By Chili of Pink Peril Roller Derby (The Netherlands)
When I had the chance to contribute to the new Beginner Curriculum Framework, "This is Roller Derby," and saw the first results of the team, I was amazed by how comprehensive and successful this completely new approach to training in our sport would be.
Instead of continuing with the previous approach, the WFTDA had started to fundamentally improve the accessibility of our sport: away from a test that participants had to prove themselves to their leagues, and which in the end was doubtful whether it could fulfil all the expectations that had been placed on it in the meantime.
Instead, it is now up to the leagues to set up a training programme that suits them, to pick up newly interested players, and to promote them through the curriculum until they can participate in gameplay. Leagues are not left to their own devices, but are provided with extensive and complete, well-researched documents from which they can put together their beginner programmes. Leagues are also trusted to set up such programmes and to decide for themselves when they consider their skaters ready for external gameplay.
But how do you implement this comprehensive framework?
For me and my league, Pink Peril Roller Derby, it quickly became obvious that this would mean more than just writing a new training plan. Many other areas were previously focused on the Minimum Skill Requirements (MSRs) and now need to be revised as well.
As a small town league that is also home to skaters from seven nations, inclusion and anti-bias have always been part of our league culture. Growth through training new skaters is vital for us, not only to pay for the expensive training venue, but also to reach the team size to be able to play. Therefore, it is especially important to us that new skaters are well integrated, can quickly participate, and remain a permanent member of Pink Peril. However, the previous training according to the Minimum Skills Requirements has always split the training into the sub-groups of experienced and new skaters. So we started with the intention of breaking down dividing lines between the experience levels of our skaters and allowing them more room for their individual progress.
Remove Static Timelines
The first step towards this was the removal of fixed timelines for the training of new skaters. While there had been “fresh meat courses” starting on certain days of the year that they had to pass in a few weeks with a test or restart the course later, we were now able to welcome new members fluently and integrate them quickly into the regular training. At the same time, experienced skaters were able to use the precious time on the track for their own training, instead of continuously being assigned as a “fresh meat coach.” This was only possible with one big change: to have the league train as one group and design all content to be beneficial to every experience level, from beginner to experienced skater.
Coach As One Group
To make the training work for such a mixed-level group, I started giving a basic structure that works for all skill stages and is as inclusive across them as we could make it. At the beginning there is a warm-up programme that prepares all the muscle groups used in our sport. These are ultimately a few exercises that can be done at moderate speed on the track, but also while standing. Stops at shorter intervals are meant to prepare for quick changes in movement and remind skaters to engage the core muscles, a few faster laps will waken the circulation. All of this can also be done by new skaters if they are given the choice of which stops, which speeds, and at which distances to others they want to skate.
Another element to open the boundaries between the skill-level groups was to welcome our new participants in the team at an earlier stage. In the first two training sessions with a larger group of newcomers, every new skater chose a veteran as their coach for the day and their task was to get on the skates together, get into a good skate position, learn stride, and maybe a first stop. We called it the buddy system and it was enormously successful.
I have to admit that I have rarely seen the team so focused and committed as on these days. One result was that coaching in a 1-on-1 situation was not only beneficial for our newcomers, it also helped our veterans, because coaching works in two directions and the coaches can learn for themselves as well. In addition, this system has enormously strengthened the “WE” feeling, the newcomers were almost immediately a part of the team and even a few friendships seem to have formed.
Compared to a situation in the past, where new skaters had to prove themselves for months on minimum skills before they finally made it into the team, but started learning all over again when they actually worked with them, this was an enormous gain in motivation and speeds up skaters development.
Gameplay at Every Level
After the 1:1 training sessions, we also faced the challenge of making the rest of the training programme attractive for all stages at the same time. We managed to do this by designing our content in such a way that it works for all stages—sometimes with the same goals, sometimes with a different focus.
In the end, this was easier than we thought. Almost all exercises can be adjusted in intensity, speed, impact and other parameters or even be done without skates. This worked with basic exercises like grapevines on skates, which can be done slowly, quickly, fluidly and jerkily, on toe stops or skates or even shoes. But you can also skate in proximity with different distances and speeds, use the sides outside the track or briefly form two subgroups that skate at different intensities. Ultimately, everything in roller derby can be broken down to basic movements, so the very basic skills are always included in everything.
However, the most important thing for us with all learning objectives is that they are not just exercises, but have a clear relation to gameplay: “It is only a skill if it is used in the game.” We also communicate why, for example, certain basic exercises (even if it may seem boring) are important for the gameplay. Therefore, the curriculum with its early access to gameplay comes in handy.
Teach, Not Test
There is much more time for this now, because we stopped queueing up people and testing them individually on something. Instead, the current skills of our training participants can be read from the game and practice situations.
In addition, I record the training sessions on video and can check at any time what can lead us to the next developmental step. The "Coaches' Discretion" in the curriculum seems not all new, but a description of what coaches have probably always done: finding larger-picture “headlines” to describe the current state of the participants, e.g. "fast skaters," "agile skaters," "stable skaters," or "ready for contact."
Embrace Individual Progress
It is always important to me that all skaters can choose for themselves whether they feel safer with less impact or speed. In my experience, skaters' confidence in their own abilities builds up slowly, but is quickly affected if we push too hard.
To sum it up, after only a few sessions of our training the new methods and principles of the framework are a game changer for us. Not only did we make faster progress, the entire league culture became more inclusive and focused, and skaters more motivated.
In order to prepare for the early access to gameplay, I have defined various simplifications and modifications that build up on each other step by step and start with them after the first sessions.
We begin with basic rules knowledge to convey the general goal of the game and the most important rules. This can be done by re-enacting game scenes, discussing videos, or asking questions about a running scrimmage. As a next step, we skate without contact through human obstacles in static, at later stages also moving situations, practising agility on the track. With light contact drills, stationary and initially without skates, blocking and target zones are explained and legal blocking is discussed. Cautious contact exercises in previously defined sequences and with prior stopping on the track follow. Only then we actually practice blocking while skating, with reduced impact and at low speed. Finally, depending on the situation, we might move over to short track roller derby or play full WFTDA gameplay at peer level until the skaters achieve gameplay-readiness.
As a substitute for the removed theory test on rules, I rely on practical exercises. I still explain on track how to get from the track to the box and back in case of a penalty and what is allowed in between. But a lot of things can also be learned by discussing them in the scrimmage. We can make use of the time after the jam or even interrupt it (I call "FREEZE"), everyone stops immediately and you discuss who is allowed to block, if a lead has been gained or what points have been earned. Later, you can also set up game situations and give the skaters the task of finding a solution or strategy for them. All this reduces the effort of transfer from paper to practical game situations.
When we talk about progress, there is always the question of how to assess and how to guide the participants. In my experience starting with questions is most effective. Why do you think the transition didn't work? How did it feel? What would you like to improve now? This enables skaters to learn and find solutions from self-reflection and their “feeling.”
Visit https://community.wftda.org/beginner-curriculum to download the Beginner Curriculum and supplemental documents, including a Coaching Resources Library, Recommendations on Mixed Level Play, and more. To ask questions and learn more about how other leagues are implementing the Beginner Curriculum, WFTDA League Reps and WeFTDA members can join the Skater Education & Training Community.