Monday, 16 May 2011

What do I need to play Roller Derby?

Want to play roller derby but have no idea where to start? Seen 'Whip It' and want to give it a go? In this short blog I'll shine a little light on what I've learned, how to get involved and what equipment you'll need to get you up and blocking in no time.

The first and most important thing you need is enthusiasm. Without this, it can be a painful journey. You might think that being able to skate is more important but you can learn to skate. Learning to be enthusiastic, I've found, can be rather more of a challenge.

It also helps to have a sense of adventure (or grow one) and leave your inhibitions at the door, as you won't get anywhere in roller derby without a few nervy moments. I still remember lining up for my first ever jam and feeling sick to my stomach, but finishing with the biggest sense of achievement and an even bigger grin.

What will you get out of it?
Everyone is different and takes up roller derby for various reasons. I took it up to improve my confidence and be part of something I thought looked exciting, whilst getting fitter as an added bonus.

And I'm going to throw this out there first off: physical prowess is not the most important thing in roller derby. We have guys and girls of all shapes and sizes so you don't need to be a super-fit powerhouse to play. Practising consistently and regularly will improve your fitness anyway, and balance and agility are more important than brute strength in my opinion.

If you have the time then extra exercise to build muscles and improve core stability can be helpful. Derby has a habit of toughening people up as well as improving general fitness, and you tend to use your legs a lot so it's great for building up those muscles. Some of our players have actually lost weight by using roller derby as exercise.

But the physical part is just a small part of the benefits of derby. The sense of achievement the first time you get lead jammer in a bout and hear people shouting your name is pretty damn awesome and I grinned for about a week. Or the first time you block someone to the ground... or beating your laps from the previous week. Being part of a team of such lovely people is another big plus and making new friends in a relaxed environment is always a winner.

You'll need some basic equipment unless you want to get involved as one of our NSOs (Non Skating Officials). NSOs are a vital part of the crew, making sure everything is in order and penalties and scores are tracked.

If you come to join us at Manchester Roller Derby, we can lend you all the equipment you need whilst you have a go and see if it's for you. I bought most of my equipment online as there aren't a lot of places that stock skates, although your local skateboarding supplier might be able to help you out with some of the protective gear. The basic kit you need is below - prices will vary but it can be cheaper to buy all your kit together as you may get a discount. For example, I got my skates (Riedell R3), knee pads, elbow pads and wrist guards for around £125.

Roller derby is played on quad skates so I'm afraid rollerblades are out. Skates are available in a wide range of prices and fittings and what you choose will depend largely on your budget and what feels right to you. We could do a whole blog on choosing skates but to give you a rough idea, the cheaper end of skates start around £80 and can go up into the hundreds. Skates are upgradable too so get something that feels comfortable and you can upgrade plates, bearings and wheels later.

It really helps to try before you buy, or you can end up embarking on a very expensive skate journey. Don't be afraid to ask if anyone is the same size as you at practice and try a few pairs as, like shoes, they all feel different.

Most derby skaters use skates designed for derby that are light and manoeuvrable but some of our skaters skate in hockey skates. Some of the most common choices for beginners are Riedell R3s, Sure Grip Rebel Invaders and Riedell Vandals or Wickeds. Come and try some out with us first anyway before you make your choice. I picked Riedell R3s, partly because they are non-leather but comfortable. Cheaper skates come with wheels but these can be varying in quality so be prepared to upgrade once you have tried out different wheels! The Arcadia where we practice is also used for roller hockey, so some of our skaters use hockey wheels which are lightweight and fast.

Pads and helmet
Roller derby is a full contact sport and you will fall so knee pads, wrist guards and elbow pads are a necessity. Again we have pads you can borrow when you start. Like skates, you can pay a little or a lot for a set of pads.

From my experience, there isn't a great deal of difference in wrist guards but make sure that they are double splinted (have a hard part on the front and the back). I started out with relatively cheap knee and elbow pads from Anarchy which provide enough cushioning without being too bulky but have moved onto 187 knee pads which provide a lot more cushioning.

You'll also need a helmet in case of stray limbs or back falls. Your brain is pretty important so make sure the helmet fits. Helmets used in roller derby are the same sort that skateboarders wear - cycle helmets aren't really suitable for roller derby as they are too rigid and can cause more injury than they prevent. Ideally, get down to a skateboarding shop and try some different helmets out for fit. The helmet needs to fit tightly enough so it won't jiggle about if you do knock your head. If there are gaps, try a different one - do not underestimate the importance of a good fitting helmet. The good news is that they are pretty cheap from about £15-£30. Some popular makes are NutCase, TSG and Triple 8.

Before being allowed to take part in hitting drills you'll need to have a mouthguard. Knocks to the face are rare but teeth are pretty difficult to put back in so it's better to be safe than gummy. We sell mouthguards for £3 and they're easy to fit; just place in boiling water then fit according to the instructions. You can get custom mouthguards from your dentist too which will last for some time and, depending on your dental plan, they can be fairly cheap too. Mine was £30 and I notice a big difference in fit and comfort now I have it.

What to wear
Good news! Apart from the protective equipment, you can wear what you want for roller derby. However, you will get hot and sweaty after a few hours of skating so leave the sexy woolly jumpers at home. It's most important that you're comfortable and able to stretch, so things like jeans are not so practical. Bear in mind you will need to get elbow pads and knee pads on too so short sleeves and legs help with this. Most people tend to wear shorts and vest or t-shirt with leggings, tights or long socks to protect your shins from scrapes. Keep jewellery to a minimum as you don't want to get caught on anything or have to stop play whilst we all get down on hands and knees to look for the clasp off your favourite necklace.

Getting involved
You can't do roller derby on your own so find some people to learn and play with... like Manchester Roller Derby for example! If you're local, the easiest way to get involved is to pop down to one of our Sunday sessions at 5:45pm to see what you think.

Our Zero to Hero programme is the best route to passing minimum skills. Minimum skills means you'll be able to take part in full-contact games (scrimmage or bouts). The next one starts on July 3rd from 6 till 8pm and will run for 12 weeks, taking you through all the things you need to learn in order to pass minimum skills.

You do need a certain amount of time to devote to roller derby and once you get hooked, you'll end up wishing there were more hours in the week. See our Join us
section on the website for details of how you can get involved. It's a bit basic but the more you put in, the more you will get out.

Drop us a comment on this blog, our
Forum or look us up on Facebook or Twitter if you're interested or just come down and try it out. Our ethos is that everyone is welcome regardless of age, gender or ability and if you have that enthusiasm, anything is possible.


  1. Brilliant - your next Zero to hero starts just as I get my new car so can finally drive over there at long last, been waiting a bout a year to find a way to join you guys. Am itching to come and give it a go!

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