Published on September 8th, 2014 | by Andy Frye


The Risks of Roller Derby

By Andy Frye, aka LeBron Shames, Chicago Bruise Brothers 

Until 10 days ago I’d broken only one bone in my life, a very minor one when I was in preschool. The story I’ve told a few friends before is completely true. I broke my left pinky finger playing Duck-Duck-Goose. Sustaining an injury that day was simply chance relative to where I sat in the big circle. What happened next was that the biggest kid in the class sat on my hand.

Seeing that even a child’s game like Duck-Duck-Goose can lead to injury, I wasn’t surprised that my roller derby injury happened. Cracking my fibula during a routine pack drill didn’t hurt like broken bones supposedly should. Then I remembered my friend Jackie Daniels once saying to me, “It’s not if you get hurt playing roller derby, but when.”

Over the years, I have asked one question of both new and experienced derby athletes: “Did you ever expect to get injured when you signed up for roller derby?”

Answers are mixed. Some players say they are fully aware of the risks, and aren’t shocked when getting hurt. Others say a broken nose or a bone contusion never crossed their minds. They just wanted to play. C’est la vie.

Coming from a sports background, I’ve always regarded roller derby as potentially tough on the body as football or ice hockey. My teammates probably want to roll their eyes every time I say it. But it’s true: Roller derby is nothing less than tackle football on skates. Yet hardwood floors and polished concrete are both a harder landing than grass any day.

It evokes another question: “Do we prepare adequately for the physical risks of our sport?” I can only go by my own experience in what I see, and some anecdotal evidence. I’m not so convinced.

Sure, everyone who plays derby knows it’s a contact sport. There’s hitting. There’s falling. And that’s why we love it. But I bet if you surveyed everyone who plays the game about whether or not they hit the gym, lift weights, do kettle bells, or even regular calisthenics, my hunch is that the vast majority would say “No.”

I’m no sports scientist, but considering that concussions, sprains, and broken bones happen as much in derby as in rugby, common sense would dictate that every person who plays this game should make strength training of some sort part of their routine. Yet many don’t.

Part of the problem –this aversion to athleticism– may be very basic. Face it, skating is more fun than running. It’s more fun than box jumping, squats and lifting dumbbells. And if you had more hours in the day, you’d skate more.

The other part of the problem may just something within the culture of roller derby. Roller derby is accepting of people from all walks of life. The two leagues I have been a part of in Chicago have skaters in their early twenties and others in their mid-forties, including top players. We come from all over the world. Some of us are lawyers; others are nannies, bartenders, union members, and business owners. We’re gay, we’re straight, and we’re transgender. Some of us dress weird, and others are as preppy as you could dare to imagine.

Yet, I believe that in our wide open acceptance of virtually everything, there’s one archetype we’re not terribly accepting of, and that’s the jock.


Right before my leg break, I watched a documentary called “Bad Boys” about the 1980s Detroit Pistons. For Motown’s future NBA champions, the 1989 Eastern Championship posed a huge challenge. Beating the Chicago Bulls meant stopping Michael Jordan.

And how did they do it? Detroit isolated Jordan and got in his way. They made him dribble inside, they triple-teamed him, and made him contest towering players. They beat him up. They knocked him down.

Late that summer after playoff elimination, Jordan hit the weights and continued to do so the rest of his career. The next year the Pistons couldn’t stop #23 no matter how hard they hit him. And Jordan went on to win six titles and set NBA records still intact today.

So, if even the greatest team sports athlete of all time needed to increase his strength and stamina to advance his game, why not the rest of us?

I’m not saying people need to become bodybuilders or hit the weight room daily. Or that everyone who plays derby must make it their full-time gig. But I do feel that some in the sport have thrown the idea of improving fitness by any means other than skating out with the window.

But back to the Jordan question. When I interviewed Bonnie Thunders the first time, for ESPN in early 2013, she described the regimen that comes as a part of her mindset toward improving her roller derby every day.

“I’m not a weightlifter,” Bonnie said first and foremost. “But last year I did focus on training (to increase) my body mass and muscle. “I felt a difference in my explosive power… and my ability to recover.”

This came on the heels of Bonnie describing her early self in 2006 as being “pretty scrawny” and “not really a good player.” I’d never believe Bonnie wasn’t “good.” Point is, even she trains to improve.

Not everyone can be a four-time WFTDA champion and World Cup winner. You can’t always avoid injury. But players at all levels could do better to embrace body fitness somewhere within their comfort zone. Staying as fit as possible can only help us to play the game we love as long as we can.

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Andy Frye writes about derby for Fiveonfive and has written for a variety of other sports publications. As LeBron Shames, he skates with the Chicago Bruise Brothers.

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About the Author

Andy Frye writes about derby for Fiveonfive and has written for a variety of other sports publications. As LeBron Shames, he skates with the Chicago Bruise Brothers.

  • Tegan N. Scare-ya

    I would just like to point out that the use of the word “transgendered” is probably not the best word choice here. A better choice is “transgender,” present tense.

    GLAAD also has this handy guide for terminology: here:

    • Em Dash

      Thanks for flagging this! We’ve edited the article to reflect this.

      • Tegan N. Scare-ya

        Awesome, thank you!

        • Max McKee

          5 years later I gotta say I love your derby name!

  • Yoga Nabi Sari

    Thank you for this article! I absolutely have to cross train in order to not get injured and last over 4 years in this sport, especially as a jammer. My number was finally called though and I hurt my back in a bout 3 weeks ago and I am on my first medical leave. My doctors have told me over and over that if I had not been in such good shape it would have been much worse. While nothing can prevent injury, cross training can make the difference between taking a few months off or never being able to skate again.

  • Bambi

    This article reflects my thoughts on derby right now – I have just recovered from a partial ACL tear in my knee, and am now getting spasms in my ITB muscle which is pulling my pelvis out of alignment! It’s a hard truth for all derby players – we need to do more preventative work to help our bodies! I fully think we should play one half of the game/training counter clockwise, and the other clockwise…. Anyway, thanks for the great article, its very informative and motivational – I am definitely going to the gym tomorrow!

  • Schyler Shannon

    Ironically I sitting in the Emergency Room waiting area as I read this article. Teammate took a bad fall in derby practice tonight and we are awaiting the CT scan to see how bad the concussion is.

    • stellabystarlite

      That sucks but it’s not an example of irony.

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