If you play roller derby, then you have likely felt the need to defend your athletic prowess at least once to someone who thinks that the sport that you play is “fake.” I know you’ve had it happen because I too have had to correct the same misconception for nearly a decade. When the issue arises in a social situation I look at it as an opportunity to market roller derby to a potential new fan, but because I work in and around other sports, my version of the conversation usually happens like this:
Conversation at a recent national strength and conditioning conference:
Other strength and conditioning coach, “Hi I’m Mike. I run a sports performance facility where I coach baseball and football athletes. What do you do?”
Me, “I’m Shelley. I also run a sports performance company and work primarily with roller derby, hockey and golf athletes. I also do some rugby coachi…”
Other strength and conditioning coach, snorting derisively and interrupting, “Wait. Roller derby? I saw that when I was a kid. You mean you actually do strength and conditioning work with them? That’s… interesting.”
Mike then wanders off to speak with a track coach he recognizes from college.
Yes, Mike is a dick, but it’s still frustrating, to say the least. It also shouldn’t be happening in 2016; at least not in a community of coaching professionals that are intimately familiar with the physical and physiological demands of sports of all kinds.(1)
Since roller derby’s resurgence in the mid-2000’s, its legitimacy as a truly competitive athletic endeavor has increased exponentially. Advances in skills training, coaching, gear technology, league organization and even significant sports-media coverage have all exploded in ways that very few other sports can claim. However, there is still one component necessary to all serious sports that remains sadly lacking in our world, and it’s crucial to the evolution of this sport… strength and conditioning.
At first glance, this gaping hole in roller derby training protocols was perplexing to me. Why, in a sport where players are so competitive and so willing to spend time, money and effort to become better players, do they skip one of the most vital components of the physical preparation for their sport?
Is it a lack of dedication? Doubtful. Given that this sport actually has a term for those
significant others (un)fortunate enough to have lost their partner to the roller derby community (derby widow) it seems unlikely that anyone could question most players’ dedication to their league and team.
Is it a lack of access due to time or expense? Also unlikely. The constraints of time and finances do not affect the roller derby community to any greater degree than they do any other amateur athletes; yet at the amateur level most rugby, soccer, American football and even volleyball players include strength and conditioning programs in their training.
And then it dawned on me… roller derby is a unique animal in the world of athletics in one very significant way. The large majority of current players not only didn’t begin playing the sport until they were adults, but many of them have never had exposure to training for any other sports either. In essence, most roller derby athletes have no idea that they are even missing this crucial piece of training for the sport they love, and those that do realize that “off skates” is important misunderstand what the goals of training protocols actually are and how they should be designed and implemented to reach them.
We need to fix this. We are not taking our sport as seriously as we should. We are not playing to our potential. We are getting injured and/or shortening our playing careers because of it. We can do better, and we have to.
What Strength And Conditioning Isn’t
Misunderstandings abound in the derby community at large regarding what many teams refer to as “off skates” training. This is not surprising given the confusion surrounding the role of exercise for both athletic and non-athlete populations by society as a whole. There are, however, some really pervasive myths that I hear time and time again in roller derby circles that should be addressed.
Training For Aesthetics Is Not Athletics
The ladies in the pictures above all have one thing in common. They are all professional athletes at the peak of their physical condition.(2) As is readily apparent, elite athletes come in all shapes and sizes. This is because the movement patterns of different sports require different physical attributes to allow someone to perform at an elite level. For example, the large frame that gives a shot putter the extra mass needed to launch their implement for a considerable distance is definitely going to be a hindrance on the uneven bars in a gymnastics competition.
Believe it or not, roller derby also has its own set of physical (having to do with components of the body itself) and physiological (having to do with the function of the components) ideals, some of which are position specific. This doesn’t mean that you can’t excel if you don’t fit the mold, but it may make it harder to do so. One of the goals of training for sport should therefore be to move you as close to that ideal as you can get.
Unfortunately, much of the “off skates” training that is used in roller derby comes from the fitness world where the primary goal is usually aesthetic, i.e. getting more muscle definition, reducing bodyfat, etc. Although body composition changes may be desirable for a roller derby player (there will be a whole separate blog post coming up about body composition and its role in derby in the near future), it isn’t the primary goal of training and so shouldn’t be the primary outcome.
Just because someone looks like this:
doesn’t mean that she can do this.(3)
In other words, having visible abs, a v-tapered waist or a fantastic bikini-girl booty will not help you get past the pivot on turn 1, nor will it help you help you execute a quick lateral shuffle to block the jammer trying to sneak past on the outside line. Stop wasting valuable training time with exercise (and nutrition) programs designed to produce the former rather than the latter.
“Fitness” Is Not Sports Performance Training
Mirriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “fit” as “physically healthy and strong.” Obviously, both of these characteristics are requirements for our sport (although being “strong” is subjective). Because a large percentage of roller derby players come from a non-athletic background, have limited training experience or have been away from athletics for a period of time before beginning to play derby, many will initially benefit from generalized fitness programs like bootcamps to help them develop a solid foundation of both strength and cardiovascular fitness. However, after a certain baseline is established, generalized fitness training becomes ineffective for sports performance purposes.
The biggest problem with general fitness training is just that… it’s general. Although the perceived cardiovascular benefit that you got from the 90 kettlebell swings you did at Orange Theory Fitness over the past few weeks may help you feel like you’ll get through a full two minute jam with less huffing and puffing than you would have without them (it won’t), there is very little in the world of general fitness training that is directly transferrable to sports performance. Will making your quads stronger with lunges help you to have a better push on your stride? You bet. But so will being able to utilize the stretch-shortening cycle of the muscles in your legs, as will being able to properly dorsiflect your ankle (as well as a bunch of other specific physiological adaptations as well.) In other words, it takes ALL of these things put together to perform better, and working on only one piece of the puzzle is not only ineffective, it can create muscle imbalances or compensation errors that lead to DECREASED performance and potential injury when it’s done haphazardly or incorrectly.
CrossFit Is Not Strength And Conditioning, And Neither Is Powerlifting
Although CrossFit is exponentially more taxing than a generic fitness bootcamp workout, it suffers from some of the same problems when it comes to athletes looking to it to improve sports performance. According to its founder Greg Glassman, CrossFit was designed to be a “jack of all trades” type of workout, the goal of which is not to achieve specialized abilities and fitness that apply to one particular set of movements, but is rather general physical preparedness.
In addition to this lack of specificity, the CrossFit model in most boxes (not all) uses a varied training protocol with a complete lack of periodization(4). In other words, because it is designed to be physically demanding across multiple domains simultaneously, it does not follow a systematic plan to get you from point A to point B within a specified period of time, something that is crucial to an athlete.
For those boxes that do offer periodization, the end goal is usually to improve the performance of the lifts/exercises/movements that are actually being trained on an every day basis for competition. In other words, CrossFitters are not training, they are practicing for their sport… CrossFit itself.(5)
Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting exist in this same training territory. Unlike CrossFit, the training protocols for each are strictly periodized and the training is very specific, but it is the lifts themselves are the goals. While it would be awesome to find a jammer who can deadlift 430lbs or who can clean 190kg, the amount of time she would have to spend training for those particular movements would automatically prevent her from training for derby itself. In short, many of the exercises used in all of these protocols (fitness, CrossFit, powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting) are useful for inclusion in a sports performance program, but if you’re solely using any of these protocols themselves and expecting them to translate into being a better roller derby player, you’re wasting your time.
Now We Know What Strength And Conditioning Isn’t, So What IS It?
Good question. Here’s a nice, tidy definition:
Strength and conditioning is the development of physical and physiological attributes needed by athletes to perform at elite levels within their specific sport.
Simple, right? For the most part, the concept itself IS very simple.
The primary goals of a strength and conditioning program are to improve your performance in your sport by making you stronger, faster and more powerful in movements required by that sport; and to reduce athletic injuries by making you stronger, faster and more powerful in the physical parts of your anatomy which are most prone to damage in that sport.
What’s not so simple is the execution. Even among the strength and conditioning community itself there are innumerable opinions on the best approaches to achieve these goals for various sports. Despite these differences of opinions, there are also some universally accepted truths among S&C coaches. First, strength training should be the primary focus when programming for strength/power sports (roller derby, like most other contact and collision sports, falls into this category.) Second, although multiple types of periodization training models exist and some are more effective than others, strength training for sports must be periodized to be effective once athletes have surpassed a novice stage. Third, training program design must take into consideration an athlete’s seasonal, practice and game schedule and must be adjusted accordingly. Fourth, the physical and physiological improvements sought at the beginning of a training program should be general in nature and training should progress to more specific adaptations as the time for competition draws closer.(6)
Although these pinnalces of strength and conditioning are well known throughout the sporting world, they are rarely implemented or even talked about in roller derby. If we want to be taken more seriously as athletes, this needs to change.
Why Does Any Of This Matter At All?
“We don’t need to train outside of practice, because we get all the physical work we need by practicing and playing roller derby.”
By now, in 2016, I realize that most of the roller derby world recognizes that the statement above is pretty silly. That sort of thinking has largely gone the way of penalty cages (I have to admit, the Skank Tank was seriously cool even if it was ridiculously unweildy to get to bouts) and kneeling starts (thank the derby gods that that one is gone). However, I occasionally still run into this type of thinking.
If you don’t think that making your body physically stronger or more powerful will help you get better as a player, then you had better be playing for a team that has a recent championship title and you personally had better be some sort of genetically gifted freak. No? I thought not.
The truth is, ALL athletes benefit from a body that performs at its peak, and that peak simply cannot be physically attained through four, six or even eight hours a week on the track (more than a quarter of which time is usually spent standing around waiting to do skills drills). Even if your team scrimmages weekly, you simply aren’t putting enough physical stress on your system to cause the physical and physiological adaptations that would help you play your best. It doesn’t matter if you are in your second season or your tenth. You could be playing better.
For younger players in the early stages of their career training properly outside of derby practice has significant impact on their skating ability. If you’ve ever helped coach fresh meat, you know that there are some skaters who just can’t seem to “get” a drill no matter how many times you explain it. Sometimes this is a coach-cuing error. Sometimes, it’s a skater listening problem. More often than not, however, it’s a physical issue having to do with strength or proprioception deficiencies of the individual. It doesn’t matter if you tell someone to do the same drill 100 times, if her body isn’t physically capable of executing the movement properly you’re not only wasting time, but you may be engraining faulty movement patterns that can make performance worse or lead to injury down the road. For newer skaters the mantra should always be ‘train to be athletes first, then train to be roller derby athletes.’
Even if you’re a vet, training outside of pratice has significant benefits. In addition to improved performance, proper strength and conditioning protocols are proven to reduce the incidence of injury and reduce recovery times when injuries do happen. Refusing to thoroughly physically prepare for a contact sport like derby just doesn’t make sense. You wear a helmet, a mouthguard, and pads, right? Why would you want to treat your other vulnerable parts with any less care?(7)
Ultimately all of this matters because this sport is evolving. As a new generation of players step up from the junior leagues and as new leagues form around the world (some with the support of their national sport federations), current players and leagues need to stay competitive. By failing to do so the entire sport risks being forever labeled as sports-entertainment like the WWE. To ultimately play on the world stage, for a shot at the Olympics or at X-Games or at any other significant international multi-sport competition that will prove once and for all that roller derby is “real,” roller derby players themselves have to prove that they are athletes. To do that, we need to take EVERY aspect of our sport seriously.
(1) Unfortunately, without exception, I’ve been the only “roller derby person” at every single major strength and conditioning conference that I have attended in the past two years. Considering how much the sport has grown, the odds should be against me being the sole representative for our sport in front of the rest of the athletic performance world. So why have I been all alone among a sea of folks who work with NFL, NHL, Olympic track and field, golf, rugby, soccer, tennis and gymnastics?
(2) Howard Schatz’ book, Bodies, is beautiful. If you want to take a look you can find it here.
(3) I’m just using this picture as an example. I don’t know the model and she may, in fact, be a wonderfully gifted athlete.
(4) Periodization means that the training program is broken down into cycles where the trainee works towards a specific goal, like strength, over a specified period of time before moving to another specified goal.
(5) I am not bashing CrossFit, so please don’t start sending me hate mail about this. When properly coached, CrossFit can be an awesome way to get in really, really good shape. It is also extremely impressive as its own separate sport. It is just not, and never will be, appropriate for improving sports performance across the majority of other sports.
(6) This last one can be very tough in roller derby because many leagues lack a coherent seasonal structure, instead opting to play nearly year round. Because of the extremely limited “off season” athletes rarely have the time to commit to an intense physical training protocol (where for most sports the biggest gains are made) before having to be ready to begin competition season again. This can be dealt with by using a multi-peaking program design similar to that used in golf, cycling and other year round sports.
(7) The connection between strength and conditioning and injury rates will be discussed in a separate upcoming post.
* I’d like to send a special thanks to Carniverous Licks from Gold Coast Derby Grrls who asked me to write this piece for her league about two years ago. I wasn’t sure at the time whether I was going to continue to work with derby and so it never happened. For that I apologize. I hope that the team and league still get some benefit from this info all this time later.
* If you want more specific information about strength and conditioning programs for derby, please shoot me an email at email@example.com or visit my site at http://www.fitlabperformance.com .