Thursday, 18 October 2012

No Pack?: Building Community in Derby Leagues

As roller derby grows as a sport, it becomes increasingly obvious that what constitutes a particular league's community is not limited to the players. Leagues attract not only players but referees, officials, and fans. Part of how we can measure a league's health is the strength of its community. Do officials feel welcome? Do less than top-level players feel appreciated? Do referees get respect? It's easy to be socially myopic - because I feel comfortable, everyone must - but as ambassadors of the sport and members of a community, we need to fight to make sure our communities are welcoming and healthy at every level.

It's tempting to wave away community conflict as 'derby drama' or only the problem of those who aren't happy, but that isn't the case. Derby's reliance on strong, committed groups of players, referees, officials and fans means that intra-community outreach is part of the job of keeping a league functional.

So, how do we check and maintain league community health? At one level, encouraging social interaction off the track is essential, but that social interaction has to be varied enough to be accessible. Some folks can't hang around after bouts, others can't make the post-practice beers. It's important to vary the opportunities community-members have to build connections with each other. Try something new with your league: group volunteer opportunities are great for building your league reputation in the larger community, for example. Sign-making parties before bouts are always glittery and excellent.  Casual hangouts on an off-skate night might bring out different groups within the community. But also make sure to encourage different folks to come out: referee and NSO appreciation night at the bar will likely go over well.

In terms of intra-league communications, hosting 'town hall' meetings can be excellent ways of checking in with the mood and needs of the community. Don't just wait for concerns to be voiced spontaneously: create opportunities where opinions and requests are welcomed. It's also important to ensure you have a Skater Representative to be a resource for skaters with ideas or concerns, but the derby community isn't solely made up by skaters. Every member of the community should count if they're going to be depended upon to run bouts, to sell tickets, to keep players on skates and the league in good health.

Other ways of encouraging and checking in with community well-being and needs include maintaining a league messageboard for community-members to use for discussions and encouraging the operation of committees such as social or fundraising committees. Not only will this kind of intra-league cooperation benefit the league directly, but it will also strengthen community-members' investments in each other and the league as a whole.

The bottom line is that it is the responsibility of the league to check in with the folks who keep it running, from referees to officials to players to fans. Don't wait for wheels to get squeaky - practice as much care for your league as you would for your skates and you're less likely to trip up.

Monday, 15 October 2012

On the Hamster Wheel: Penalty Wrangling

This past Saturday, I joined my fellow LOCO folk and headed to New Hamburg to see London's Violet Femmes go up against Durham Region Roller Derby's Atom Smashers. It was great to see my brother Matt, our Head NSO-in-training in action: he's shaping up to be a great resource for the LOCO family. My partner Antonio also jam-timed, looking strangely official in his tie (for comparison, I was wearing a Tool sweatshirt). The arena was bracingly cold, but spirits were high.

To get used to calls and practice recognizing signals, I had my first taste of penalty-wrangling, running after the pack and relaying penalty calls to the two penalty-trackers (Matt and a new volunteer, Adrian). I felt a bit overwhelmed at first - everyone's-yelling-what-number-was-that-who-am-I et cetera. Soon, I adjusted and actually really enjoyed running in circles, writing things down like "W-360-L" and yelling at the wrong tracker even after multiple corrections. It was interesting how I had to consciously choose to watch the refs, rather than the pack (which is pretty attention-grabbing). It was a bit like trying to unfocus your eyes while girls in hot pants dive for your ankles.

I learned a few things yesterday. One is that four-digit numbers are a pain in the ass and they should be made illegal. With refs and NSOs barking and new penalties coming up fast, there isn't time to say "7635". There just isn't and the added numbers up the chance of a mistake being made. On the flipside, officials also need  to be more specific: if a skater's number is 7/8, the officials should establish that this number is properly pronounced as "seven eight", not "seventy eight". Everyone involved in the bout should contribute to its smooth execution, even as early as choosing the number you'll wear.

Most importantly, the skaters seemed to be having a good time and I saw some joking at the jam line, which warms the cockles of my derby heart. Atom Smashers took it home with a score of 223-132, with the Femmes trying to close the gap in the second half.

Afterward, it was time to locate and demolish food, which was done most thoroughly.Then I woke up and it was Monday - surely the sign of a bout well-done.

In other news, two of our skaters made me a ref dress and it it is the best. I will study harder in hopes of earning the right to wear it.

Coming up in future posts: how awesome junior roller derby is and developing a sense of community in your league.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Weekend Update: Not Quite SNL

Often, my blog posts consist of short essays, but as I get my behind to practice more often, it's easier to have relevant personal updates, such as today's. Thanks to some great support from league-mates and a recent opening in my schedule, I've been able to make more time for derby-related activities.

On Friday, I had my first evening in LOCO London's new practice space. Because my anxiety and schedule has often led to me having long stretches off-skate, I often hang out with the new skaters, refreshing the skills and body memory affected by my absences. That night, I finally seem to have mastered the proper T-stop and I've had some promising developments toward my transitions. My most commonly used stop is a kind of wonky snowplow with most of my weight on my right foot and resulting in a slight turn to the left. Given the demands of reffing, mastering the T-stop and transitions are a must and I'm happy to have made some progress. London's more experienced refs often double as skate coaches and they're patient, insightful teachers. Getting back to practice was a sweaty pleasure.

On the following Saturday, LOCO Stratford and Kitchener bouted in New Hamburg, Ontario, painting the town pink and green, supplemented by skaters from other LOCO teams. I had to be in London for a birthday party (my own) but checking out the bout photos after was kind of a thrill. The excellent Joe Mac produces great photos and we look pretty darn good.

Then Sunday happened. I tried skating on Sunday afternoon, but was too sore to keep it up. Naturally, I did what any skater does when it's no longer time to roll. I alternated watching other skaters' techniques and form and looking at my smartphone. Realizing how much I've lost from spending so much time off skate has been difficult. I need to rebuild my ankle strength, get back my balance, and work on my endurance for outside pack reffing just to name a few. I'm looking forward to spending more time on-skate and getting those things back.

It goes to show that you don't have to kick your own ass every time you practice (unless you want to) but that maintaining frequent skate time is crucial to avoiding that slow creep of lost skills and physical condition. The derby-ready body is conditioned by the time we spend on skates. Too much time in your street shoes and you'll have to work to win that body back. Luckily, you've got a team behind you, sometimes coming up at fast speeds.

Upcoming excitement includes continuing to study the ref handbook, a bout on October 13th, and a LOCO skater, NSO and ref clinic in November. It's a good time to be back on wheels.