From rowing to roller derby


coaching crutchesAbout the Author: Maha El Nasser 

“I’m an American transplant in the UK.  I’ve had quite a few years to try quite a few sports.  The sports that I find myself in love with, I have been coaching in varying capacities over the last 10 years.  I started by herding 5 year olds through a capoeira roda, got my Level 2 in coaching rowing, and now roller derby.  I love roller derby because there is no standard skater.  The women who are successful in roller derby today do not fit into one age bracket or size bracket or body shape bracket, even as the sport athleticizes itself away from the traditional counter culture of its original revival.  

I am the Head Coach of the only recreational roller derby league in Yorkshire.  Which means I’m in charge of a team of coaches and their development.  Of the lesson planning.  Of designing and running assessments.  Of making sure that 52 adult women learn roller derby, skate hard, and have fun twice a week.”




HollingworthLake_2010 (17)The most recent #womenswednesday discussion (Is it essential to have a coaching mentor within your own sport?)  really got me thinking about how I bring my learning and my coaching from other sports into how I coach roller derby.

You might think that rowing and roller derby are pretty different sports.  Actually, no two ways about it, they are different sports.  But there are key principles in common.  These principles are probably common across other sports too, but I’ve not coached those ones, so you get to hear about rowing and roller derby.

Pushing through the finish

You don’t stop rowing 10 foot out and coast over the finish line, right?  And in roller derby we have to train to the whistle.  Jammers are capable of scoring points right up to the end of the fourth whistle that signals the end of the jam.  That means they have to play to the finish.

In rowing, it’s hard to stop paying attention in the boat, the rhythm of the team and the stroke keeps all rowers working at generally the same pace.

In roller derby training sessions however people tend to relax in drills.  Blockers don’t chase down the jammer.  Jammers don’t sprint chase around the track to make sure they get that one point before the other jammer calls the jam.  The team dynamic allows for individual action (or inaction).

If you have skaters who don’t follow through, put them on track with skaters who not only follow through but also take people with them when they do.  It’s not quite like stroking a boat, but it helps skaters realise when they aren’t as engaged as they thought they were.

11866308_1025072487523854_7917528994876260647_nLesson to take away: Skaters need to play as hard in the last two tenths of a second as they played in the first minute, because it can make all the difference.  If you want them to play to the finish, you need to train them to the finish.

Comparing splits to hits

In rowing, your aim is to make the boat go faster.  To practice doing this you get on an erg and you watched the little numbers flash on your Concept2 monitor (it might be Concept3 by now, it’s been ages since I’ve been       down the club).  The main things you’re thinking about is your stroke rate and your splits.  You want those splits to be as low as possible and the first thing people will do is row faster to lower their splits.  But, actually, that’s not the really the most effective way to train.  The goal is to improve your technique to bring those splits down without changing your stroke rate.  (yes, this is a simplification).  You do this by identifying how to load your legs to increase your power, by moving your hands faster at the catch, by engaging your core and transferring energy at the right time.

In roller derby, your aim is to move someone out of the way.  There’s no little machine to help you gauge your progress.  You’re thinking about getting another human being over a line.  And the temptation is to hit them at speed.  The faster you hit an object, the more power behind it, right?  Maybe, but much like increasing your stroke in rowing, it’s not really the point.  You want to be able to drive that person off track whatever speed you’re going.  So the goal is to improve your technique.  You do this by identifying how to load your legs to increase your power, by moving your body faster at the catch, by engaging your core and transferring energy at the right time.

Oh wait… this all sounds familiar…

Lesson to take away:  Power should come from control and timing, not speed.  The better the technique, the greater speeds they can perform at, and eventually become unstoppable.  But that’s a longer term goal.  For the moment, get them to drop their bum.

Individual impact

May2010 (39)In rowing the boat either runs smoothly, or it doesn’t.  If someone is out of sync with the stroke or late to the catch it can feel horrible in the boat.  But as a rower, you can’t always identify who or what the reason for the boat shudder and that’s because usually it’s due to more than one thing and more than one person.  To feel the boat glide, everyone has to be in sync.

Similarly, in a wall, particularly the currently trending rotating walls in roller derby, every single person has a role to play and if one person isn’t quite as quick or one person isn’t quite as strong or one person over compensates or, as is more likely, small versions of all of the above, it feels like the whole wall falls apart.

In both situations it’s not always easy to identify which part of what isn’t working.  It’s also hard for people to accept that due to the inherent complexity the cause lies in the team rather than on one individual not doing their part.     Frustrations about not understanding why things aren’t working can build into blame or self-deprecation or, most often, a hardy collection of both.  None of the above is helpful in fixing walls (or boats).

The conversations with athletes either rolling or rowing, interestingly, tend to be very similar, simply replace “the catch” with “the rotation” and “the drive” with “bracing”.   Everyone needs to be reminded that they each have a role to fill and they need to focus on doing that as well as they can.  One way to address the frustrations is to watch a video together and point out the different elements both that contribute and detract from the successes. (Coach W recently posted about a great coaching app that can help with this :

Lesson to take away: Everyone has equal responsibility for making it work and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.   Help them to break down the different factors that go into a strong wall so that they can be both accountable and aware of the impact that they have on the wall and on their teammates.


Roller Derby Photo credit: Jason Ruffell



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