Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Entries in roller derby makes me brave (10)


Lessons From Roller Derby: Push yourself, but don't make yourself sick

Tonight at roller derby practice, I wanted to sit down. My legs hurt, my back hurt, my feet hurt. If I let myself think about it too much, even my pride hurt. I've been skating for three years, but I've recently changed leagues and decided to do their "fresh meat" training program for new skaters. It's been great. The people are great, the training is great, and I'm making great strides. 

But it's hard and humbling to admit that even after several years of doing this crazy sport, I still need a lot of work on some of the basics. I especially still need to work on my endurance. At one point tonight, one of the trainers asked me, "Are you okay?" In fact, I wasn't quite okay. I'd reached the limits of my physical endurance and felt like I was going to be sick. It must have registered all over my face (and all over how slow I was to get up for the next set of laps). When I confessed to feeling like I might yak, the trainer told me to rest for a minute. "I want you to push yourself," he said. "But I don't want you to make yourself sick."

So I sat out one set of laps and the worst of the nausea passed. And then I got back to it, even though I was tired and sore. And then when I hit that same point again, I got a drink of water, caught my breath, and got back on the track, still tired, still sore, but still in the game (so to speak). 

I could write a lot about why roller derby is hard for me, about why it still feels like the craziest (and one of the best) things I do. (Oh, wait, I have written about that stuff.) But tonight, what I'm really thinking about is this idea of pushing yourself, but also knowing when to pull back and regroup. It's such a handy lesson for all of life. Do the thing you think you can't do, but know when to rest. Go all in, but know when you need to scale back a bit so you don't get hurt. 

I'm also thinking about how there should be no shame in getting back to basics, even when it's for something that you've been doing for years. I think a lot about how this relates to writing. A lot of the clients in my writing apprenticeship program feel like they missed out on learning writing basics in school. I hear the same thing when I edit manuscripts for writers. So many of us worry that because we can't diagram sentences we can't be a writer. Learning grammar is hard and uncomfortable for a lot of people. I tend to understand the rules of grammar intuitively, which means that I sometimes have to look up the technical terms for things. Even after all these years of writing professionally, creatively, and academically, I have to go back to basics. 

There's more to writing than grammar, of course. Sometimes I have to go back to the basic of remembering to schedule time to write, or the basic of reading like a writer, or the basic of simply writing first and worrying about revision later. The basics are the foundation upon which we build everything else, whether it's in skating or writing or cooking or cleaning or being a good friend. And there's no shame in that.

This isn't the most elegant blog post. It's, well, kind of basic, I suppose. But it's 1:45am and I still need to take a shower to wash off the derby funk, so that's about all I have for you tonight:

Push yourself, but don't make yourself sick.  

There's no shame in going back to basics.

Those seem like pretty good mantras to me.


Relearning What's Possible (Roller Derby Makes Me Brave #9)

credit: www.photosbytabi.com

It's been nearly a year since I wrote an installment in the Roller Derby Makes Me Brave series. (You can read and comment on the original blog posts here, or you can read the saga straight through here.) Last fall I prepared an onstage story about roller derby to share at the Soulsisters Conference in Portland, Oregon. I wish I had a video of me telling that story, but alas, I didn't think to record it. Instead, I present a written version of it here.

** ** **

When I saw my first roller derby bout, I had no idea what was happening.

This was in the spring of 2010, and the movie "Whip It" had come out the year before. I hadn't seen the movie yet, but it had put the concept of roller derby in the periphery of my consciousness. The sport seemed funky and interesting, so when I discovered that there was a derby league in Pittsburgh, about an hour from my house, I decided to check it out.

Derby isn't the easiest sport to follow the first time you see it. Teams play offense and defense at the same time, and things move fast. So I had no idea what was going on during that bout, but I was fascinated. Here were these grown women on old school roller skates, wearing all sorts of protective gear – helmets, mouthguards, knee and elbow pads, wristguards – all skating around in a pack, shouting at each other and knocking each other down. It was crazy. The women had skater names such as Hurricane Heather and S'not Rocket Science. There were women of all shapes and sizes: tall and willowy, short and curvy. Women who were built like brick houses or more like pixies. Women with athletic bodies and others with bellies and booties that resembled my own well-rounded assets. But all of them were so confident, so fierce, so athletic.

I was so quiet while taking all of this that my husband turned to me at one point and asked, "Are you bored?"

"No," I said.

I paused for a moment and then said, very quietly, "I'm going to do this some day."

As soon as I heard those words leave my mouth, they felt equal parts impossible and undeniable. Impossible because I hadn't roller skated in 20 years. I was out of shape, had never played a sport, hated to sweat, and was supremely uncomfortable doing physical activity in front of people. Just the idea of going to the gym had been known to give me panic attacks. I didn't even like to go to the local walking track. But I couldn't deny that I'd said it – and that I'd meant it.

So when I tell you that I had no idea what was going on during that first bout, I mean it in several ways.

Consciously, I was trying to wrap my head around the rules of the game. But on a deeper level, my whole concept of who I was and what was possible was being dismantled and rearranged.

Fast forward two years to the spring of 2012. By this time, I'd seen the movie "Whip It" (which is, in hindsight, not the most accurate depiction of the sport), and had attended just one more bout. I did briefly consider trying to join that league in Pittsburgh, but they practiced and played more than hour from my house, and I wasn't willing to commit to that kind of commute just yet. Besides, I was 36 years old, out of shape, had weak ankles, and, let's face it: Who was I kidding? I wasn't the roller derby type.

But then I saw a flyer at my local coffee shop, announcing that roller derby was coming to my neck of the woods. A new league was forming a few towns over from me, and they were recruiting skaters of all skill levels – including my particular level of no skill whatsoever.

I tore off one of the flyer's little strips with contact info. I emailed for details. And then I waited two more months before getting on skates. All during those two months, I kept telling people that I was going to try roller derby. I kept saying it until I finally realized that I either had to stop saying it or ante up and do it.

First I tried skating on my own in a pair of rental skates and with no protective gear. This landed me a bruised or broken tailbone. After letting that heal for a few weeks, I was finally ready to attend my first official practice. It was the day after April Fool's Day, which struck me as fitting. This whole idea of me playing roller derby seemed like a weird practical joke I was playing on myself. Everyone else had trouble believing it, too. In fact, when I told my own mother, a supportive and kind woman, that I was going to a roller derby practice, she asked, "To watch?"

I said, "No, I'm going to try to play."

And my mother – my sweet, kind, and supportive mother – laughed.

"Oh, okay!" she said. "Right!"

She truly thought I was joking. And here's the thing: I wasn't even offended. I knew how absurd it sounded coming from me. I laughed, too.

But I went to that first practice. And then I went to another and another. I surprised myself and kept going. I went when I was scared (which was most of the time), when I was tired, when I was convinced people would laugh at me behind my back. I learned how to be in my body. I learned how to skate. I learned how to sweat. I learned how to fall down and how to get back up again. The first time I skated in a practice bout I had no idea what was going on. But over the past two years I've learned the rules of the game. I've learned how to pretend that I'm fierce and confident, even when I'm terrified. I've learned the magic of practice. I've learned what's possible.

Fast forward another two years to 2014: I put on my old school roller skates, my helmet, my knee-pads. I put on my team shirt with my derby name on the back (Punchberry Jam) and I skate around in a pack. I shout to my teammates. I use my body (and my booty) to block opposing skaters. I knock people down. I fall, and I get back up again.

Now, when I tell people that I play roller derby, many of them laugh and say that I can't believe it. I just smile and say "Neither can I."


I See You: Full frontal nudity & the derby girl inside

Last week after roller derby practice, I took a shower while my husband made dinner. I was in a good mood. It had been a good practice -- challenging, but fun. My blood sugar (which is prone to dipping too low) stayed steady, and I kept up fairly well with the drills. I worked on some jumps and transitions, skills that have scared me to death in the past, and I seemed to make some good progress on them. As a bonus, dinner was now being made downstairs while I stood in the hot water. I was feeling good.

The shower faces a large bathroom mirror, which means I confront my full-frontal, naked self whenever I reach for my towel. Usually, all I can see are my too-heavy thighs, my too-pale skin, my too-full face. I try to look at myself with kindness, but honestly, it's usually easier to not look at all, or at least to not pay much attention and wrap that towel around me as quickly as possible.

Something different happened this night. Maybe it was the post-practice endorphins, or post-shower bliss, or the jolliness of knowing that someone else was making me a yummy dinner. Regardless, what happened next hit me like an epiphany.

I finished my shower and turned off the water. I opened the curtain, saw my reflection in the mirror, and I saw something different.

I saw the strong, fit, athletic girl inside of me. The one that I used to envision as a yoga girl, or a surfer, or a volleyball player -- or some version of the models in the Athleta catalogue. The one I now envision as a badass derby girl.

As soon as my eyes met themselves in the mirror, I thought:

I see you.

I see your bright eyes and vibrant presence. I see your determination, your courage, your skill. I see the fledgling derby girl you are -- and the one you are becoming.

I see your strong legs, your luminous skin, your fierce and joyful face. I see you.

I see you -- you, whom I've long looked for. You, who I never really believed in, even as I half-fantasized about you for years.

I see you, as you are, as you can be, as you will be -- because those are all the same thing.

I see your power and your grace, your vim and your vigor, your skate and your swagger.

I see you. I see you. I see you.

** ** **

You can read more tales of my roller derby escapades and epiphanies in Roller Derby Makes Me Brave.


Playing roller derby has been one of the most unexpected (and delightful) choices of my life. This October, I'll be leading a storytelling session about the power of unexpected choices. Learn more and consider joining me for an amazing weekend at the Soul Sisters Conference in Portland, Oregon.



You Gotta Roller Derby That Shit! (Or, The Magic of Practice)

By the age of 36, I was used to doing things that I already knew I was fairly good at. It's not that I intentionally avoided new experiences or didn't want to learn new skills, but I had a pretty solid idea of where my natural talents and interests resided, and I tended to stick to those neighborhoods, which were populated with things like reading, writing, storytelling, teaching, and cooking.

Then I entered the world of Roller Derby and hot damn, this was a new part of town! I've written before about how I'd never played a sport, how I didn't like to sweat, and how I hadn't roller skated for two decades. Beyond the physical challenges, playing derby has meant some huge shifts in my mindset and perceptions of myself and what's possible.

One of those realizations has become my new mantra: You gotta roller derby that shit!

Let me explain.

Logic and experience tell me that the more I do something, the more I'll learn about it and the easier it will become. Although I knew this theory should apply to roller derby, I secretly doubted that it would hold. Every time I bemoaned my lack of skill and my slow progress, my husband, who grew up playing sports, told me that if I continued to go to practice and work at it, my skills would improve. My rational brain knew this made sense, but I just wasn't buying it. I worried that I was hopeless.

Still, I kept showing up. And then there was that one time near the end of last season when I finally had so much fun that I forgot to be afraid. This season started off better than I'd anticipated, and I could finally see that I was improving. Even my league mates commented on my progress. I felt proud, but I worried that it might be a fluke of some sort. But week after week I felt stronger, more in control, and more at home in this once-foreign neighborhood. Finally I had a realization...

Holy roller skates, it's true!

If you keep practicing -- even when you don't see immediate results, even after you've had to take time off for an injury, even when you have to leave practice and cry in the bathroom for a little while because your internal monologue won't shut the hell up with phrases like "You don't belong here!" -- if you keep showing up and doing the drills and trying the things you suck at until you suck less at them,  eventually you'll make progress.

We all practice. Pianists play scales. Actors rehearse lines. Writers string together a lot of words that don't end up in the final draft. Chefs perfect techniques and dishes through repetition and tweaking. And athletes do drills and go to practice.

Of course, innate talent can make the going easier. But it can also get in the way. I seem to have little innate athletic talent, so I know I have to work hard to be fair to middling. On the other hand, I know I have innate talent as a writer, which means I don't always work at it as diligently as I should. It's easy to let myself skate by on my "good enough" setting when it comes to writing, because my "good enough" comes easier than some other people's "fair to middling" setting.

But good enough isn't great. And I no longer believe that you have to be born with the most talent to become great. I think it helps, but only if you decide to keep showing up and working at it. In other words, you gotta roller derby that shit.

I don't really expect to ever be great at derby, and I'm okay with that. I just want to be as good as I can be , and if that's just "good enough," that'll be great.

But I do want to be great at writing. And in order to do that, I need to show up and put in more work more often. I need to roller derby that shit.

This means sitting down to write at set times even if I don't feel like it, just as I go to derby practice at specific times each week, whether or not I feel like it that day. This means writing the same essay again and again, the way I keep practicing my turnaround toestops over and over. This means acknowledging the inner voice that whispers "What if this is as good as you'll ever be?", and then turning away from that voice and trusting in the magic of practice.

I've worked as a freelance writer and editor for more than nine years now. I have a graduate degree in creative writing. I've seen my words in print online and on the page. And yet I know I have miles to go in deepening my craft and honing my skills. I go through serious bouts of worry that I'm as a good of a writer now as I can possibly be, even though logic and reason tell me that this isn't true. What if I'm never any better than this? What if this is as good as I get -- and it's not great?

Yeah, what if? But what else is there to do about it but to "roller derby" the hell out of it, and trust the process?


Forgetting to Be Scared (Roller Derby Makes Me Brave #6)

me after my first public roller derby scrimmage as part of westmoreland roller derby's violet femmes home team

This is the sixth installment of "Roller Derby Makes Me Brave," an ongoing series in which I chronicle my journey into roller derby. (You can read the whole series or the individual posts.)

The Friday after Thanksgiving I felt more like the girl who sits on the couch in her pajamas and favorite soft-as-a-blanket cardigan, drinking tea and reading than I felt like the girl who shimmies into a pair of black tights, laces up her roller skates, and straps on a helmet to skate in an oval and knock down similarly dressed girls. But by late afternoon I had pulled my post-Thanksgiving ass off of the couch, showered, applied more eye makeup than I normally wear, hiked my tights up under a black miniskirt, and headed off to Westmoreland Roller Derby's Black Friday Bout.

This was my third public scrimmage, and I realized that I'm woefully behind in telling you about how we got to this point in the Roller Derby Makes Me Brave saga.

When last we left our derby heroine, Punchberry JAM, she had just attended her first practice in full gear. She was learning how to fall and how to get back up, literally and metaphorically.

That was last spring. I went to a few practices, and then to a few more, each time surprised with myself for sticking with this wild adventure.

Some time during the last six months I confided this truth to a non-derby friend:

"I haven't stopped being scared," I said. "I'm pretty much scared every time I stand up on skates."

"But you keep showing up," she said.

That's true. April turned to May turned to June, and I was still showing up -- and still skating on a terrible pair of Cobra skates. Their limitations were becoming obvious.

Now, let me be clear: Good skates don't exactly make the skater, but good skates do make skating easier. Wheeling around on a pair of toy skates with cheap plastic wheels and crap bearings while everyone else zooms past on bona fide speed skates can dishearten even the most determined derby girl. I couldn't do some of the most basic maneuvers, such as propelling myself forward with all eight wheels on the floor, not even when I moved my legs and hips as I was shown. I was skating twice as hard as anyone else and going half as fast. I hoped to the derby gods that these shortcomings were at least in part due to the shitty skates. But I worried: What if the real problem was me? The limitations of my body mingled with the limitations of my skates so that I had no idea which was which.

I needed new skates stat, but I dragged my feet on getting them. I was having trouble deciding on a pair, to put it mildly. Before derby I had no idea how many decisions one must make when buying roller skates.

What kinds of decisions? Read on if you care about that kind of thing, or skip the next paragraph if you don't.

Okay, so you wanna buy skates for roller derby. What kind of boot do you want? Leather or synthetic? What's the right size and style for short, wide feet with flat arches? Do you want nylon, aluminum, or titanium plates? What about the trucks? (Who knew there was something called a truck on a skate?) You could go with the standard 10-degree angle trucks or the swanky 45-degree angles. And what the hell is a "short forward mount," anyway? Then there are the wheels. Harder wheels go faster and are denoted by higher durometer numbers. (Go ahead, look up the word durometer. I don't think anyone but derby girls and plastic manufacturers use it.) Softer wheels have more grip and lower numbers. The bigger you are, the harder the wheel you can skate on, but if you're not very steady on your feet yet, don't go too hard or you'll slide around. And all of this depends on what kind of floor you'll be skating on. Concrete skates different than sport court skates different than wood. Okay, got your wheels picked out? Great. What about bearings for inside those wheels? Get at least ABEC-7, or go to Swiss bearings if you want really smooth rolling action. And you'll need some toe stops, of course. What about an extra set of laces? How about a toecap to protect the front of the boot from getting scuffed? Need any knee socks with your order? You got all that?

Yes, finally, I got all that. I tend to research things to death. I'm great at gathering and synthesizing information, but that process is also my Achilles' heel: I get trapped in analysis paralysis. For weeks I agonized over which skates to get. I wanted to make sure I bought the best possible ones for me. But something else was at play in my dilly-dallying: As long as I had crap skates, I could blame them for my crap skating. This was happening on a subconscious level, of course. (And as I've said, skates do not the skater make. I've seen derby girls skate like the wind in bad rental skates.)

old skates and new skates

I wore the hell out of those Cobra skates. I wore them until something came loose inside the wheels and I was afraid to skate on them anymore. This happened right before I finally ordered a new pair, which meant I sat out a few weeks of practice while I waited for my shiny new skates to arrive.

(In case you care about this kind of thing, I got Sure Grip Rebel leather boots, Avenger DA45 plates, QUBE Juice Abec 7 bearings, pink Fugitive wheels, Carerra stops, pink-and-black plaid laces, and pink toe covers, though I'm now skating on black Radar Flat Outrageous wheels with Swiss bearings and have switched to black laces and black toe covers. Next up on the never-ending gear list is a set of Gumdrop toe stops.)

At the same time that I was waiting for my new skates, I was also spending several hours a week in physical therapy for my knee, which had decided to go haywire with all of this newfangled movement and exercise. And then I went to the west coast for two weeks in July, missing more practices and the league's first public scrimmage.

By the time August rolled around, my knee was on the mend and I had new skates -- and I was still scared every time I stood up on them. I hadn't skated much for about a month, and it showed. I wasn't exactly starting over, but I was scrambling to catch up and keep up. The good news is that I could now propel myself with all eight wheels on the floor, and although I was still slower than most of the others, I was definitely skating faster. I finally felt like I had all of the external pieces in order. Now I had to bring myself up to speed.

And that's where I am now: still working to bring myself up to speed. I go to practice twice a week and try to skate at least one other day. I've played in three public home scrimmages plus one closed scrimmage with the Ohio Valley Roller Girls.

This journey has been an up-and-down kind of adventure so far. I suspect that's how it will always be. I've lost a few weeks of training here and there due to laziness or new injuries. I've had nights where I've sobbed most of the way home after practice because I'm so frustrated with myself. I've also left practices bursting with joy and a kind of exhilaration I've never known before.

james & me at my first boutI'm still nowhere near where I want to be as a roller derby girl, but I'm not where I started, either. After the Black Friday bout, I wasn't feeling the best about my performance. But then at the after-party, the bench manager asked me how my knee was doing after its latest rebellion, and I could honestly say that it's much stronger than it's been. "That's great," she said. "I'm glad you can keep skating. You've come so far." I don't know if she had any idea how much I needed to hear those words (though it wouldn't surprise me if she did).

I've been making note (sometimes in my head, sometimes in my journal) of these little "wins," no matter how small they might seem on the surface: when a teammate says "good job"; when I don't fall down after a bigger girl shoulder checks me; when I do fall but get up quickly; when I figure out a strategy and communicate it to my team; when I master -- or even attempt -- a new skating skill.

I'm keeping track of these moments because one by one, they're helping me to be a little more confident. I get off the couch. I pull on the tights. I lace up the skates. I slap on the helmet.

I had good practice the other week. I was having a blast out there on the track. I felt strong and capable. And that's when it hit me: I had finally forgotten to be scared.

{photo credits: photo of me by james simpson; roster photo and photo of james and me by d.j. coffman, a.k.a. the secretary of skate; skates photo by me}