If there is one thing I’ve really come to appreciate moving from spectating, to skate academy and then up into main league, it’s the sheer speed at which derby players think. I’m a couple of months in, mostly over the complete “what-the-hell-is-happening” stage - but that isn’t enough. Roller derby doesn’t just ask you to think as fast as you move like other sports - it asks you to think as fast as the wheels under your feet. You don’t have time to try and remember what it is you’re doing - you just have to know it in your bones.
Often I’ve used the shorthand “rugby on rollerskates” when trying to explain what I spend evenings and weekends doing, but that does derby a disservice. The spaces are tighter, so when you’re maneuvering you can pretty much guarantee there is going to be another body where you want to go. Everyone is constantly moving and reforming as well - when you’re watching a higher level game, it’s almost like players are dodging around each other without thinking about the fact they’re hurtling round a track. The line between offense and defense gets mighty blurry at times too - using the opponent’s blockers against their own jammer is a common tactic.
The rules of the sport aren’t as placid as other activities either. They aren’t overly or unnecessarily complex, and they have a simple underpinning (don’t be a dick), but the nature of them is woven into the game. Penalties are just another part of the tactics - not something that rarely happens and results in one side being handicapped for the rest of the game. Timing also plays its part - counting seconds and moving to the whistles and players. The focus of the game as well is a person rather than a ball - blockers always have to be a step ahead, filling where the jammer wants to go, not just where they are.
No one is brought into roller derby expected to know what is happening though. Everyone I’ve met who is involved with the sport - from officials to players - is united in being welcoming to new players. Instead, I think the sport pushes your brain like a muscle in its own right. React a little bit quicker, a little more decisively, a little extra aggressively. You are asked to do more than just train your body - derby asks you to train your mind as well.
So why play the game if it’s mentally taxing as well as physically taxing? How is that better than just having a kickabout with a 5-a-side football league? I think it’s because you carry the lessons of derby into life. After a game, spectating or playing, life seems to have had the volume turned down somewhat. Everything seems easier. How can you see Doris in accounting sending her third email of the day reminding people to empty the dishwasher as a threat - when 12 hours ago you were hurtling toward a wall of opposing players, trying to figure out what to do.
Personally, that’s the greatest benefit I’m getting from roller derby. I love to run and have for years - I find it a very meditative experience. I do yoga once or twice a week for similar reasons. But training, scrimming and playing all seem to engage a different kind of zen - you’re utterly absorbed in the track, there isn’t anything else to think or worry about because there isn’t time for any of that. What you do and who you are outside that track don’t really matter. This cuts both ways as well - the aggression and action just stops at the whistle. There is something special about watching two players who were battling for position one second, high fiving the next.
Derby rewards the smart play as well, time and time again. Players put people twice their size on the floor just from being in the right place at the right time. Jammers will make a wall look like it’s not even there if given the right opportunity. Walls will hold someone for an entire jam even as parts of it get called off for penalties. If you’re looking for a sport that cares about how much you can outthink your opponents as well as outpace them, there are worse places to start.