Growing up, I always hated PE. It wasn’t the sports themselves that bothered me, it was that being female meant certain sports were allowed and others weren’t. As a child I loved ice skating, climbing trees, cycling and judo, but as I became a teenager I was told that the types of sport I should be doing were things like dance and trampolining. Because I was very stubborn I vowed to stop doing PE, and stopped all of my sports apart from cycling, so I became quite an inactive teenager. At university I decided to make efforts to become more active again, taking up running, practising yoga and joining the campus gym. I managed to continue running, though to this day I’m still not sure if I really enjoy it, and I did quite like yoga, but the gym didn’t sit right with me - lifting weights was a thing for men, and all of the women doing cardio looked flawless all the time, I felt as though I didn’t know what I was doing and soon gave it up. I thought about joining team sports, but the environment seemed overly competitive and I carried a lot of prejudices about women’s teams being catty and hostile places, so I kept to solo activities. Then, in 2012, towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I learned about roller derby, and found out that a new team had recently formed in my city. The weekend after that I went along to my first ever session, and I haven’t looked back since. 

For those of you who don’t know what roller derby is, in a nutshell it’s a full contact team sport played on roller skates: it takes place on an oval shaped track and each team fields five skaters, four defensive players (called blockers) and one point scorer (the jammer). The blockers skate together in tight formation (called the pack), and the jammers have to skate laps, passing through the blockers, who are allowed to (within the rules) use their bodies to impede the jammers. Jammers score one point for each blocker of the opposing team that they pass, and the winning team is the one with the most points at the end of the game. It’s a very fast-paced sport and whilst a lot of precautions are taken to minimise risks (skaters wear full protective gear, there are very strict rules about what forms contact can take and all skaters have to pass a set of minimum skills to ensure they are safe for gameplay), the occasional injury does still happen, and leaving training with bruises is very common. That said, roller derby players are among the kindest and most accepting people I have ever met - games end with sweaty hugs and it’s a very supportive community to be part of. 

Training and gameplay are tough both physically and mentally: as with every sport, you’ll find you develop mental resilience through discipline, repeated failure and persevering when learning skills feels boring or tedious. Being on a team means commitment, even when things are hard, and it teaches accountability and trust. The mantra that is imprinted onto every skater’s brain is “Falling is Learning”, a reminder that to become good at something we must first become comfortable with being bad at it, that comfort zones will only grow if we expose ourselves to our weaknesses, and that failing at something doesn’t mean that we are failures.  

 

Roller derby is a grass-roots sport with a strong countercultural ethic, and is as much about the culture as it is the sport. Skaters have “derby names”, usually puns based on something about them with an aggressive twist: examples from my league include Comic Slams, ADHDemon and Sticky WickHit. This reflects one of the central things that makes roller derby such a special sport: the idea that this is a place for women to express themselves assertively, confidently and without the usual expectations society places upon them. The idea that women have to look a certain way, be diminutive and quiet and behave appropriately is actively challenged in roller derby - not only are all body types welcomed, but different body types have different strengths on track. A lot of skaters join having never been active before - for some the low self esteem from a lack of body confidence has always been too much of a barrier to activity, for some mental health issues have always made fitting in to team sports seem impossible, some have faced homophobia or transphobia in other environments, and some were always made to feel too loud, too dominant, too much. Roller derby allows people to express strengths and confidence they often didn’t know they had while providing a huge and accepting support network to help each skater grow both in the sport and in the rest of their lives. 

Four years ago I moved to Sheffield, not knowing anyone in the city, and the first thing I did (before even unpacking), was to find a new league to skate with. In doing so, I found a community in an unfamiliar city, and have made friends who have helped me cope through the bad times and enjoy the good times. Because leagues are run by their members I’ve developed skills in areas I never thought I’d be good at and have learned a lot of life skills off the track. And, because of roller derby, I’ve managed to return to the gym: I decided that I wanted to do more cross training to improve my skills, and through my improved confidence and positive role models joined the league’s weight lifting group, no longer phased by ideas of what women should or shouldn’t do. Weight lifting is now something I enjoy and look forward to doing, and I’ve gained the confidence to be able to walk into a gym unfazed by what other people might think of me, because thanks to roller derby I know that I am stronger than I ever realised. 

If you’d like to learn more about roller derby, or are considering getting involved, Sheffield Steel Roller Derby provides a safe learning environment to get new skaters ready for gameplay - if you can stand up and go forwards on roller skates, we can help you do the rest. We also run Meet and Greet sessions in advance of our new intakes, so if you’re a bit unsure, or want to meet us beforehand please get in touch! 

https://www.sheffieldsteelrollerderby.co.uk/join-us/new-skaters/ 

If you are interested in being more active find out more by heading over to our practical support pages for the Get Set to Go service.