This was a season of firsts for me.
I went on my first USA tour with Brawling where I got to play my first WFTDA Division 1 sanctioned games.
I went to my first playoffs in Jacksonville where we finished #1 seed.
I played my first championships in Minneapolis where we finished 4th in the world.
It has been an amazing experience.
It’s also been the hardest season ever, that at times nearly broke me.
The step up has been huge and at times I have felt completely overwhelmed. The gap between where I was and where I wanted to be seemed so insurmountably huge that I at times I thought maybe it would be better not to try at all.
Moving from Dublin to London, quitting my job as a biochemist, going back to uni with a whole bunch of people 10 years younger than me (that all look 12), starting work in a new part time job and starting a new business venture compounded the pressure of trying to be ready to play roller derby against people I had previously only seen on my laptop screen.
This post is about the things that I which have helped me to make the step up without going completely crazy (I’m still a little crazy). Hopefully they can help you too.
1- Embrace the suck
Making a step up in performance level is going to be really, really, really hard. Otherwise it wouldn’t actually be a step up would it?
Roller derby is a team sport and until you know your team really well it’s not always going to work out perfectly to begin with.
Strategies will be different, play will be faster. You will feel like you are in slow motion while everyone else is in fast forward .
There will be default moves everyone knows but you.
People won’t understand your weird accent.
You will be stuck in the pack for 2 minutes and still not make it to turn 3. This may actually happen quite a lot.
2- Manage your expectations
You are not going to be a star performer straight away either, or maybe even ever. This is because good teams are constantly improving and moving forward to keep pace with the game and the competition.
Champs this year was a classic example of the top four teams all closing the gap between each other.
When you make the step up to the next level you are starting from behind and sprinting to catch up with everyone, only to find that when you get there you still have to run really damn fast.
Up a mountain.
And the mountain is on fire.
3- Manage other peoples expectations:
Often when you make a team, lots of people will tell you how amazing you are and how they just know you’ll be at such a place by such a time.
While these people are lovely and well meaning it can also be super stressful for someone else to put a timeline on your development, unless they are directly involved with helping you progress. You can feel like if you don’t live up to these expectations that you are a failure.
Do not feel obligated to keep to the other peoples timelines.
4- Figure out what your role is and how you can be valuable to your team
It’s important to recognise that as a newer person you are the unknown commodity and the only thing that is going to change that is time. This means being comfortable with the fact that you will nearly always be the first to be pulled.
I have learned that it is ok to be the considered the relief jammer – you might not be putting up big scores but you are facilitating those that do and at the end of the day it is the team result that matters not your ego. You will need to remind yourself of that from time to time.
5- Ask leadership what they want from you:
The key to getting better is not only figuring what needs to be improved, but what is a priority. Ask leadership what it is that you need to do better but also what skills are most critical and why.
This will give you a much clearer understanding of what you need to do and prevent you from trying to work on 10 different things at once when only a few are actually pertinent. Unless you can work on 10 different things at once in which case you are awesome and I would like to steal your brain but I also kind of hate you.
6- Find some really honest people to give you feedback
We often ask for feedback from people who tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we actually need to hear. Asking for “constructive criticism,” when really you just want some positive affirmation on how you performed.
This is totally ok if you need a confidence boost but not when you are trying to get feedback in order to get better.
For that you need actual criticism, so find some one who is willing to help you with that. Sometimes it helps if this person is not your friend. Sometimes it helps if they are. Sometimes you just need a quick saying from a teammate to help you focus like: ‘learn to roller skate’.
7- Get better at taking criticism
In order to get proper constructive criticism instead of positive affirmation you will need to try as much as possible to handle it well. Giving good feedback is actually really hard, so if you take well meaning feedback in a totally shitty manner, then people will give up on trying to help you.
Not everyone likes feedback in the same format either so it is worth discussing your preferences first so that everyone is clear. It is also worth finding out how your teammates like to receive feedback too.
Timing is also important – mid jam is probably not the best time.
Learning to accept criticism is something that takes discipline and practice. Lots and lots of practice. A really good poker face also helps initially.
8- Don’t be afraid to fail or make errors
Failing is how you learn and also how you progress beyond certain points in learning. It sucks at the time but it also makes you better. Psychologists Fitts and Posner* have identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills.
Cognitive phase: during which we’re intellectualizing the skill, discovering new strategies to perform it better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing.
Associative stage: when we’re making fewer errors performing the skill, and gradually getting better.
Autonomous stage: when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention (We think we’ve nailed the skill and stop practising it). This is also known as the “OK Plateau”.
Don’t get stuck in the OK plateau. This is where we stay a lot of the time because we believe that this is the extent of our abilities or our ‘natural abilities’ and that it is as good as we are ever going to get.
What experts and top players do is practice operating outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing.
The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits as it will show you what you need to improve on, rather than what you are already good at.
9- Think long term.
Looking at what you need to do to improve can be incredibly daunting and seem like too much, so you need to break it down into small manageable parts. Working on a few pieces at a time so as not to overwhelm the learning process.
When we think only in the short term, we are for more likely to feel that plateaus are permanent and that we are terrible at roller derby but everyone is just too nice to tell us.
But when we take a bigger picture view, we can start to see that plateaus are only temporary stops that we’ll eventually get past, with a bit of hard work.
Also, by thinking in the longer term, we give ourselves more freedom to take risks and fail because we can see that any setbacks will be momentary in comparison to the longer journey.
This makes me feel heaps better about screwing stuff up because when I’m eighty something playing zimmer frame roller derby I am definitely not going to be dwelling on every small mistake I ever made.
10 – Get back to basics and practice deliberately
Why? Because when you take a step up in level you can’t rely on just the one or two things you are really good at anymore because you will be found out.
I can definitely say I was a bit of one trick wonder upon arriving in London and it took a lot of time to remember that I used to do and can do other stuff too!
You need to have a vast range of tools in your arsenal but we often dismiss certain skills because we aren’t the best at them in favour of ones we are really good at. Or the ones that look cooler.
This means when we hit plateaus or need to improve, our first response is often to look for something new. Sometimes changing things up can help, but in my experience, you can waste a lot of time searching for a quick fix in the form of a new, magic, shiny thing that will suddenly make you the most amazing player ever.
Your time could be better spent focusing on the basics and practising deliberately.
Fitts and Posner* discovered three keys to breaking through your plateau: 1) focus on technique, 2) stay goal oriented, and 3) and get immediate feedback on the performance.
In other words, you need to practice deliberately to break through plateaus and work on expanding your skills and developing your current skills to perform better in the faster/harder environment you now face.
I am still a work a progress in relation to all of these. But I have realised there is no final destination to reach where I’ll suddenly be amazing at everything and I am ok with that. Instead I get the privilege to be part of an amazing team that is constantly striving to improve.
After all roller derby doesn’t get any easier, you just get better. But you get better together.
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*Paul Morris Fitts, Michael I. Posner .Human performance, 1967.