the tops of my legs without any discernible muscle tone. 

Now I know, given how much I abused my body with neglect and cookies prior to roller derby, that I am not going to get into super shape.  But despite how it looks - and it does look better - I feel ten thousand times better than I did three years ago when I couldn't stand up from the floor without using my hands to brace myself. 

That feels so weird to me now, that I couldn't raise myself off the floor without using my hands.  But yet, that is the fitness story of most of my life.  Lacking that muscle left me with a sprained ankle on my third derby practice ever and many more injuries in my knees and back until I developed the strength to hold myself up.  No small feat.

The other day I found a couple sheets of paper photocopied from a magazine of an interval workout I had tried three years ago.  I remember getting to the fourth set of seven (three minute cardio, one minute strength and one minute core sets) and then having total muscle failure in my legs.  Yesterday I did the whole seven sets and it wasn't really that hard.

Not travel team hard anyway.

Beyond burpees and how to get off the floor without using my hands, I did learn a few things about what it means to push myself beyond my perceived barriers.  First of all, there is a point beyond 'I can't - my body won't do it.'  If you push beyond there, it turns into 'I can - and holy fuck it hurts.' Also I get shaky and this sort of weird all over body cold feeling that probably isn't good, but it is completely possible to push myself far beyond the point where I thought I had stop.

I've learned I cannot dehydrate to the point of death in an hour workout, no matter how sweaty I get.  So water breaks are good and necessary, getting a bit thirsty is not a good reason to break my concentration.  Best to just maintain an overall good habit of daily hydration.

I've learned that when the burpee gifted are running circles around me and taunting me by being all good looking in Lycra, I need to tuck my focus inside myself and do what I need to do.  Don't judge and don't quit.  I'd rather beat myself up with push ups than with self defeating comparisons.

I've learned that getting light headed with lots of up and down movements means my blood pressure is low and I could very well pass right the fuck out.  I improved my chronic low blood pressure with better eating habits and cutting down the stimulants (sugar and caffeine). 

I've learned that cross training is my friend.  I like yoga, running stairs and bike riding.  If you go from sedentary to exclusive training with derby, you end up having a lot of sore joints and unnecessary injuries from overdeveloping certain muscles while others are left behind.  Learning to be an athlete later in life is hard enough without developing all wonky.  Even it up with cross training.

Getting out the door for a workout is the hardest part.  It is so tempting to opt out and avoid the workout, especially knowing it will be tough.  Even tough enough to make your legs and shoulders ache for days afterwards.  But if you can make yourself start, it gets easier.  Mentally, I mean, not physically.  That workout shit is hard. Unless you have the burpee gift.  Once you are there and moving and your only choice is to push through to the end, you will glad you did it.  Eventually.  When you're able to walk downstairs again not looking like a badly strung marionette.

I think that you could probably classify this as developing mental toughness but it is probably more a fear of slowly becoming ever more slumpy as I age and slipping so far down a slope of unhealthy habits that I will never be able to recover from.  There is so much to be gained from improving one's fitness - more energy, physical play with the kids, kicking ass with greater efficiency at roller derby.

It is a case, for those of us who spent more time cultivating our baking skills rather than our bodies, as better late than never.  We all must start from where we are at and realize that over time it never gets easier even though we do get better.  My one hundredth workout felt as hard as my first one.  But I am a different person.  And hey, look! No hands!

And if you discover and that you do, indeed, find burpees to be oh so easy and suspect you have a god-granted gift for them, do me a favour and don't tell me.

Friday, July 5, 2013

I think I have the crazies

One year ago I was playing with our league's travel team, chairing a board position, coaching fresh meat and a part time ref.  Since then I have:

a) Gotten injured.  Busted my tailbone when I fell on my skate during a warm up for a game.  It is as painful as it sounds.  For the record, I still played the game.  I think I might have been in shock.  But we won, yay!

b) Did no contact practices for a bit and focused on learning the reffing better.  Spent non-derby time trying to figure out how to sit in chairs without actually having my ass make contact with the seat.

c) Returned to active duty.  Then got sort of overwhelmed and angry.  With everything and everybody.  And my ass still hurt.

d) Decided I needed a derby break.  That lasted about two nanoseconds.  But I did manage to not run in the next board election.  Actually, that's not true.  I did run, became VP and then had a panic attack at three am that night worrying about having to do it all if the president quit.  It's not an irrational fear.  Our presidents should go on the endangered species list.  I resigned at four am. 

e) Resigned from the travel team as well.  Played a couple games with our B team.  Love those ladies.

f) Decided I needed a derby break again.  Found fresh meat another coach and resigned from the B team.  That lasted about two nanoseconds.

g) Became a full time ref.  Filled my head with all sorts of finicky bits of rules and protocol until I couldn't be near the track without nearly having a nervous break down from the continuous infractions committed by players who seem blithely unaware that they are breaking the god damn rules all. the. fucking. time.

h) Realized that reffing was turning me into an anal retentive middle manager and that is exactly not why I'm in derby so decided to take a break.

i) Which lasted two nanoseconds.

j) While retaining the reffing break, I was somehow convinced to start coaching fresh meat again and play a game with the B team.  I heart fresh meat and missed their innocent, unjaded optimism. 

k) I learned that 'unjaded' isn't a real word. 

So, here I am, transitioning from ref to player again.  I feel a little like what it must be like for a cop who was framed and sent to jail.  Except for all the ass raping.  I hope.  I mean, my ass did hurt but for an entirely different reason.  Sorry to put that all into your head.

The point is, as a ref, when I said you done did wrong, they had to pay a price.  As a player, when I point out the broken rule, they just say, 'Suck it, bitch!' and do it again.

Not. Fair.  I get distracted by my rage at the injustice of it all and fail to protect myself.  Never mind actually play the damn game in any sort of half-ways effective manner.

As a ref, I learned to deal with an infraction by yelling at it and sending it off the track. Given that this is my normal sort of reaction in everyday life, I feel quite comfortable doing this.  I'm what you might call a natural hall monitor.

Remembering to react physically by, oh I don't know, hitting somebody back, is more challenging.  Especially this is the second bloody time I've had to do and it's not any more intuitive now than it was three years ago when I was fresh meat.

Thus, the work now is to go through my head and root out all those parts that feel hard done by and indignant and pissy about what is happening around me at the moment.  In other words, I need to learn to let go.

People say that when you play a sport it never gets easier no matter how good you get because you are always moving up to the next level and making and meeting new challenges.  I think in roller derby, particularly for women without sports backgrounds, we not only have new challenges but we end up having to redo our old ones again with a different mind.  Because our brains are filled with all sorts of imprinted self-regulating social garbage and the lesson isn't truly learned until we can develop new instincts that don't involve us invoking feelings of victim hood.

I have no protocols on how to do this.  I just need to stop itemizing every little low block and directional before I lose my mind. All I can figure out is to keep going to practices and work on shutting my face and moving my feet instead whenever I see a penalty happening.  And to give myself a thousand burpees whenever I make the WTF arms at a refHonestly, I've wanted to do that to players for awhile now anyway. 

I am trying to approach it all again with a beginner's mind - clearing away all that I think I know so that I can react to what is happening at the moment, without judgement, and just play some derby.


Monday, August 13, 2012

evolution vs toast

In my ongoing effort to improve my nutritional status so I can be the bestest roller derby-er I can be, despite my stunning lack of natural abilities (see nearly all previous posts) I have been looking into the ways that athletes and super healthy people fuel themselves.  One particular way has popped up more than its fair share and that is the paleolithic diet.  I know you've heard of it and if you haven't you've got access to Google, so I'm not going to describe it beyond saying that it involves no grains, just meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts.

Paleo has caught my eye because I know a half dozen people personally who have claimed that paleo eating and lifestyle has changed their lives.  And I've seen them undergo changes, becoming healthier, fitter and happier.  Paleo is like the magical unicorn of diets. 

Reading about it, there is some good guys (Robb Wolf seems pretty knowledgeable plus he says swear words) and some questionable science guys (Gary Taubes) but still, for the most part, I find myself in agreeance with the paleo sellers.  This would be the point that I, given my penchant for turning my whole life into a science experiment because I'm curious, interested and always eager to find things that help me be healthier, to yell giddy up and spend a few weeks re-learning how to eat. 

The reason why I'm hesitating to adopt this paleo diet is a set of arguments I waded through about fifteen years ago stuck to me and turned itself into a firm and clear ethical basis from which much of my identity and life is constructed.  I am vegan.  I like being vegan.  My children are vegan.  I don't want to eat animals.  When it's me vs. the mythical bunny on the hypothetical desert island I would Not Eat the Bunny.

I get that grains are not so good for our bodies.  I live that one out with wheat all the time.  I love toast.  I have gone so far in the recent past to say that I fucking love toast.  But toast doesn't fucking me.  Toast, which is so good, so tasty turns into an evil bitch in my stomach and makes me suffer for every bite.  Toast is a frenemy.  Good bye (*sob*) toast.

The paleo kicker is that it is impossible to construct a strictly paleo diet while also being vegan.  Legumes and grains form an important part of vegan nutrition, as they contain larger doses of protein than vegetables.  It is possible to construct a diet that is paleo-esque but includes some legumes and seeds like quinoa, amarath and hemp.   Brendan Brazier is one such vegan athlete guru and, I'll admit, I've been consuming his yellow pea/hemp/veggie magic powders for years.  (I've actually, I've come to crave the odd taste of Vega products, which I like to blend with a bit of banana and almond milk.)

I like Brazier.  I follow him on Facebook.  But Brazier's diet is not strictly paleo and, according to Wolf, I shall never get the benefits of becoming a slick, lean fat fuelled machine if I bastardize the paleo diet and sneak in some quinoa. 

This little vegan vs paleo debate has been tearing me up for a little while.  It's the worst of both worlds right now, since I can't figure out what to make for breakfast and my entire day goes to shit after that.  I mean, if I shouldn't eat toast or oatmeal or pancakes, then what the fuck do I eat?  Broccoli with my coffee?  That is not breakfast fuel, my friends. 

Then, this morning as I made oatmeal because I have to eat something, it occurred to me that perhaps I've had my head up my ass long enough.  Here is the thing with our culture: we have so much time, energy and resources that we can afford to self indulgently narrow our choices down and grow into neurotic dietary puritans.  I have unlimited food sources from all over the world, I do not have traditional foods prescribed nor do I live with religious tenents that dicate my lunch choice.  To decide that I will be vegan (and maintain with admittedly good health for fifteen years with the exception of two pregnancies) is a luxury of my time and place.  To decide to only eat like our paleo ancestors is another luxury item.  To sit here and dither over which one is best is even more self indulgent.  I am damn fucking lucky to have this choice.  So I will not suffer over it anymore.

I remember reading study that looked at all the paradoxical ways of eating, trending fads, diets, and longer term commitments, like Seventh Day Adventist vegetarians, that claimed to maintain health (and weight loss) with foods that conflicted with one another.  The South Beachers could lose weight and maintain based upon denying themselves foods that the Greeks eat daily (fat, fat and more fat).  We have the French paradox and the Chinese paradox and how can all these conflicting ways of eating still work to support healthy human life? 

The study concluded that all of the diets that did indeed improve human health had one common feature: large portions vegetables, particularly green leafies, as cornerstones to their menus.  A part of me wondering is that it's not so much the meat that makes paleo so successful, it's actually the inclusion of large servings of vegetables.

Another part of our evolving species is our big, heavy, pelvis busting brains.  See, if it's me vs the rabbit on the island, the knee jerk reaction of our species to a desperate situation is to kill something and eat it and, sure, I could do that.  I could go all paleo all over the bunny, eat the little prey, and go to sleep when the sun goes down.  Or, I could sit my ass down and think about it for a minute and it will probably occur to me to wonder, what the fuck is the bunny eating? 

We are omnivores.  We sustain our lives on all sorts of foods.  We eat from the sky, the ground, the sea, and we cook it all in the sun, hot springs and in lava pits.  We carry around super computers in our skulls.  The choices we have is our predicament, they make us crazy, but they are also our way off of crazy island and all the hypothetical scenarios that are not going to happen to this prairie living girl.

I don't know if being vegan is the ultimate healthy sort of way.  I can't say that paleo is either.  I know that eating a shit ton of vegetables is a good thing and that I must painfully, with great sorrow, end my love affair with toast.  I also know that I've got a lot of other things to do with my life than sit around tinkering with my diet. 

I'm not sick.  I do have energy and health.  I am also pretty lazy and can afford to be lazy.  It's much more fun to read books (with swear words) about my self indulgent food choices and endlessly tweak my lifestyle than to go do something that matters.

So, I'm going to go do some shit, eat some veggies for lunch and fail to worry about it.  And then I'm going to get ready in my specialized clothing designed by modern day scientists to maximize my movement potential while drawing sweat away from my body and hunt down an opposing jammer deer while helping my jammer gather up some points in roller derby practice.

It is what I am evolved to do.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

action items

I find derby hard.

I am not a natural skater.  It is a lot of work for me, physically and mentally.

I am not a natural athlete.  I don't think of my body very much and prefer to keep my mileage low.  Given time on my own, I will crawl into a ball and use only my arms to hold a book.  Well, maybe the occasional walk to the kitchen to make more tea.

When I was in high school, I had a friend tell me that he could see me spending my adult years laying on a couch, yelling at my kids to fetch mommy more bon bons. 

So, despite this derby thing being terrifically difficult, I think I'm doing pretty good.  Difficult is do-able.

But to make difficult do-able, I need to take care of the things I can at home with my body so that do not merely survive a hard, ass kicking practice in the heat but actually learn a few things too.  Surviving isn't enough.  I want to excel.  I have to work extra hard in the rest of my life in order to make the time and effort I put in at practice count.

Which means I have to be thoughful when I care for myself nutritionally.  I must workout outside of practice.  I must treat myself as the athlete I aspire to be.  At least I can have that covered so that my sucking at derby won't be further exaggerated by poor diet and lack of muscles.

Still.  I'm not perfect.  And when I slip, I fall down much further than I expect.

My birthday, bless it, past recently and suddenly there was cake and a celebratory Chinese dinner and, omg, ice cream and chocolate bars for treats.  Going to the movies instead of working out.  Old habits never quite disappear and it doesn't take much to have them take over again, eroding a lot of hard work.

Then the carb cravings ramped up and I started having toast for breakfast instead of the preferable hemp protein and almond smoothie.  And then toast for snack before bed and a glass of wine instead of mint tea.  And then cake for lunch.  And more toast.

I love toast.  I fucking love toast.  And bon bons.  Kids, bring mommy her bon bons!

But toast and wine and bon bons do not love me.  They make it harder for me to do the things I want to do.  Toast makes my middle swell and look like I'm hiding a beach ball in my jersey.  And wine gives me cankles to match my swollen belly.  And bon bons make me angry and tired.  And when I feel down, it seems so. much. easier. to go get another piece of cake than to make a salad.  All that chopping and stuff... ugh.

I've read in several places that it is better to never have another cookie again than to reward oneself for good nutritional choices with a once a week cookie treat.  It seems our bodies will, after a few days without a narcotic substance (and sugar, wheat and all the delicious white stuff is) kind of forget about it.  Your body will crave what you give it.  But a little bit of the super sweet stuff is like a super stimulator and even a tiny amount will overload your craving center, until all you can do is think about getting just one more cookie.

Or piece of toast.

(Hmmm... toast...)

They also say it is best to have a balance of foods.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and all nuts and protein powder and no dark chocolate Aero bars makes Malady a sad bore.  But I don't really do balance well.  Toast is a gateway to large bars of chocolate and entire bottles of wine.  There is sweet stuff that I can have a little bit of and not want more.  Like fruit.  Good stuff, feels great to eat a bit, won't go crazy about it, you know?

I don't believe I can do balance well.  Not at this stage of the game anyway.

So how do I drag myself back out of this pit and start behaving like an athlete again?


The above was written last night right before a two and half hour travel team practice, including an off skates warm up with a run and three rounds of 5 pull ups, 10 tuck jumps, 15 bicycle crunches, 20 inverted push ups, 25 box jumps.

3(5+10+15+20+25) = 225 reasons not eat another fucking bon bon ever again.

Working out and practice always improves my nutritional choices for 24 hours afterwards, because I remember how hard it is to move around all this poundage plus a ball of (vegan) ginger beef in my belly.  Athlete, do what?

Action item #1: Workout at least once every 24 hours.

Workouts don't need to all be super stair running and plyometric intervals.  Some days, just going to the playground with the kids gets my heart racing for half an hour or more.  And getting myself to more practices is just helpful all around.


This morning I went to the post office which happens to be located beside a walk in medical clinic.  Nothing like a load of sick people to encourage you to pass by the pasta and chop that salad.  And then run some stairs for bone health.

Motivation is a funny thing.  When there is an immediate consequence, say touching a hot stove, you learn quickly and easily not to do things that harm you.  When consequence comes hours, weeks, or years later, we forget that things can be harmful for us.

The trick is to mentally invoke a consequence that may not happen for years in order to motivate your behavior now.  Green things are good for me, sugar things are not, and as I age my diet and habits of movements will increasingly show themselves. 

Action item #2: Remind myself frequently of the consequence of good health. 

For me this means a lot of people watching, something I like to do anyway.  Check out people's carts in the grocery store then try to gauge their relative health.  Hang out where people work out.  Go the the mall for fresh veggie juice while checking out the food court.  Get really, really (quietly) judgmental about people.


What this all boils down to is choices.  I am not lacking information about nutrition, I know what is good for me.  I know what makes me feel like an awesome kung fu ninja and what makes me feel like I've been dropped in the pit of despair and I'm too fat to scale the walls back out again.  I'm not dumb.  But I do make poor choices sometimes.

Action item #3: Remove the choice.

Bye bye leftover birthday cake.  Later bon bons.  Ciao loaf of bread.  Heelllllllo greens.


There are many, many other small actions I can take to encourage better choices if I'm going to remain an athlete as I cruise into middle age.  But, for me, these are the big ones.  I know these ones have overriden my poor habits from the past and that a week or two of good choices will dimish my cravings and tendency to sloth greatly.  These three actions are my lifestyle equivalent of being a jammer up against a strong front wall, knowing that if she can just stay upright and keep pushing then eventually either the wall will break or she'll push them out of play. 

Then she'll be free to run.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

There is a difference between knowing better and doing better


Though they've been sounding like maracas for months and one wheel, when you gave it a spin, would grind to a halt after two rotations, I changed these out just yesterday.  I have no excuse for my neglience, though I'm certain my legs are stronger for the extra work they've had to do just to push me around the track.  I will say, however, new bearings make me feel like a new person.