Tuesday, December 13, 2011

No Excuses: Mental Training

Roller derby is unique in that most people have to start from scratch when they join, having no knowledge of the sport or much skill at roller skating in general. It can be a daunting task for anyone to get involved with, but there is some training you can begin before you ever step foot at a practice. It’s a type of training that often goes overlooked and is very underestimated. It requires discipline, repetition and constant use. The part of your body that is arguably the most important to cultivate for roller derby is… your brain!

Phase 1 –Fresh Start, Clear Minds
For someone brand new to the sport, the best possible thing you can do for yourself is keep a positive attitude. It may sound silly and easy, but sometime it’s harder than you think. Roller derby is already a difficult sport, don't make it harder on yourself. I know I get frustrated easily when I can’t do something right, and the first few months are going to be full of that frustration. The worst possible thing you can do for yourself is to say “I can’t!" Be the little engine that could, but instead of “I think I can” say “I know I can.”

A mantra personal to yourself or the drill can make it even better. During a lap drill I was having a hard time and kept repeating “low and hard” to remind myself to keep a low stance and to dig hard in my crossovers. A phrase can focus your concentration to the task at hand and make your practice time more productive. Be sure to avoid negative phrases like “stop fucking up.”  Anytime you find that you are getting down on yourself, stop, reset and repeat your positive phrase over and over.

Another thing you can do at the beginning of your mental training is to set goals. The best way to make goals more effective is to not only set an outcome goal, but also process goals. If you’re going on a trip but don’t have directions, you’re never going to get there. Writing them down is the next way to actualize your goals.  Putting them on paper is like making a written contract with yourself that you are going to hold up your end of the deal. Make them attainable and specific. As with the positive thinking you should avoid all negative language. 

It should be more like: “I want to complete 25 laps in under five minutes by February 1st.”

Great now how are you going to get there?

“I will exaggerate my derby stance throughout every drill at practice to improve my form.
I will skate extra laps during warm up and cool downs to work on my stride.
I will go to the rink on Saturdays to practice my laps and work on speed.  
I will run twice a week outside of practice to increase my endurance.”

Solid plan! But it doesn’t end there. Check up on yourself. Log when you go running and skating. Write your progress down and make sure you’re on track to your goal date. If the date is nearing and you’re still no where near completing 25 in five, this does not mean you failed. It simply means you may have set your goal too high and you just need to re-adjust your plan. Did you skimp on something? Is there something more you could do? This isn’t a loop hole to be lazy; your goals should still make you push yourself to work hard. 

These tools are applicable to the veteran skater too. There’s always more to learn in our evolving sport and new ways you can improve your skill. Stuck in a rut after years of skating? Maybe you’ve spent too much negative energy putting yourself down and you haven’t even realized it.

Phase 2 – Mental Training
So now you’re on a positive track heading towards improving yourself with goals. Awesome! To supplement your physical training to achieve that goal, you can also do some mental pushups. Your brain can be treated like a muscle, so with little use it could become weak. Concentrating your thoughts on how you want to improve will give you a clearer focus and a better commitment.

Warm up with a few laps through your memories. Pick out a few times when you succeeded or did well in roller derby, or other parts of your life. How did you look? What specifically did you do well? How was your stance and what were you thinking? Pick out a certain bout your performed well at, or a string of moments from a certain season. Make this your personal highlight reel to recall later.

Before every bout, I would watch this and other highlight reels of OCCRG to remind myself that I'm awesome.

If you have actual footage of yourself, that’s even better. Try to only repetitively watch the successful moments, not the times you may have tripped up. We of course learn from our mistakes, but only watch them a few times and move on- focus on what you did well and why.

Next, stretch out your ego a bit and think about what your strengths as a skater are. Are you fast? Strong? Smart? Focus on your positive attributes and create a personal statement. “I am an awesome booty blocker and can sit on a jammer all day.” Then take your goal and create a statement of what you want to achieve. “I will be faster and have more endurance than my competition.” Write these down and remember them for later.

There are some very specific mental workouts sports psychologists have created that I won’t go into great detail about here, but they have some pretty basic concepts. Pick a time every day to do your mental workout. It could be in the morning as you’re eating breakfast and getting ready. It could be at night as you get ready for bed- whatever time works best for you. Take a deep breath in with a slow exhale and start focusing on your personal statement. Now mentally go through your mental highlight reel of past successes. Imagine it first person and include every detail. Next, picture yourself executing the outcome of your goal: low stance, hard strides, even pace, finishing your laps in under five minutes. Take another deep breath and exhale slowly. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

On days you have practice it is beneficial to do it before and after. Focus on a positive self-image and what you want to accomplish beforehand. After, think about what you did well at practice and what needs more work next time. Physical practice won’t be very helpful if you’re just going through the motions. Get everything you can out of your training by focusing on your results afterwards.

It also helps to watch footage of skaters or athletes you want to be more like. Want to jam like Suzy Hotrod? Look up videos of her and other skaters so you can learn their style. Want to block like Amanda Jamitinya? Find all the video and photos you can to nail down her footwork and how she works with others. These are both things I’ve done personally and have had epiphanies about footwork and technique. In general, you benefit greatly from watching any and all footage of roller derby you can. Focus on certain positions, teams, pack situations, etc. Keep yourself up-to-date on strategy in this ever-changing sport.

Besides watching this for the amazing last few jams of the 2010 WFTDA Championship, I watched 3:05 over and over again. Amanda Jamitinya kept knocking Atomatrix out and stopping on the line and I wanted to perfect that. 

Phase 3 – Game time.
Alright, you have done all the mental and physical training you could, and now it's bout day. Both types of training must be done repetitively and consistently leading up to competition in order for your body to be fully prepared, but mental toughness is something you can carry with you onto track. A lot of people can get pre-bout jitters and freeze up when its time to perform. Dropping down and doing some push-ups isn’t going to do much for you now, it would just make you more tired. Instead you can do a few mental laps to freshen your mind and focus your attention on the game.

First, ban any and all negative thoughts from your brain. If you say “I can’t do this” when your on the jam line, then you have already beaten yourself before the opposing team could try. Replace the negativity with positive mental chatter. Repeat a phrase to yourself that applies to your current situation. As a jammer, you may think “low and fast” as you stand on the jam line. Pivoting, you may constantly be thinking “line and jammer” as you watch the opposing star and the line at all times. As a blocker, you may be thinking “buddy, jammer” as to stay with your buddy when the jammer approaches the pack. Don’t overwhelm yourself with who the competition is or what size the crowd is. Narrow your focus to the situation at hand, and work through the bout jam by jam.

Have a particularly bad jam? Sit on the bench and take a deep breath. Re-center your brain and quickly go through your mental highlight reel. Remember how awesome you are and what you are good at. Repeat your positive personal statement to yourself and then focus on what you will do next.

I’ve never really been one to get in my head at bouts, but it did happen to me this year against Minnesota. You can hear how negative I got in my write-up about it here, and you can see how deep a hole I dug myself. I kept telling myself I couldn’t do it and kept replaying that one awful jam over and over in my head, virtually paralyzing myself for the rest of the bout. I think our whole team started to get down on ourselves even though we had a relatively good first half. The second half we barely scored any points because we mentally gave up.

Mental toughness is not something you can get over-night. Like building muscle and endurance, you’ve got to work on it and create a routine. Self image creates your reality, so build a strong body by starting with a positive and focused mind. The stronger the bond is between your mind and body, the stronger athlete you will be. 

“Decide who you want to be and how you want to live- and then continuously tell yourself you have what it takes to be that person.” -Jason Selk 

No Excuses: Introduction
No Excuses: Dynamic Warm Ups
No Excuses: No Train No Gain

Books to read:
The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum
10-Minute Toughness by Jason Selk


  1. This is a totally great article, L4D!

  2. I'm surprised more people haven't commented.

    Positive mental attitude has been so important to me. I have had my share of failures but also celebrated my successes. People tell me I've improved and it's true. I have notes for when I couldn't do crossovers and when I started to focus on skating sideways. I can do those now.

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