Coaching Men To Hit Like Women
by Andy Frye
Coaching a scratch team of players new to roller derby is no easy task. And teaching a man to hit like a woman isn’t a simple undertaking either.
Nonetheless, it is the task taken up by Rose Feratu and Norma Lee Wright, two seasoned players for the Windy City Rollers who double as coaches of the Chicago Bruise Brothers men’s roller derby team. The club, which formed in early 2012, kicked off its inaugural season and first couple of bouts against teams in Green Bay and Cincinnati, with a full roster gradually getting comfortable in its skates.
Both women are pivotal members of WCR’s Second Wind travel team and have spent the better part of the last decade not only playing derby but training newer women in their league. But according to Rose, who leads the guys’ club as head coach, coaching men is a different animal.
“Guys are different physiologically. They skate differently and move their weight, hips and shoulders very differently. Plus they also have a different mindset compared to women about sports,” said Rose. As a result, she says, roller derby men block and hit differently, and jam with a stride of their own in the star cap. And for this reason, getting men square on the fundamentals is an art taught with a special approach.
For one, Rose admits that her style of communication –which she describes as “straight to the point”—works well when it comes to running drills with men. Specifically, being direct with male athletes, Rose contends, helps them learn roller derby quicker and fine-tune their mechanics.
“A lot of times the guys on the team are guys who have had at least some exposure to sports in the past. So they’re sort of used to taking orders and are willing to just “do it”. Most men take instruction from a coach pretty well because of past experience with football coaches and others who led them in sports,” Rose said.
Likewise, coupled with experience, athleticism and muscle memory from bygone lives in soccer, track, wrestling, and hockey help accelerate men’s skills as much as previous sports experience does for women in derby.
Norma Lee, whose main post with the Bruise Brothers’ is as the team’s skating coach, echoes Rose but is careful to emphasize that the game of roller derby is played the same whether it’s men or women on the track.
“The guys come to derby with less skating experience usually. But then you’re likely to see men pick it up more quickly,” said Norma Lee. “As long as men understand their center of gravity and get the fundamentals, then learning to play roller derby is the same as for women.”
Moreover, Norma Lee indicated that men’s interest in roller derby and the desire to join may come from a totally different place. She elaborated on the fact that a lot of the men she coaches within the Bruise Brothers tend to have watched lots of bouts and know more about the game when they try out for a league.
In contrast, she says, “many of the girls who try out for Windy City usually have roller skated before, but many have only seen derby once or twice. They just get excited and want to join.”
As anyone currently in derby knows, the level of contact can, at first, be daunting. Often the stamina, toughness and commitment required come as a surprise, pressuring newcomers to either step up their fitness or quickly call it a day.
Also, many of today’s roller derby men have been involved in some form or another with other WFTDA leagues. Typically they volunteer in different roles as skating referees, non-skating officials, track set up staff, marketing or other functions. Some derby dudes also have close friends in roller derby, while others date derby women and initially come along for the ride before getting hooked.
The Chicago Bruise Brothers practice twice a week –every Sunday and Wednesday—and frequently scrimmage against their sister club’s Second Wind and Third Coast travel teams. Meanwhile, most top flight WFTDA teams roster women who practice four to five times a week, not counting bouts.
“In Windy City, my tendency is to push for more practices and more time on skates.” But she also concedes that practice is more than just running drills and skating a bunch.
“A coach has to be confident in the team and flexible in practice, but also get the guys to work on weak spots,” Rose said.
Both Rose and Norma Lee point out, too, that camaraderie and team chemistry are vital. Feratu, also a member of Windy City’s 2012 league champions, the Manic Attackers, made mention that much of the Manics’ transformation –-from a talented team to an undefeated force—has to do with chemistry.
“All in all,” Rose says, “there are growing pains with any team, but playing together and the game’s constant communicating gets players comfortable with each other. Also, hanging out together off the track gets a team’s mind in sync,” she said.
Andy Frye writes about roller derby for Fiveonfive Magazine and covers other sports for ESPN.com and the Chicago Sun-Times.