Author: Petra Bomb
Credit: Jacky Fleming
I came to roller derby from a lifetime of martial arts. I never was particularly strong, dedicated or super-fit, but I could throw a punch and duck and cover. Anyway, I also spent a good few years teaching women's self defence. Me and a friend set up an organisation to teach women and girls (and the odd guy) how to shout, kick, and generally fight back.
So when I discovered roller derby (a full contact sport, on skates, with lots of women? TICK) and we started up our new team in Bath, I was one of the first to volunteer to coach, even though I could barely plough stop and the rules were a mystery to me. But I figured that to learn to skate and play, you needed to go through a similar thing that I saw girls do when learning to fight.
Skating, and then skating close to others, and then hitting them comes easily to a few, but to a lot of women who may not be used to contact sports, it's simply terrifying and involves a process of overcoming various barriers they may have. A lot of women have a shit relationship to their bodies, which are culturally devalued and objectified. It's reported that 90% of adult women in the UK have some level of negative body image. So it's not surprising that many also struggle with physical confidence, to feel able to control their body and be strong with it.
To help this process along, you need the right kind of encouragement. I remember being in a boxing club full of guys with my coach shouting at everyone to hit harder, run faster, and WHAT DO YOU EVEN CALL THAT SON THAT'S NOT A PUNCH?! I thought he was a douche but I held my own in that class. However, there were also only two female members, in total*. Whereas look at how many women and girls who've spent their lives shying away from physical activity are quite happy skating? I think this is awesome and goes to show we are doing something right.
Roller derby's unique in that it's a sport that's completely trod its own path in terms of what we understand a sport should be like. It's a culture, it's a community, it enjoys breaking the mould (BUT NOT THE WFTDA RULES). What's particularly special is the often hugely supportive culture leagues create and maintain. Many leagues I know have a welfare department, policies that emphasise inclusivity, celebrate skaters' achievements at every level, and spend a lot of time and effort on making sure skaters feel encouraged. This is also part of what helps women find their strengths that they didn't know they had, and allows for that amazing transformation to an athlete and a proud skater that I love seeing them undergo.
*Although not that unusual, I've also been in a fair few martial arts clubs with a stronger female presence!
NB: This post's generally talking about women (and I generally mean self-defining women), but a lot of men also may have negative body image or relationship to their body and similar experiences that will apply to engaging in physical activity.
All the historic goings on of Bath Roller Derby!