Retirement Tug-of-War

Image via Team Anderson

I intended to write an article about retirement. And then I hesitated. Was I sure, absolutely sure, like put in writing sure, that I was going to retire? It wouldn’t be the first time I said I would retire (third actually, but who’s counting?). I procrastinated and procrastinated despite our PR chair’s gentle but persistent prodding. 

Despite the fact I had said “retire,” my old league heard “come back to play with us.”Who could blame them? They’ve heard it before. As I was, and am, engaging in this mental tug of war, I realized this writing was not going to be about retirement. It was going to be about belonging. 

Our sport is an amazing sport to play. Whenever I talk about one of the reasons I hesitate to retire, even non-derby players get it. There is nothing like this sport. There is nothing I will take up that comes close to the speed of sprinting on skates, the mental chess match of reading play, and the physicality of giving and taking hits. I will certainly miss these aspects of it. Whenever I’m in game play, even when it’s not going well, there is nowhere I’d rather be. I honestly could not care less about my graduate degree, my utility bills, or if continuing to play derby would make me less of a parent, employee, or friend. It’s kind of like a drug that way. But that’s not the thing the retirement tug of war is really about. 

It is cool as shit to be a derby player. Anyone who tells you that’s not part of the reason they play, I’ll accuse of lying. It’s got social cache´. More than once it’s opened up doors and conversations, personally and professionally, that I’d never gotten into without that first “Really? You play roller derby? How cool!” But that’s not the thing the retirement tug of war is really about. 

You make friends, lots of them. I have found so many people I never, ever would have found without derby. I have friends of almost every imaginable background. I even got the love of my life out of the deal. All those boot camp posters that say you’ll get 50 new friends? Try hundreds. You will always have a place to stay and someone to skate with. You can drop into any mid-size and up town in the nation (and in a lot of instances, the world), and email your local derby league, and you will have friends. But that’s not the thing the retirement tug of war is really about. Close, but not quite. 

In thinking about retirement, one of the things I reflected on was my friends who have already retired. I’ve been around a bit, so there are plenty of them. I see their path being something like this: Months 1-4, gloriously happy. They can’t believe all of the things they get to experience that they’ve been neglecting. Other sports, sleep, non-derby friends, Saturday nights. Months 5-12, still pretty happy. They’ve taken up a new interest or two. They miss it some, maybe they drop by some games, sporting their track jacket, but overall still pretty happy. One year plus. Either they come back, or they deeply miss it. This is scientifically proven by a careful analysis of Facebook and Instagram. Maybe it was playoff season, maybe an after-party, but something pulls them back in or sends them into a deep longing. 

This. This is the thing that the retirement tug of war is about. Belonging to something, and what happens when you leave that something. Derby is a demanding and fickle mistress to be certain. What is demanded of you is time, emotional energy (gobs of emotional energy), physical work whether you play or staff, giving up on other things you love, your non-derby talents (if you call writing a rambly run-on blog talent), your body, sleep, and a whole host of other things I’m probably not thinking of right now because of all those things I just mentioned. But what you get in return is belonging to something. Belonging in a way many of us never experienced in other areas of our lives. 

I was stalled out finishing this piece until I saw a quote from leaguemate Slamuel L Jackson (Jax). In being asked about a mantra or motivation, she said, “Get up. Your team needs you”. I teared up. She uses it as morning gym motivation. And I’ve seen her say something similar before. This time I realized, it wasn’t just about her alarm clock in the morning. It’s so much more. It’s your will. Your reason for popping up after a monster hit. Your reason for the umpteenth time you’ve said, “I can’t, I have derby”. For some of us, our reason for staying on the planet. You belong to something. You belong to something better than what you are by yourself. A team, a community, you’ve found your people. And that is an incredibly, incredibly hard thing to walk away from. Sure, you can still see a game and go out to lunch with your friends, but we all know it’s not the same as the deep sense of belonging you feel when you are part of a league or team. 

Next month the Bruisers head to Mitten Kittens. I am so lucky and grateful that not only will my team be there, my partner will be there, but also many friends from derby. It’ll be great, but I’m tired today. My work load is huge. December graduation of my Master’s seems eternal ages away. My beautiful babies are getting ready to start school, and my bed is comfy. Really, really comfy. But I will get up and head to practice. My team needs me.

ShamWow is a proud Bruiser, mom, and educator.

Posted on September 18, 2016 .

Coming Back to Roller Derby

Sometime last August I put away my derby gear like I did after every practice. At that time, I had no idea I wouldn’t touch it again for a year. Things were changing – I had a new job, a new breakup, a new living situation. And, since I was questioning or changing so many other things, I started questioning my place in roller derby, and roller derby’s place in me. 

Derby was a difficult thing for me. I had never played sports, and hadn’t skated in over 20 years. I wasn’t particularly athletic. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be there.

Although derby gave me a respite from the daily grind, that was the most expendable thing for me at the time. I threw myself into work with so much gusto that I got more projects, which gave me even less time to do anything at all with the derby community. I was creating my own excuses. And so, after much deliberation, I went on an inactive LOA.

But derby wouldn’t go away. The bout posters that were hung in my office were a daily reminder. I creeped the league media pages. People who remembered I played would ask when my next bout was. I watched as the Brawlstars rose through the ranks, leapfrogging Division 2 to land a spot in the Division 1 playoffs. I missed being even a small part of that. 

Choosing to come back, though, proved to be even more difficult than taking a break. What if I forgot how to skate? I had quit, would I be welcomed back? What if everything has changed? And then I realized the answer to all of my questions was “so what?”

 Once I had overcome that mental hurdle, I made the decision that I would join Wave 12 Fresh Meat bootcamp. A2D2 has, in my opinion, the best Fresh Meat bootcamp on the planet. It’s 18 weeks of intense, thorough training that gradually introduces you to roller derby skills and gameplay. It would be the ultimate safe space for a reintroduction to the sport. Sure I’m nervous, but so is everyone else who will be there. And at least this time I know what to expect! 

I’ve always said that I’d try just about anything, twice. So tonight, a year after I took a break, and two years after I started, I’ll hit the track again. I’m not particularly excited about having to skills test again in 18 weeks, but I am ready to get back into it, to meet the new skaters, to reconnect with my teammates, and to fall back in love.

Sneaking Beauty is a former Ypsilanti Vigilante and returning Fresh Meat skater.

Posted on September 14, 2016 .

Brain & Limbs: Sometimes They Even Work Together

Growing up, my entire self-perception was essentially “Brain + Limbs”. Little me was overly cerebral, and mobilized by long legs and arms that always seemed to get tangled up in efforts to walk without tripping. That was most of my body awareness in elementary, middle, high school, college, and even graduate school.

I had never played a sport before roller derby, and that was for two reasons. First, I taught myself that I wasn’t coordinated enough, wasn’t fast enough, and couldn’t catch or run or jump well enough that anyone would want to play with me. Sometimes I told myself these things, and sometimes other people did. The second factor was that school was a place I was privileged to thrive. I earned good grades and never felt the need to take on the physical challenge of something like a sport. I’d found a realm that rewarded my achievement, so why would I try anything in which I had told myself failure was inevitable?

For the past year, roller derby has reintroduced me to what my body can be and do. When I joined Wave 11 of A2D2’s boot camp last September, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for in derby. On day one, I mostly hoped nobody would laugh at me when they found out I was the World’s Worst Sports-er. On day six, I hoped I could forget for a few seconds that I had put wheels on my feet, just enough to get out of my own way to execute a skill.

Then on day fifteen, I sustained a minor ankle injury that took some time to heal, and I hoped my skills wouldn’t completely revert over the course of a few off-skates weeks. During these weeks, I sat in the middle of the track and listened to drill explanations, watching as other Wave 11 skaters practiced them. While my ankle was healing and I just wanted to put the wheels back on my feet, I had a moment of realization. For maybe the first time in my life, I craved learning-by-doing instead of learning-by-thinking, even though that meant literally falling on the ground countless times in front of a lot of other people before finding success. At 8 years old, that would have been my complete nightmare. A2D2 has many facets that make it an excellent place to learn and play roller derby, but skater-to-skater encouragement is near the top of the list. My day-one fears have never materialized; the opposite has been true. Many skaters whose own skills I’ve admired have said kind words to me or offered me tidbits of advice on achieving skills.

My skating progress frequently feels slow, but thanks to a lot of hard work and many graceful, patient trainers; I know it’s happening. I’m also getting closer to knowing myself as an athlete. There’s a newer inner voice somewhere that reminds me I can learn through my body, and that it can do some cool things. When I fall down for the thousandth time and jump up for the opportunity to try it again, the inner voice is there: I’m an athlete. When I’m shaking with anxiety but I go to practice anyway: I’m an athlete. When I reflect on what it means to be coachable or agile or mentally tough: I’m an athlete. When I have one more day to play roller derby with this incredible league: I’m an athlete. My 8-year-old self wouldn’t recognize me, but I’d like to think she’d be proud.

Velociroller is a 29-year-old Bank skater who enjoys complex consonant clusters, winter weather, alliterative phrases, and Jeff Goldblum. She's always happy to provide cookies, a bandaid, or a great portmanteau.

Posted on September 12, 2016 .

"....But you don't look like a roller derby player..."

About a year and a half ago, I began my roller derby journey. Since then, I’ve told tons of people about this amazing sport, and I’ve consistently gotten one comment that has driven me a bit nuts. Inevitably after mentioning roller derby, someone will say something like, “I wouldn’t have guessed that you play roller derby” or “...but you don’t look like a roller derby player.”  

I can only assume that people are trying to be polite and say that I seem so nice and genteel that they would never guess that I would engage in any activity that involved hitting someone. Even my mother and stepdad said this to me. After watching me compete in sports growing up, competing in triathlons, and running marathons, I still remain their “little porcelain doll.” To their credit, last time I was visiting, they told me they are really impressed that I play roller derby, and my heart grew three sizes that day. 

I’ve learned that people have a lot of preconceived notions and stereotypes about roller derby and the people who play it. Roller derby in the 1970s and '80s was very scripted, and much like the WWE had fake fighting for entertainment. Today’s roller derby is VERY different. The players are athletic, and it’s an actual sport with rules and regulations. We don’t have to dress up in skirts and fishnets to get people to come watch a bout. Of course, if we want to wear skirts and fishnets we can because we are modern women who are secure in our sexuality, but we don’t exploit it for roller derby. Instead, we are playing a sport, being athletic, and celebrating the strength, agility, and endurance we have built during countless hours of training.

Modern roller derby faces its own stereotypes of being a sport where the participants are lesbians, feminists, tattooed, have bad attitudes, and love to fight. Aspects of those stereotypes are present in the sport, but they in no way encompass the full spectrum of derby culture. As for me, I’m straight, have one tattoo, am a feminist (because duh equality), and am generally optimistic about life. I still enjoy hitting people while playing roller derby, but I’ve never been in a fight. Roller derby does attract many LGBTQIA+ people, because it’s an accepting community that doesn’t judge you on something like gender identity or sexual orientation, and instead is focused on the sport and camaraderie. 

Here’s the lowdown on our league in Ann Arbor:  We are an ambitious group of students, scientists, artists, mothers, academics, and engineers, amongst many other things. We are athletes that span multiple generations, from 20-year-olds to 50somethings. There are people who didn’t really do athletic things before derby, and those who are very physically active. We defy age, gender, and body size stereotypes. (In addition to learning more factoids about our members on our Recruitment page, you can see great examples of roller derby players defying all stereotypes and being awesome in The Rollergirl Project.) 

Anyone can play roller derby, so don’t let your preconceived notions hold you back from trying something new. Are you interested in getting involved? Ann Arbor’s annual boot camp starts Wednesday, September 7! Come learn how to skate and play the most empowering sport I’ve ever experienced.

Bank skater Arya Snark is a scientist, a runner, a reader, and a dog snuggler. She likes Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, a good BBC mystery show, and oxford commas.

Posted on September 5, 2016 .

Ann Arbor’s Road to Playoffs… and Impostor Syndrome

Each fall, the top 60 teams in the WFTDA are invited to compete in playoffs. The current structure involves two divisions; Division 1 (D1) includes teams ranked 1-40, and Division 2 (D2) includes teams ranked 41-60. The 2016 rankings were just released, and the Ann Arbor Brawlstars will make their playoff debut in D1! So what was the motto of the team that jumped over D2? You might be surprised to know that it was, “We thought we were going to lose all these games.” 

Going into the 2016 season, we were determined to make D2 after ending the 2015 season just below the threshold. We were excited to have a second chance at D2 playoffs in our home state, no less! Our captains planned a challenging season to help us get there, and we went into this season thinking we were going to lose. A lot.

Instead, we consistently beat predictions; for example, we swept Skate to Thrill when we were projected to lose all three bouts. When it was first suggested that we might be looking at D1 this year, we were flattered but dismissive. But then D1 started looking real—maybe a little too real. In first talking about the possibility of D1 during a team meeting, our captain (Slamlet) asked how many of us felt that we had accidentally ended up on a really good roller derby team. We all raised our hands. I looked around and laughed as I realized that the Brawlstars suffer from impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon to reflect that it is not a psychological disorder) occurs when people perceive the appearance of success but feel that those successes were not earned or are otherwise undeserved. They might attribute success to external features (such as luck or timing), rather than internal features (such as skill or ability). As a result of this mismatch between external appearance and internal experience, an individual feels like a fraud and worries about being revealed as such. You might think a team that “accidentally” shot up in the rankings enough to skip D2 would be excited by and pleased about their success. Instead, we felt like impostors pretending to be good at roller derby.

Two facts are comforting. First, impostor syndrome or phenomenon is very common. People often have this impostor feeling during transitions and after success. Keeping that in mind is challenging, though, because a feature of impostor syndrome is feeling isolated in inadequacy. Everyone else seems to be truly successful, but you are faking it.

Even very successful people have this experience:

  • “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” —Maya Angelou, award-winning author and poet 
  • “Part of you knows you’re not as good as you’re pretending to be.” —Dr. Henry March, neurosurgeon and author
  • “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.” —Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization
  (... and neither does anyone else!)

(... and neither does anyone else!)

Another way to think of impostor syndrome is that you know your own mind (and doubts about your ability) but can’t see inside others’ minds (and their doubts about their ability). Even though it is easier to see others’ accomplishments than their self-doubt, we engage in social comparison between our insides and others’ outsides. Thus, it is quite common for successful people to feel like impostors.

Second, we are prone to cognitive bias in our assessments of our own knowledge and ability. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that people who have little knowledge or ability are less able to recognize their shortcomings. Thus, people with very little skill are likely to overestimate and perceive themselves as skilled. On the other hand, experts have developed enough knowledge and skill to recognize their shortcomings and may underestimate their skill.

The Dunning-Kruger effect can help understand why we feel like impostors—we are self-aware enough to know that we have areas in which we can improve. The Brawlstars ended the 2016 season with 11 wins and one loss, but we are “sore winners.” Even after winning and beating projections, we think that we could have done better and discuss our next goals. In other words, we are perfectionists. Against a standard of 100% perfection, we feel like failures and yet keep striving for that unattainable standard. Perfectionism and feeling like an impostor seem to go hand in hand.

For any skater, I think understanding impostor syndrome can be helpful. I have heard skaters in our league say that they want to be good at roller derby, like the Brawlstars. My teammates and I have to tell them that the Brawlstars are thinking the same thing. Supportive comments could help others internalize their successes, along with not letting people minimize those successes. We can take responsibility not just for our failures but also our successes!

Earlier, I said that the Brawlstars suffer from impostor syndrome, but it may be better to say that we suffer for impostor syndrome. It makes us work harder and strive to improve, and we are better (individually and as a team) as a result. Likely everyone feels like an impostor at times; this feeling is only a problem if you let it limit you. So we will continue to roll with it… all the way to D1!

Recommended reading about Impostor Syndrome:

Dr. Maims U is a blocker and pivot for the Ann Arbor Brawlstars. Off the track, she's a social psychologist and professor.

Posted on July 13, 2016 .