So you've decided you want to play roller derby, huh? Good for you! Roller derby can be the most amazing, rewarding hobby of your life. Or it can be a soul-sucking nightmare, if you're the type of person who's prone to self-doubt, jealousy and unrealistic expectations. Either way, it's a LOT of work. Unless you're already an outstanding skater who's in great shape, you're probably not going to be the team superstar right away. But if you're ready to work hard and sacrifice a big chunk of your social life, then this is the sport for you.
If you live in a metropolitan area – or close to one – there's probably already a derby league you can join. The main perk of joining an established league is that the super labor-intensive work has already been done! But if you live in the sticks or aren't crazy about any leagues near you, you might be thinking about starting your own league. (We'll get to that later).
How do I join a league?
Most leagues have a website or Facebook page. Do some research online to find out what the membership requirements are. You will probably need to be at least 18 years old (some leagues require members to be at least 21), and you will probably need to have your own skates and equipment, although some leagues may have “loaner” gear for you to borrow temporarily. Leagues will require skaters to purchase medical insurance (less than $50 per year) that covers you at team activities, but some may require you to have your own medical insurance, too. If you don't have medical insurance, we strongly discourage you from playing roller derby. Seriously.
I'm not sure I'll fit in. Do I need to have tattoos and/or look like Drew Barrymore?
You may be surprised to learn that all kinds of women play roller derby. While this list is by no means comprehensive, you may find your teammates are women who are: nurses; lawyers; stay-at-home moms; journalists; receptionists; artists; teachers; bartenders; over age 40; under age 20; former athletes; not into sports; a size 2; a size 20; regular church-goers; Wiccan; tattooed; conservative; Vegan; fast food junkies – there's room for everyone in derby. As long as you're willing to work hard.
I've got a few leagues in my area. Which one is right for me?
Online research may help you figure out what you want to know. League websites generally have an “about” section that explains their origins. You may find that leagues have different objectives and leadership styles. Make note of what's important - and what's a dealbreaker - for you: Team colors? Number of skaters? Dreadfully early weekend practices?
Some leagues may be members of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which is the governing body for women's roller derby. Generally, teams that are WFTDA members have been around a few years and aspire to a high level of competition. They will have minimum attendance requirements for skaters who want to play against other teams, and they may have multiple teams.
Leagues that are not members of WFTDA aren't necessarily less competitive. They may be newer leagues that have not formally applied to become members of WFTDA.
If you're looking for something a little more relaxed, you might search for recreational leagues in your area. There are fewer of those than competitive leagues. They generally do not hold tryouts and practice less frequently than competitive teams. Competitive leagues ask skaters to pay monthly dues – usually about the cost of a gym membership – but recreational leagues may charge skaters on a per-practice basis.
If you're really having a hard time choosing between a few leagues, ask if you can attend a practice to observe. Some will allow this, some won't.
Keep in mind that the closest league geographically may not be the best fit for you. It's not uncommon for skaters to skate with leagues outside of their own city. These days, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a derby league, so there's probably a league nearby that's a good fit for you.
Do I need to know how to skate? I think I remember how, but I'm not sure.
While most leagues don't expect that you'll skate through the door on day 1, gracefully leaping over obstacles, they will probably expect you to have some skating ability.
Most leagues have some type of tryout process, and some leagues hold “boot camps,” short instructional workshops that teach skaters the basics of roller derby. So if you've decided which league you're going to join, you should make sure you know when the next workshop or tryout is, and begin preparing.
Hopefully, there's a roller rink near you. Attend some open skate sessions and rent skates from the rink if you don't have your own. However, if you're fairly certain derby is for you, you'll appreciate skating in your own skates, because rentals can be wildly unpredictable and make it harder for you to learn to skate. Also, rentals are usually ugly and smelly, but that's beside the point.
If you skated as a child and think it'll come back to you as soon as you put skates on, well, it ain't like riding a bike. Depending on how active you normally are, you may find skating isn't as easy as you remember. Your legs may be wobbly, and you may fall. Get used to falling. It's a big part of derby.
When you attend open skates, make sure you actually SKATE. Push yourself, and keep skating until you're sweaty and tired. Don't leisurely skate a few laps, then sit down and talk to your friends for an hour. Oh, and don't forget to stretch when you get home.
Where do I buy my own skates and how much will they cost?
Online retailers and small independent shops are your best options for buying skates. While you may be attracted to the shiny new skates in your local rink's pro shop, their prices are often significantly higher than what you'll find online or at a small shop that operates independently of a rink. You may also find some great deals on eBay.
If you've already been in touch with the league you plan to join, check to see if the league has an online messageboard. Often, as veteran skaters upgrade their gear, they will sell their old gear at discount prices. You may ask your contact at the league for recommendations on where to buy gear.
Starting out, be prepared to spend between $80 and $200 on a decent pair of skates. Do NOT buy skates that look like sneakers, have stops on the back or are named for a celebrity. What you're looking for is a basic speed skate. When you learn more about gear, you may want to buy all of your skate parts independently – wheels, plates, boots, etc. – but for now, look for a “skate package” that includes all of that stuff.
What other equipment do I need? How much does all this crap cost?
If you sign up for a boot camp, your contact will probably tell you what gear you need. But in case she's totally not on the ball, we'll tell you here, so you know what's what.
Gear that is required for derby, per the official rules, includes: knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmet, mouth guard. Anything beyond that is optional.
Knee pads: Knee pads are the the most important protective gear you'll buy – and we recommend buying these before you hit those open skate sessions, because you are inevitably going to crash into some out-of-control kid and take a big, sloppy fall. Don't worry about looking foolish, wearing your knee pads to an open skate. You'd look way more ridiculous lying on the ground, writhing in pain, after flying through the air and landing on your unprotected knees.
Many skaters are loyal to brand names in knee pads. Popular brands include 187's, Rector Fat Boys, Triple 8 and ProTec. Any of these brands make good starter knee pads, and further down the road, you may wish to upgrade to Pro-Designed, which are custom-made to fit you (and therefore more expensive). Plan to spend between $30 and $70 on knee pads, and be pleasantly surprised if they're on sale. Knee pads may seem expensive, but good knee protection is cheaper than a debilitating knee injury. Do not buy any of the chintzy, off-brand knee pads you may see hanging in the sports section at your big box retailer. Those are made for casual skaters, not derby skaters.
Helmet: You'll want to protect that noggin with a good helmet. While some derby-specific helmets are in development, at the moment, your best bet is a skateboard helmet. A few of the big names in helmets are Triple 8 and Bell, and they come in a wide variety of finishes. If you plan to put stickers on your helmet, don't get the rubberized finish, because your stickers may not stick properly.
We recommend you wear a helmet when you skate outside. Many people don't, but skating outside can pose lots of unexpected hazards – rocks, sticks, and other debris that can cause you to fall backward and bust your head. Expect to spend between $30 and $40 on a helmet.
Elbow pads: Most skaters wear the same brand elbow and knee pads. You may find that there's a “rookie package” at an online retailer that includes all the pads you'll need. If so, that's a good way to get started.
We believe that spending a ton of money on elbow pads shouldn't be a priority. With few exceptions, we don't know many people who fall on their elbows often. Expect to spend between $25 and $50 on elbow pads.
Wrist guards: Wrist guards come in a variety of styles. Some wrist guards look like gloves and protect your entire palm and the back of your hand. Most derby skaters seem to prefer wrist guards that don't cover the fingers or thumb. We recommend wrist guards that have a hard plastic insert, for additional protection. Budget between $15 and $30 for these.
Mouth guard: The main function of your mouth guard is protect you from a concussion, when a hard fall makes your jaw slam shut. Keeping the teeth in your head is its secondary goal.
A wide range of mouth guard styles exist, from the $3 boil-and-fit type you can buy at any sporting goods store, to the pricey, dentist-made type that may come in custom colors.
If you've got a tiny mouth, you may find that a child's mouth guard fits you better than the bulky adult mouth guard. What you don't want is a mouth guard that's too large and makes you gag. You can trim the back ends of any boil-and-fit mouth guard to fend off the gag reflex. (Note: As you become more entrenched in derby, you may find that your teammates snicker at terms like "tiny mouth" and "gag reflex." No one really knows why -- perhaps it's a shared gene -- but derbyfolk can see an innuendo where others see nothing at all).
If you have a dental plan that will pay for a custom mouth guard, that's your best option. Mouth guards affect your ability to speak, and we've always found that skaters who wear custom-made made mouth guards speak more clearly than our teammates who are slobbering and babbling through the cheapest mouth guards. Plan to spend as little as $3 on a mouth guard, to whatever your dentist charges for a really sweet one. Which is probably a lot.
Tailbone protection: Tailbone protection is not required in derby, but some skaters wear padded shorts or a clip-on tailbone protector. These are generally the people who have already sustained some type of nasty tailbone injury and don't wish to ever experience that agony again. If you're a new skater who tends to fall backwards a lot, we recommend some type of tailbone protection. This may run you $30 to $90. But a tailbone injury will mean you can't skate for a while – and it may make you long for the good old days, when you could have a bowel movement without experiencing nauseating pain.
Gaskets: Gaskets are thin, protective sleeves that fit around your knees or elbows and are designed to be worn under your pads. Many people with tricky knees appreciate the added stability and cushioning of knee gaskets, and they're a good way to achieve a snug fit, if your knee pads are just a wee bit too roomy (you never want your knee pads to move out of place). Gaskets are about $20-$30.
Shin guards: You will eventually take a skate wheel to the shin if you play roller derby. Very few people seem to wear shin guards while playing, but they're great if you're trying to protect an existing bump from getting kicked again.
At as little as $10, soccer socks with built-in shin guards are probably the most comfortable and inexpensive option. A good pair of knee-high socks will help protect your shins, too. We don't recommend spending $100 on shin guards that are designed for professional soccer players.
Ankle and knee braces: If your ankles or knees are so unstable that you feel like you need to wear a brace, we recommend you see your doctor before you buy anything. Opinions differ about whether braces are good for long-term use, as some people believe that a skater becomes dependent on the brace for the strength that should be coming from her own muscles.