So You Wanna Be a BETTER Jammer Pt 1: Off the Track

Jamming is really hard. I am in season number 9, in constant identity crisis about what position I am best at. I have never had a jamming coach, so I’ve had to learn the hard lessons in real time, and before this season I had not been in a serious jammer rotation since 2013, when I played for the Dutchland Derby Rollers. This season I decided to give it a go again. Almost made it onto the All Star charter a couple times (somehow), but have been a starting jammer for our Top 15 B Team, the Bruise Crew all year with moderate success (when you average it all out).

So I’ve had some ups and downs this season. Some highs, lows, and in between. A few panic attacks, a few moments of mental fortitude. A little over a year ago I wrote the blog, So You Wanna Be a Jammer, all about getting your feet under you as a point scorer. I stand by all of those lessons. Now, let’s turn it up to 11 and talk about the last 6 months where I have learned what separates the GOOD jammers from the BEST jammers.

There is so much to talk about, in fact, that I have decided to split this blog into two.

Part 1: OFF THE TRACK

Surround yourself with Positivity

I could be wrong, but I feel like every jammer in the world has a healthy dose of internal self-loathing or a deeply hidden masochism that comes out when they put on skates. Chance are you are going to be fighting with your own demons along this windy path, so do not give others permission to sow seeds of doubt and hate.

‘A positive circle’ looks different for everyone. You have to understand that what it is for you might not be what it is for the person next to you. The first thing that I figured out with jamming this year, is that I do a lot better in practice in games when I:

  • Have fun with my friends
  • Do not dwell on the pressure of what it means to win
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The Sea Sirens always strike out to have fun during their games. Photo by Keith Ridge

As soon as I started thinking about how close I was to breaking onto the All-Star team, I stopped performing well at practice. I was getting stuck, I was not using my tools. When I would come in laughing, making sound effects when I tried to jump the apex, and got to cheer on my teammates, the difference was undeniable. It’s hard to have no expectations when you have all the wants and feels.  You do not have to endure the mental pressure of “OH GOD IF I DON’T DO GOOD I AM OFF THE TEAM” / “IF I DON’T MAKE THE TEAM RIGHT NOW I AM SO TERRIBLE”.

Yes, I understand that this is easier said than done. I had a lot of trouble letting go mid-season. Every practice felt like skating through mud with my demons throwing sticks at me. I had panic attacks, cried after every practice for two weeks, and considered retiring from playing. Right before Tiny Tourney I was able to find my “MEH! Whatever” Happy Place that I had lost. The result was two of the best games I’ve ever skated (and my first successful in game apex jump)!

Part of that happy place (for me) is being around my friends. I have noticed a DIRECT correlation between the happiness I have with playing roller derby to my proximity to my jammer pod, The Caviteez. The six of us (and the previous incarnation of five earlier this season), are supportive of each other. We offer feedback, high fives, and sometimes just eye contact and a nod to remind us that we are not alone on the track. When my jammer friends spread out on the sidelines, I start to feel alienated. That leads to me feeling like I need to do amazing things on the track otherwise I am not good enough. It’s a pretty terrible downward mind spiral. I am glad I picked up on it early.

Recognize your patterns. Recognize when you are doing your best and when you are feeling stressed, panicked, overworked, or mentally drained. Journaling at the end of a practice can be super helpful in connecting the dots. If you do nothing else, you can even just write down: Your goals going in, names of drills you did, how you felt going in, how you felt during drills, how you felt at the end, and any instances that happened during practice that made your emotions change.

NOTE: If you don’t track your nutrition, you probably should. Sometimes not eating properly the day of a practice, or not having enough water the day before a game will also adversely effect emotions and performance. You have to be able to look at ALL the factors to understand the full picture.

And do not think that my version of a happy place is your version. Some people like being by themselves when they jam. Some people want all the input from their peers, while others like to be left alone. Some people like to be thrown into new situations without warning or instructions, others like when things are laid out for them and they know what to expect. There is no wrong version of what makes you happy.

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Getting #SecondStarbucks with Disaster Chief and Cookie Jarrd. Our happy places don’t look identical, but we’re always at our best with wheels on our feet and friends by our side.

The hardest thing to contend with are outside sources of input. The parents who keep telling you to quit derby. The blocker who always gives you guff about not taking their offense. The circle of people gearing up in the corner who are complaining about practice. It is easy to be drawn into the bad. (Trust me, I know) Breathe, smile, and keep going.

If you’re around toxic conversation, help to change the topic. Before that blocker gets a chance to say something snotty, high five them for a great jam. If your family won’t ease up about your dangerous hobby, smile and thank them for caring about you so much.

And then, if you need to, do some yoga or do a round at the punching bag when you get home.

Evaluate & then Focus

In other blogs I’ve talked about the importance of self-awareness. Once you hit a certain point beyond “hey you’re pretty good”, self-evaluation and feedback from peers is going to be the only way you really can ratchet down and improve your skills. How do you know what you need if you don’t know what you have?

I like the idea of doing a series of tests to see where your weaknesses and strengths are. I admit that I have yet to do this myself, since I just came up with the idea while writing this blog. As I sit here and consider all the aspects I think that I would break my test for individuals into:

Individual Footwork — Toe stop line work, stopping on edges, mobility around a stationary object, balance on front wheels while moving

Power/Driving — Time it takes to move a blocker 10 ft, 100m sprint off skates, 10 lap PR, big lift PRs

In-Pack Mobility — Quickness through obstacle course that involves ducking / squeezing through spaces / hopping, also looking at game footage to rate mobility inside of packs

In-Game Mentality — Penalties per game & when those penalties occur (in sequence, or unrelated to each other), points & lead percentage out of the box, call off decision making

Awareness — Frequency of recognizing offense (regardless of ability to take it), visual periphery tests, call off decision making

Blocking — Plow stop, one on one blocking, recycle ability, tripod work, communication within a pack, pack awareness/bridging ability

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We don’t always recognize our own mobility, so external feedback is important. Slaytoven knows the value of feedback. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Within each area, I gave some examples of skills or habits you could evaluate, but the possibilities are endless. These are not things you can evaluate the way you do minimum skills. They must be looked at over the course of games, scrimmages, and practices. This is something you sit down with footage to do as a jammer pod.

I’m a nut for information, data, and comparisons. I like knowing what I’m doing, where I’m going, and where I’ve come from. Knowing where I am weak gives me a focal point. Every piece of data is just one fragment of the whole picture. If you can compile all the individual pieces into one consumable story, you can set your training plan up to compliment those needs.

Talk to a friend you trust, or your coaches and ask them to help rate you in each area. In fact, it’s better to get different people to evaluate you. Make up a rubric ahead of time, maybe with your team leadership, so that other people can take advantage of feedback.

It might be good to do a self eval as well to compare against the others. You can also write down what you think your strengths and weaknesses are. Ask your friends to identify those too.

Think about how you feel during a game. Are you best at racing through a pack (as long as you’re untouched) over and over again but get stuck in tripods? Can you get through a pack fast and hard, but you can only do it once or twice? Can you do a longer jam, but then have to sit the next six? Are you kind of ok at everything? Do you have power but not speed? Speed but not power? Power but not endurance? Speed but not recovery? Yea. It’s a lot I know. I believe in you though, you can figure it out.

Now what? Now is the time where you build a program.

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Myself, Pete in the Pool, Foxxy, and NoMad have been in an accountability group since December helping each other through clusters of Tactical Barbell

There are a thousand different kinds of programs you can build. Starting with something made for general fitness might not be a bad place to start for the first 6-8 weeks of training, assuming you have not been regimented in your training before. If you have been regularly going to the gym and feeling stuck or you just do not have a plan, it’s time to sit down and get one. I’ve been using the Tactical Barbell template since late December, along with my boyfriend and friends from Alaska. I like this particular program because you break your program into clusters.

I do 8 week clusters. My first focused on building stability and capacity for strength, the second moved into long muscle endurance and recovery, the third focused heavy on quick twitch, and now I am in a power cluster since I’m in a bit of a mid-season off-season. Eight weeks seems to be enough time to improve on your focused goal, but not so long that you lose sight of other weaknesses.

Oh, here’s something else: If you’re not working in interval sprints at some point – you are hurting your progress. If you are not lifting heavy weights at some point – you are hurting your progress. Can you be a great jammer and never deadlift a day in your life? Of course! For most of us, it’s going to be a much harder route if you chose to do it that way.

I hate sprinting. I hate it. My knees don’t trust it. I have one rehabbed ACL that still flinches at the thought, and half another ACL that wants to stay in tact and doesn’t trust my stopping ability. I don’t usually run sprint, but will do row sprints or bike sprints. My heart rate monitor has been tremendous in helping me with my training too. Now I don’t have to rely on a machine’s reading, or my own counting. I can just look down to see whether my sprint is actually pushing me or not.

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Planning plus the proper tools = having success!

When in doubt, hire a trainer and/or nutritionist to help you. Can that be expensive? Sometimes. Is it better than continually plateauing out, wondering what you should be doing next? Is it better than saying “I need to go the gym” and then getting there to make it up as you go?

Fail to plan, plan to fail. No one who is successful just wings it. They know when they are doing things and why. Including resting. “Resting?” You say, “#NOREST, Khaos!! IT’S THE DERBZ!”

The Deload is real

WE DON’T REST ENOUGH IN ROLLER DERBY.

We are in a year-round sport. Some of us are lucky to have November and December off. Some of us are lucky enough to have schedules that lighten in July and August. We need to spend more time looking at what our goals are and planning our clusters of cross training accordingly. That includes resting.

Scrimmaging three times before a game weekend does not help you learn, it simply wears out your muscles, central nervous system, and your cognitive processing (which is why you feel mushy brained and jelly-like after hard training session). If you want to know ALL the things this is a great piece. The concept of deloading has been popular in the lifting scene for a long time now, I couldn’t pin down who first introduced it. It is slowly working its way into popularity in sport-specific training and also real life.

Have you ever had to take a couple weeks off from derby or another sport and when you came back you could do a skill you had struggled with before? That’s a result of deloading. The first time I recognized it was when I was rock climbing. I was going three to four times a week when I was in my early twenties, but I was not particularly strong, I relied on my flexibility. I took about 3 weeks off due to life, and when I came back I was expecting to back at the start. What happened was that my strength had improved, my technique had sharpened, and my on-sighting ability (reading a route as you move through it the first time) jumped significantly. I immediately knew there was something up with it.

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Sometimes taking a break from something will actually help you increase skill ability. Weird, I know.

When it came to derby, I spent the first couple years always on my skates. I took a month off to rest my knee, I came back and suddenly had more control over my edges. Down the road I would take of randomly for injury, and while the injury itself was not strong, my abilities to complete skills and tasks had sharpened. The deload is real. It’s ok to take a step back from derby for a couple weeks to let your body heal and process what you’ve been working on.

Note: this is very important for officials as well as skaters. Sometimes you need to stop thinking about the rules and just let it all marinade. Come back to it fresh and new and you’ll see more and understand clarifications better. What does officiating have to do with jamming? As a good official you have to be as good of a skater as any player on that track!!

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Even officials need to have fun and take breaks. RollerCon is a great place to learn things AND deload the brain on different rules stuff. Photo by Tristan King

Now a word of caution, if you take a break for too long, that’s no longer a deload. That’s just a break. Deloads are typically a week to 10 days. During this time you work out but at a much lower weight, rep, or speed. You work the neurons and muscle memory without pushing to to hypertrophy. Do your lifts, but do them at 50% 1RM. Do you Tuesday run, but don’t push as hard. On deload weeks, you can also replace your typical workouts with stabilization and recovery work. When I say “Do extra yoga”, I’m talking recovery yoga, not Bikram Power Yoga. Instead of your sprint day, do a light bike ride. Spend extra time stretching. That sort of thing.

PS Your brain remembers better when we’re sleeping properly at night too, so mark that down on your daily ‘to do’ list.

PPS Want to read something about deloading in life? Here’s a great blog I found in my searches.

Take time to evaluate, look around, and do some planning it. You deserve it and your routine deserves it!! And after all this processes, move on to So You Wanna be a BETTER Jammer Pt 2: Game Play

Did you enjoy this blog? Consider buying me a coffee to say thanks and so I keep doing the thing! I write everything myself and want to keep covering all things derby for this world. 

Please visit our Photographers!! Phantom Photographics , Tristan King, and Keith Ridge Derby Photography.

And keep an eye out for me at ROLLERCON!!! I’m teaching 2 classes: Stuck in the Middle with You and FANCY FEET (where we’ll work on some of the stuff from these blogs)

 

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The reality of returning to roller derby after injury

They always tell you that coming back from injury is hard. They always tell you to ‘ease in’, ‘listen to your body’, and that ‘it takes time’.

No matter how many times you hear those words, it never truly sinks in until you’re three weeks back into a full derby schedule competing for a travel team position with a D1 league.

August 31, 2015 was my last practice of the season pre-injury. 7 months later I had surgery.

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8 days post ACL reconstruction with hamstring graft. “Gotta be weak before you can be strong”

4 months later I was back on my skates. In another 2 months, I could hit people! But the thing we all dread happened: I incurred a different injury a month after contact clearance.

Luckily, it was a medium sprain and not a major tear. Once I returned home from Europe (it happened on day 3 of a 5 week trip) I was able to secure the blessing from my ortho (as long as I wore my SECOND KNEE & DonJoy when skating), and made my way back into training.

I was lucky. We all say that we’re going to come back quickly, but I actually did. I worked hard, set goals, and was lucky enough not to go through any major set backs.

On January 4, 2017 (with a desire to throw up all over the place), I went back to Tampa Roller Derby for the first practice of the New Year.

The thing about returning from injury [that the non-injured don’t realize] is that you relive your injury over and over again in those first practices. All you think about is “What happens if I feel ______?” and “Oh gosh, that person is coming at me fast”. At some point, you contemplate the injury, and the possibility of re-injuring (especially if you have already experienced a re-injury).

No matter how many people you ask about “How do I conquer the mental hurdle of attacking practice after injury?” you will never find a true answer. You may get those answers in the first paragraph. Maybe someone will talk about how they visualized success (this was something I did), or how they tried to distract themselves through the first practice. There is no trick that I have found to click your mind into being confident returning back to practice.

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I spent my time during injury reffing to keep my skating skills, reflexes, mind, and eyes sharp. Plus, being a Zebra is kind of fun. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Step one to coming back: Don’t beat yourself up for being scared or tentative. That said, if you are SKATING scared, you need to knock it off. Skating scared is how you hurt yourself or someone else. So if you’re on the floor and you can tell that you’re stiff or tentative, remove yourself. Go to the side of the rink, and get your legs under you a bit. There is no shame in nervousness; there is no shame in taking a step back.

The caveat is this: Eventually you have to trust yourself and try. Just like how we all have to be able to define the difference between “injury” and “effort” when it comes to pain; we have to be able to discern trepidation from actual physical inability. Yes, it’s scary. The mind is a powerful place.

I was so scared on my first night of real hitting. I kept thinking about what it felt like for my left leg to be “plucked” when I would hit someone to the outside. My ortho told me to stop being scared and play my sport. I pulled aside a skater who I trusted and asked them if I could hit them a bit at a standstill. It gave me confidence that it wasn’t going to pop at first contact. From there, I moved into the drills. I primarily made hits to the inside, gaining back my confidence.

A team mate told me that I can’t play derby if I’m afraid of hitting. So the next time I was up, breathing steadily, I took my old inside position, and just played roller derby. Did I hit as hard as I used to? No. But with each repetition I gained confidence. With each scenario, I focused more on derby, less on my leg. Trust your PT, trust your training.

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Don’t trust your quad strength? Add in this exercise! Increase the height continuously. I love using treadmills, they’re tall, they have tread on the sides, and you can increase the incline for more challenge

The thing they don’t tell you is how much it’s going to hurt to come back.

Not your injury (well maybe your injury depending on circumstances), but everything else. You see, I spent 6 years getting beat up by my friends 3-5x a week. I started with lower impacts at the beginning, and worked my way into D1 leagues. The hits are heavy and precise [mostly]. Coming back from injury, I hopped right back into the level I left, there was not a gradual ramp up. I went from 0 impact to 100% impact.

Yes, you get bruises. We’ve all seen the grape-shaped prints of our friends blushing into a nice purple shade on our arms and shoulders. We all get pad burns from our team mate’s Velcro. We get bumped in the nose by a stray helmet. These are typical and expected.

What I didn’t expect was how sore my chest and shoulders were from being braced. I have spent my off time doing push-ups, pull-ups, bench press, and every other shoulder/back/chest exercise possible. It didn’t matter. Also, the debilitating stiffness brought on from absorbing impact as a blocker seeped its way into my back, core, hips, and legs. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve run, deadlifted, squatted, sprinted, or jumped. There is no way to train on your own for being run into incessantly by world class blockers and jammers.

I actually just recommended to a team mate who is 12 weeks post op, that she should get a foam bat and she and her girlfriend could take turns hitting each other with to prepare them to come back to derby! Could be a fun destresser, and no foam bat is going to hit anywhere as hard as Tazmaniac coming in full steam.

What else I didn’t expect is the continued feeling of dehydration, mental exhaustion, and hunger. I’ve been on Team Always Hungry for a long time now, but my body is craving more food than ever. Even when I drink a gallon of water a day, it doesn’t seem to be enough. My body can’t seem to get enough protein and good fats! I crave them always.

I knew my body was going to experience some bumps, but after 2 weeks of 3-4 practices of 2-3 hours each, I feel like I have been run over by a truck. I may have been. Her name may have been Dakota Dynamite actually….

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Tampa always relies heavily on bracing and positional blocking. It’s up to one or two blockers to absorb the impact of full steam jammers. Photo by Phantom Photographics

They also don’t mention that you ARE going to injure something else. At least, you’re very likely to. Will it be as serious as your first injury? Probably not. Even ‘easing’ into full game play, there is an element of ‘jumping ahead that happens’. I was not going to spend 6 years getting back to D1 level play, but those 6 years had prepped my body, joints, and muscles for it.

If you had a knee or ankle injury, prepare for a hip flexor, hamstring, or groin muscle to be in pain. If you had a shoulder injury, chances are your other shoulder is going to ache more than usual. It’s the nature of imbalance. Subconsciously, we favor. Even when we’re diligent, it’s common to pull something else. Your whole body tightens unless you are forever diligent. If your calf and feet are tight, your hip flexor may pull. If your hips are tight, your hamstring may suffer.

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A scene all too familiar to many of us. At least I had SKIN WARS to keep me company.

The social side of returning to derby can be odd.

Some people will come back to cheering crowds of friends, and open arms. They will have felt missed, and like their team was with them through the whole recovery process. Most of us, somewhere along the way, lose touch with people and leagues a little bit. Sometimes we do on purpose.

I know many people that have said to me, “Wow! I can’t believe how involved you’ve been while injured” (I jam coached Molly Rogers RG, reffed, and announced) “I couldn’t do it when I was injured, I was too sad.”  Pulling away was their defense mechanism. For me, being involved was my way to keep sane.

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I went to Sting of the Hill to ref, but when I had free time, I got to work with the golden voice of Sweet Willy T. Staying involved kept me happy.

Most of us actually come back to leagues that are happy to have us, and excited we’re back but they’re not throwing parties for us. You should not anticipate a great homecoming or outpouring of affection. Know that people want you there, but they are not going to fall all over you upon your return. For me, it felt like I was transferring in again. I had been gone for almost a year and a half, living on the other side of the state. Many people were still there, but many were new. I have had to re-earn trust, demonstrate commitment, and show that I am healthy and able-bodied.

Just because you had to earn respect among your peers once, don’t think you don’t have to do it again. Just because you were on the A team before, don’t expect them to just save you a space; always expect to work for it.

Be hungry to work for it.

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From the moment I found out I was going to have surgery, I focused on the end goal of returning to play. Stay hungry.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from coming back it’s that you’ve gotta have a plan of recovery for after each practice day. Incorporate yoga before you come back. If you’re tight when you show up, it’s just going to get worse for you. Keep doing your PT every day. Incorporate new PT as your back, hips, and legs tighten and react to the new world of pain. Drink all the water now, so that you’re already hydrated when you get to practice down the road. If you haven’t flipped or rotated your mattress in a while – DO IT. It can make a world of difference. If your pillow is too small or flat, go to Marshall’s and nab a new one. It’s worth the $15.

Get a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, and make a foam roller out of PVC pipe. Use them liberally.

Use this time to get new gear. What hasn’t been replaced in a year? Get a new one. Just do it. Also, pick up some compression gear and impact gear; obviously I’m a big fan of Steaks Roller Derby Accessories. If you have been contemplating shin guards, go check out the soccer goodness of ArmourFlex Sport.

Cross train. Pick up a sport other than derby. Be smart about your choices, but doing something more than just skating will help your body be strong in many ways. Weights. Plyo. Sprints. Other sport. (I am fond of rock climbing personally)

Eat after practice (your body needs the supplies to rebuild your muscles), and eat in the morning (your body needs to be fed after the 7-9 hours of rest). Meal supplements, post-workout shakes, electrolyte support, multivitamins, other vitamins … you may think it’s hogwash, but I can promise you it helps. Your body needs calories, protein, fats, fiber, and carbs to keep up your energy and performance. Drop me a line at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com if you want to talk nutrition and supplement support.

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Most importantly:

EMBRACE THE FUN OF THE GAME.

I really feel that those of us who have come back from long injuries have a really great appreciation for the sport that we get to play, and we should cherish each moment that we get to execute on roller skates. I know that once my nerves about my leg subsided, I settled into really loving and executing. Yes, I still get frustrated with myself, but I am also way quicker to laugh and smile when my team mate levels me or pushes me out of bounds.

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The game and the people in it are way too much fun to be a seriouz face all the time! Laugh and love your sport!

 

I love this game. You have to love it to suffer an injury and spend the next year and a half obsessing to jump back in. Good luck, Fellow Gimps! If you have anything you’ve learned along the way, or tips on how you came back to sport from injury, please share in the comments!!

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Thank you, Phantom Photographics, for the pictures used in this blog. (Go buy photos or a shirt from him)

Phantom Photograhics