Mental Prep for Roller Derby

Mental Prep for Roller Derby

Support Merry Khaos and getting back on skates at GoFundMe.com/KhaosACL

Not a single skater that has stepped on the track has avoided a blow to their confidence. No matter how long we have skated, no matter how long we have played, reffed, or coached, all of us – at some point – feel the pit in our stomach and wonder, “What is happening?”

Roller derby, whether you’re playing or officiating, is a mental game. Your skills sit on a house of cards known as ‘confidence’. When our confidence is shaken, or we get angry on the track, our skills suffer. How you recover is critical to your effectiveness. If you spend the whole 30 seconds in the box being mad at yourself (or someone else) about a penalty, you will likely not be effective when you re-enter the track.

Steeling your confidence takes diligence. You must practice it the way you practice laps, footwork, apex jumps, and offensive skills. Let’s look at some things you can do to work up your walls both in life, in practice, and when you’re under pressure.

phantom no hit sherlock
Being calm, collected, and confident come to some naturally (like Ref No Hit Sherlock), but many of us need to practice. Photo by Phantom Photographics

LIFE PRACTICE

Create a Mantra

Ok, you’ve heard this one before, I’m sure and you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. “A mantra.  Yea. OK.” But hear me out : if you create a mantra, a phrase, a motto for life attached to your goals, then throughout the day you can say it to yourself. When you are calm or just happy, repeat it a few times: you’re setting your mind up to associate those words with good feelings.

Mantra ideas:

Quiet, calm, controlled

I am building my life towards my goals

I am not perfect, and that is perfect

I will fly like the Eagle.

You can make it as goofy or as serious as you want, but find a phrase or group of word that resonates with you, and write it on your mirror. Put it on your water bottle. Say it before bed, and when you get up. Then, when you’re struggling with that lift, or you can’t figure out the footwork on a skill, or you feel a penalty against you that wasn’t called – say it then. Calm yourself down. Move forward.

Work on Recognizing When you Get Angry or Flustered

Understanding your emotions off the track can really help you understand them on the track. Many of us walk through our days with emotional blinders on. It takes some internal searching and vulnerability to admit our faults and our buttons.

When you begin to get upset, angry, frustrated, sad – what got you there? Did you rage because you spilled coffee on your shirt, or was it because you spilled coffee on the only shirt you felt body confident in? In which case, it’s not the coffee that you need to work on, but rather feeling better in your skin. Did you feel sad that you weren’t recognized in the meeting at work because you really want praise, or because you know how much work you did and you feel like no one appreciates you?

When we understand the root of our emotion, we can work out the knots. If you constantly look at issues on the surface, you’re never going to fix the problems. Recognizing our deeper issues, and knowing ourselves better can be useful to thwart future negative emotions. Forgiving yourself for transgressions of the past that fuel current insecurities can be very freeing, and can improve your positive outlook overall.

Snap Happy skate roller derby
Things happen. Mentally strong skaters are able to roll with the punches and keep going with a level head. Snap Happy is dealing with her skate, but after the fact, she was back to business as usual. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Turn off the TV, Crack Open a Book

Strong mental game comes from positive minds. A study done by the University of Maryland conducted over a 30 year period indicates that those who are unhappy watch more television. They compare it to an opiate that creates a short term positive effect, but a longer term feeling of ‘misery and regret’ (1).

A study done by Emory University also indicates that reading fiction stimulates connectivity in the primary sensory motor region of the brain (ie the part of the brain that deals with motor function and activity) (2). When you think about playing roller derby, you actually activate the same neurons as when you are physically PLAYING roller derby. It’s why we tell you to visualize skills. You strongly visualizing the action and you DOING the action are nearly the same according to your neuron connections. The implication that reading novels could increase the strength of the connections within the brain that control motor functions is great news. It means you can build a stronger physical game by switching off the TV and reading a favorite story.

Finding books in the ‘Personal Development’ section can’t hurt you either. While often criticized for being a money-hungry nonsense, there are many ‘self-help’ style books that will help you peel away the layers of your onion. That whole, “you must learn your triggers” thing mentioned earlier? This is what I’m talking about. The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks is one of my favorites. It is a book about pushing past our own top level of happiness to achieve greater satisfaction in life, and happiness in work, relationships, and health. Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, Do Work that Matters by Jon Acuff is another book to look into. Serious self-development laced with humor will challenge how you think about your work ethic and goal setting.

41mEEr0uXvL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_
A recommended read.

Study Roller Derby

The good, the bad, the ugly, the awesome: watch it all. Don’t just see the game, see the individual actions of those who are successful and the missteps of those who are not. Re-watch offense, break the defense apart. Look at situations and how players reacted to them. Don’t look at just the formations, but the actual movements of a skater’s shoulders, what their body does to absorb impact, or how their momentum moves when they shift from rolling to running on their toe stops. Go deeper.

You may think that blocker who is facing backwards was successful in her job (Yay look! She knocked the jammer out of bounds!), but did the jammer pass 2 other blockers (and gain points) just because she was facing backwards? Did someone get a multiplayer block because of her formation? Was the jammer able to immediately stand up and swoop to the outside of your ‘successful’ blocker because the blocker had no lateral agility?

Now do the more dangerous thing: Challenge yourself to analyze your own game and ask yourself if you’ve been making the mistakes you see in others. True self-analysis separates the good from the great, because it is scary. It is frightening to admit that we use our forearms to get around blockers, that we leave our skates to make hits when we’re tired, or that our elbows are critical to our [ineffective] backwards blocking style. It is scary to admit that we might be wrong, and that we might have to rewire ourselves to be more effective.

gotham girls rose city
Want to study roller derby? Want to study strong mental game? Study Bonnie Thunders. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Write it Out

Upset about something? Can’t understand something that happened and it’s frustrating you? Don’t feel productive during the day? Write it out!!

Taking 5-15 minutes at the start of the day to ‘Mind Dump’ is super helpful. Turn off all the noise. Put away the cell phone. Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Set a timer. Now just WRITE. It can be in list form, in prose, or a combination, but just write EVERYTHING in your head! Write what you have to do today. What you wish you had done yesterday. What upset you at practice. What you wish your girlfriend had said when you had argued. Vomit all of the things from your head onto the piece of paper.

Read over it. Create new lists of important things that you can gather from it. And the rest?

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ON SKATES PRACTICE

Get to Practice Early and Develop a Routine

Rushing into your practice space and barely getting on the floor in time for warm-ups is not a habit of mentally-strong skaters. Creating a space bubble where you can refocus from your day into derby mode is very important. You can take the time to breath, think about your last practices, think about your current goals, and create goals for the day. You can take the extra minutes to chat up your captains and get feedback, or simply sit and focus on the upcoming challenges as you nom on some last minute energy.

If you start your practice frenzied, you likely will remain that way. So get there early, do a warm up, get your head straight, and most importantly: LEAVE YOUR BAGGAGE AT THE DOOR. I forget who said it first, but I was told to leave all the shit from my day at the door of work, practice, or rehearsals; “Don’t worry, it’ll still be there when you’re done, because no one wants your shit.” Part of an acting warm up we did in college involved invoking this phrase: “I will be here and present. Anything going on in my life will still be there in three hours. I can do nothing about it while I’m here, so there is no use in worrying about it.”

So yea, leave your baggage behind, the 27 in 5 is hard enough without a pack of stuff weighing you down.

Don’t Engage in Gossip

Ok, honestly this could be applied to the ‘real life’ section too. Gossip brings stress and disquiet. Do not engage in the ‘she said, he said’ BS that sometimes comes along with groups of people being in a hobby together. Talk to your friends, interact with your team mates on a social level –it’s a great bonus to this sport we play! We see our team mates more than our other friends.

However, refrain from the toxicity of gossip. Otherwise your mind will be so busy processing how Johnny Ref kind of almost cheated on Jane Ref with Betty Skater, and she’s such a bitch anyway and then you’ll be thinking “oops there goes the jammer”, or “oops was that a cut?” or the worst: “I’m not going on the floor with her.” Skaters and refs that get hung up on gossip and butthurt only keep the team from progressing to the next level of team work.  It doesn’t matter who has done what outside of practice. When you play on a team, when you ref on a crew:  you are all equals. Don’t let petty BS get in the way of building awesome walls or running a smooth game.

Anyway, what other people choose to do is none of your business. Just skate and let skate! You’ll be happier in the end, I promise.

10959670_10155167119530494_8982029925910620149_n
Team mates are lovely to laugh with, not be gossips with. PhDiesel and Millie Curie are having a moment here.

When you ‘Mess Up’ Recognize the Error, Forgive, and Correct

You are your own worst enemy. Chances are that when you “mess up” in your own head, no one else is as concerned. We’re back to self-recognition on this one. Look at what you did, think about how you could have done better, forgive yourself for the mistake made, and incorporate the new information into executing the drills better. If a team mate offers you advice, or comes to tell you about something that happened in a drill, do not get defensive. Do not talk. Listen. Absorb what they’re saying, don’t immediately spew out the thing you were trying to accomplish; they know what it was. It’s why they’re talking to you right now.

A team mate saying “Don’t turn around”, “you should come to the line in this situation”, or “You keep skating away from us”, isn’t people being mean. Turn off the butthurt and listen to the feedback. Mentally strong players are not defensive. If you are receiving criticism that you feel is backhanded or incorrect based on a solid logic: than thank the skater for their feedback anyway. You do not need to incorporate everything you are told, but should give serious consideration when given feedback; especially if it is not the first time that you’ve heard it. Admit you might be wrong, forgive yourself, and correct it.

As a ref, know that you’re going to make mistakes. Even level 5 refs call off the jam when their jammer isn’t lead, or get hit by ghost blockers while head reffing. Just like with players, take feedback, question every action, and incorporate feedback with a level head and open mind.

bass invader
Officials need to have rock solid confidence to do their (very complicated) jobs,often without thanks. Bass Invader (a favorite SO & NSO in Florida) is unphased by your shenanigans. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Focus on Your Breath During Every Drill

Our breath and heart rate match each other. When we feel out of breath, we pant. When we pant, it triggers panic in our minds, and our heart rate skyrockets. When we are mad, we breath heavier, our mind becomes dizzy, our heart rate rises. Elevated heart rate may be advantageous to an extent for our muscles, reaction, and blood flow, but only to a point. I don’t think I need to reference any of the material out there that says that elevated heart rate and shortness of breath is linked to anxiety, fear, and anger. These are things we do not want you feeling.

During each drill, think about the air you take in and breathe out. Count your breaths, when you come off the track and are short of breath, force yourself to take longer, slower inhalations. When you get called on a penalty, exit the track immediately and instead of wasting your breath on mean words, use your breath to calm your heart. When a team mate says something you don’t appreciate, do not retort. Just breathe.

When at home, a couple times a day (at least), take the longest breath in that you can, hold for as long as you can, and then let it out for as long as you can. It will force you to tune into your lung capacity and how it feels to really be at the end of your air. It will improve your cardio conditioning, because you will be training your heart to work on air less often. When the time comes, you can use this breath practice to bring your heart rate back under control.

For refs, controlling your breath and increasing your endurance means your brain will remain functioning during fast paced and high stress games. You want to keep a clear mind to see each action clearly. Keeping your breath under control is step 1.

Know Why You Are There

Are you playing derby because you love the sport and want to be the best at it you can be? Are you there because you love competition and athleticism? Are you there because your bestie drug you to tryouts? Are you there because you want people to look at you in a certain way when you say, “Oh yea, I play roller derby”? Do you really love the intricacies of the rules and have an interest in keeping skaters safe?

No reason is wrong, however knowing why you’re really there can play into your mental stability when things get hard. When you cannot complete a skill, but you only practice once or twice a week, because you play derby as a recreational hobby to change up your routine, cut yourself some slack. If you are focusing on a skill you’ve had trouble completing, and you’re in the game to be the best the game has to offer, take a step back and look at what you could improve. Maybe break down the skill into smaller pieces and build.

Regardless of why you’re there, sometimes taking a skill to a smaller level can boost the confidence you need to advance. You can’t do a foot to foot transition at speed? Try stepping through your transitions, so that your 180 turns are clean, smooth, and your feet are “on a balance beam” during the transition. Can’t bring an opposing skater to a stop with a plow? Work those plow stops, and have your buddy push gently on your back as you work on controlling your speed and balance.  Take it to a place you can be successful, and add difficulty and speed from there.

WFTDA Tampa Roller Derby
Tripp McNeely, Despicable D, and Millie Curie share a hug during a Cigar City Mafia game at Tampa Roller Derby. Each skater is strong of mind, solid in their goals, and work with their teams to accomplish greatness. Photo by Phantom Photographics

WHEN YOU’RE UNDER PRESSURE

All of the pieces we’ve talked about come together on game day: forgiving yourself of mistakes, breathing through difficulty, analysis of gameplay, and calming yourself when you want to be frantic. When you study the game, and you think about the game, and you visualize yourself playing the game, your body has an easier time moving through the game. They call it practice for a reason. When the pressure comes on, your body will do what it knows. Your body will default to muscle memory, and emotional memory. If you haven’t practiced 180 toe stops 10000 times, then you won’t execute a 180 toe stop without thinking about it. If you haven’t practiced calming your body down, than you won’t be able to when tension is high on the track and personalities are exploding on the bench.

This is your time to be the rock. This is your time to be the positive force the team needs as an example. You communicate with your walls, which you can do because you haven’t made enemies through gossip. You can last through playing 75% of the jams, because you have worked on your cardio conditioning. You can orchestrate your blockers through complex situations, because you’ve studied the game and asked questions of your coaches. You can celebrate a win, or accept a loss with good graces, because you do not dwell on mistakes, but rather understand that one person does not make a team, and even Gotham loses once in a while.

Read books, watch derby, be nice, breathe more, listen to calming music sometimes, eat food that gives you energy, create a warm up routine, leave your emotional garbage outside the rink, and don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, ask questions, or to challenge your own skills. Don’t be afraid to turn away from a crowd of poisonous people in favor of healthy habits on and off the track. When you are getting frustrated because you can’t do something, bring it back to a level that you will have success and work up from there.

Practice, stay calm, and move forward with an open mind, eager attitude, and love in your heart for yourself, and you will build your mental resistance over time.

Tampa Roller Derby
I may look worried, but I’m just analyzing my options and looking for the best route through the pack. OR I’ve just emerged from the pack and am shell shocked at the muscle memory I’ve built over the years. Photo by Phantom Photographics.

Kristie Grey (Merry Khaos) has been playing roller derby since 2009 and has coached almost as long. She has worked with over 20 leagues in 11 states (and Canada). She has coached on and off skates at Beat Me Halfway 2014 & RollerCon (2012-2015). Active in health and wellness, she is an active Herbalife Health Coach and [when the knees allow] rock climber and power lifter. For questions, booking, requests of topic, or help with a nutrition plan, message Khaos at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com

Phantom Photograhics
Thank you Phantom for the photos used in this blog! Visit http://phantomphotographics.tumblr.com/ to buy prints and support derby

(1)  Phys.Org “Unhappy people watch TV, happy people read/socialize, study says” http://phys.org/news/2008-11-unhappy-people-tv-happy-readsocialize.html

(2) Emory University eScienceCommons “A novel look at how stories may change the brain” http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html

Published 1/22/2016

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