Fresh Meat: The End

Way back in February, I went to my first ever roller derby game (they’re called bouts. I don’t know why, but I stubbornly call them games). Afterwards, I saw a dark-haired girl smoking outside. She had quite distinctive purple Doc Marten boots with a vine pattern, and I heard her mention something to someone about Fresh Meat.

I didn’t know that a few months later, we’d be belting around a track together while someone yelled at us to get lower. I didn’t know we’d be drinking together. I didn’t even know her name.

There were so many things I didn’t know when I made the crazy decision to start derby. I wish I had figured some of them out sooner.

There are a million articles out there about going through Fresh Meat, useful cross-training to do, gear to get and roller derby culture. There’s an entire book on the sport, called Derby Life, that I highly recommend. But despite all the resources, there are a few things I kind of wish I had understood earlier.

I didn’t know what my strengths and weaknesses would be.

I made plenty of assumptions, of course. I assumed I’d be really slow to learn, but at least have a reasonable fitness level. I thought I’d be afraid to fall.

In actual fact, falling wasn’t a problem. I really enjoyed the feeling of being able to bounce off my massive knee pads, and falling in a safe position just didn’t seem that hard or upsetting. I did, however, agonise over my learning speed for weeks before I realised that actually I was learning at a pretty normal pace for a new skater.

What I didn’t realise was that I’d find skating in a group incredibly difficult. While I was happy to fall myself, the idea of knocking someone else over absolutely terrified me and the general feeling of being crowded caused me a fair bit of panic. If I’d known this would be an issue sooner, I’d have been able to start working on it.

I didn’t know how powerful support could be.

I’ve written about transitions before. They’ve been almost everyone’s least favourite thing since we started them. Every open skate featured spontaneous Transition Support Groups, where we’d gather at the side of the track to slowly practice the damn things over and over and over.

Around the same time, we also begin to have mass suicides at open skate. No, we didn’t hate transitions that much – suicides are relay races, in which we’re divided into teams and take turns dashing up and down the hall, doing various skills, before tagging the next team member to go. First team to finish wins. I don’t know who came up with the suicide name, or why.

Every time one of us successfully transitioned during their run, there was a frenzy. We’d scream louder than a hysterical preteen at a Justin Bieber concert. I don’t think we could have been any more excited if one of us had brought about world peace.

I felt like I could do anything when you guys were cheering for me. Thank you.

I didn’t know how mistrustful I was.

I was really keen to do my best when I started. I also had no experience of team sports, and assumed that the coaches would be

I was terrified. I felt like I was a rabbit in a room full of wolves. I was convinced the coaches could smell my weakness (not likely over the pads, mind). I thought they were counting up the faults and failures.

The thing about skating is that it’s really unnatural and awkward before you learn to do it. You can have skills that help, like balance and leg strength (squat, people!) but there is nothing natural about having wheels on your shoes. Until you gain the muscle memory for it, your brain rebels and freaks out at the instability and sheer wrongness.

This means that there is pretty much no way you can screw up that the people coaching you haven’t seen already. Did you fall over 20 times in a row? Nobody cares. Did a bunch of you crash hysterically into each other? It’s happened a million times before and it will happen a million times again. Are you scared of crossovers? Yeah, you and the rest of the entire planet. I literally mounted an assessor like a scared yet horny puppy, and all I got was amusement.

Absolutely, definitely give everything 100%. Do it for yourself, do it for everyone else around you – but do it because it’s right, not out of fear.

On day one, I was terrified that our coaches were watching us for weaknesses. Before the final assessment day, they turned up en masse to an open skate session, divided themselves up, and spent time with every single one of us present to work one-to-one on hitting, transitions and other stuff. There were no predators here after all. Thanks for everything, guys. Even the shoes.

I didn’t know how much potential people have.

I was also nervous of the rest of my Fresh Meat crew. Everyone seemed perfectly nice on day 1, but as I got more and more overly stressed about how slow I was, I felt like they could feel my fear. I assumed that as time went on, they’d look at me as the one who couldn’t keep up and was in the way.

At the start of Fresh Meat, I was terrified of being near the fast skaters on the track. At the end, they were skating laps with me, helping me with getting up my own speed and giving me pointers (I still screwed it up in assessment, though. Sorry).

We’ve given each other strength in different ways. Being there to practice transitions with each other, handing out cake, lending equipment, sympathising with the hard parts and celebrating the victories – do you all know how valuable you are?

We’re not just a team. We’re a strong team.

And yet it’s all pretty coincidental. We all chose to start derby, but we didn’t specifically choose to train together. We didn’t pick our intake based on who we thought we’d be friends with. Fresh Meat made us this close, despite the fact we just happened to sign up at roughly the same time.

How many people do I walk past every day, barely noticing, who have it in them to be someone I trust and lean on? How many walk past me, and have no idea that I could be cheering my heart out for them in relay races, assuring them their plow stops rock and persuading them to make dinosaur sounds?

I wonder what I fail to see in the people around me. I wonder what they fail to see in me.

In the end, we came through this together. Not everyone stayed on skates from start to finish. Some of us got injured. Some of us maybe decided it wasn’t for them. In the future, who knows what will happen? Some of us may move out of London, or decide they prefer another sport. People might drift in and out. I don’t know.

I do know that whether you finished Fresh Meat exactly at the same time as us or not, or whether you plan to be a skater or a referee, you started with us. In parkour, we have a saying – “we start together, we finish together.” Derby isn’t so different. Instead, we had “no meat left behind”.

Whether or not you integrate into Wreck on the same day as the majority of us, or are heading off to be an official rather than a skater, you are part of us. If injury keeps you off skates for a while, if you move away from London, if you decided halfway through FM or decide at Wreck that this maybe isn’t for you, know that we’ll be waiting. We’re waiting for your injuries to heal. We’re waiting for you to visit us if you’re based elsewhere. We’re waiting in case you change your mind about whether this is for you. We’ll wait forever if we have to, because we’re your teammates.

I didn’t know why open skates were important.

Everyone can tell you that open skates are great for getting extra training in. If I had only gone to Fresh Meat weekly, I think I would have really, really struggled – more than I already do.

What I didn’t realise was that open skates are also a way to get to know wreck league. We’re going to be integrated into regular training very soon, and I’m nervous, but if I didn’t already have friends in wreck I’d be terrified.

Whatever league you’re in, I’m pretty sure your Fresh Meat coaches will be happy to talk to you about what wreck/rec/whatever is like. There might also be social events, volunteering stuff etc where you can meet the regulars. We had an amazing night in a pub that involved too many shots, arm wrestling and human pyramids with a rugby team, but I’m sure it varies from league to league. Not everyone can be as special as us.

However, nothing could compare with being able to see your future wreckmates regularly, making friends and being able to ask them about stuff on a regular basis. I’ve been able to ask what exactly happens at assessment, whether anyone else struggled with the stuff I did, what happens if you’re not scrimmage-ready at the end of Fresh Meat, what the coach is like in their sessions. Nobody but your own wreck league, who have been through the same Fresh Meat you are going through right now, can tell you this stuff.

I didn’t know how unique this was.

We will never go through this again.

Sometimes people repeat Fresh Meat. It’s more common in some leagues than others, because they all do things differently. In some leagues, people have to repeat the full course if they’re not scrimmage ready at the end. Some people move city and start again. Some people might repeat because life or illness or injury forced them out at an early stage – and if injury knocked you down at any point in our FM, first day or last, you are a warrior, and we ❤ you, and you’ll always be one of us.

If you repeat for any of these reasons, the experience won’t be the same. I’m not saying it will be less, and you’ll be an awesome source of strength for your teammates. They’ll appreciate your experience and advice. You can tell them that everyone gets stressed, that transitions truly are a struggle for everyone, and if you’ve experienced injury, you will be there to pick up anyone else who gets hurt. You will be their rock. They will need you.

But whether you quit in disgust after a couple of weeks, get temporarily stopped by a broken bone or are still skating on the final day, whether you had the time of your life or wished it was over for the whole period, there is only one time you walk into a sports hall for the first time not knowing what to expect, and being completely overwhelmed by the newness of it all. There’s only one time you are shocked to learn how awful pads smell after enough training time. There’s only one time you realise with surprise that you’ve become part of a team, when at first you thought you wouldn’t fit in. Whether you loved it or hated it, you were part of it. And now it’s over.

Everyone has times they look back on and remember as totally unique and special – time spent at university, or travelling, or maybe even high school. It’s a period you were often happy, even if you didn’t know it at the time, but not always, because experiences that shape you are often a crucible. It’s a time that you maybe didn’t fully understand how much was changing you, and that life would never be the same again. And that’s what Fresh Meat has been.

I don’t know how many of us will stick around. Every sport has an attrition rate, and this one is full contact. But nothing will ever take away this time and how crazy, frenzied, stressful and magic it has been. And now it’s over. There will never be another London Rockin Rollers Fresh Meat 2015 – we were it, and now we are done.

Next year, there will be another group of confused people falling over and stressing out about transitions or T stops or laps. They won’t be us. But you know what? They will need us, just like we’ve needed the 2014 graduates. Let’s be there for them.

See you all in wreck league.

Fresh Meat: The Slight Assessment Mess up, or “How I Accidentally Sat On an LRR Assessor”

Firstly, everyone would like me to amend league structure yet again. Apparently B Team wear scary-looking face paint all the time, and when I arrived for assessment this morning, many of my Fresh Meat friends were adorning themselves with mascara and far too much fake blood. I don’t really know why, but I’m not going to argue.

I have also been informed that as well as A Team and B Team, Main League includes “unrostered players.” I don’t know how someone goes from unrostered to a team, but I’m 99% sure it involves some kind of fight to the death.

Yet again, neither Wreck nor Meat care. So:

Fresh meat: Sunday morning training group, where we fall over for two hours then go to the pub. Will wear face paint and fake blood on special occasions.

A Team: If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire them. Luckily, it’s quite easy to find them. Don’t wander onto the track in front of them as they are quite fast and sometimes bounce violently off each other. Occasionally, A team wear upsetting face paint just in case the violent bouncing wasn’t traumatic enough for you (guys, is that a scary skeleton or a terminator? Either way, that’s scary). They may also throw themselves in front of you to see what you do, or put a shoe on the track. A Team members may also be on B Team. I don’t know what their hire rates are, but they are definitely up for the following:

Putting shoes on the track

Wearing scary face paint

Bouncing off each other while going fast

Branding Fresh Meat and judging them while holding clipboards

It turns out you can also sit on A Team. More about that later.

B Team: B Team definitely exist. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and you can find them, then go find A Team because B are not for hire. When B Team throw themselves in front of you to see whether you’re going to die, put a shoe on the track to traumatise you or blow whistles, it’s for the sheer joy of it. B Team members may also be on A Team, at which point they are presumably for hire though. B Team are perfectly capable of wearing scary face paint if and when they choose to do so. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO SIT ON B TEAM.

Unrostered Main League: These guys will train with A or B team or possibly both, I don’t actually know. I have only heard rumours of their existence, but I don’t want to give the impression I’m doubting it because we all know how much B Team enjoyed that. I don’t think they have scary face paint, however, and if they judge Fresh Meat, they choose to do so silently, and without any clipboards.

Wreck league: The guys who eventually turn up to the pub if we keep drinking for long enough.

We had assessment day one today. I wasn’t particularly stressed about it last week, so today I turned up feeling like I was ready to throw up. Considering I found my buddies outside the sports centre listening to Prodigy, covering themselves in fake blood and twitching slightly, I don’t think I was the only one experiencing some anxiety.

I’m pretty sure that different leagues will run their assessments differently, but this is how we did it.

We all gathered in the middle of the track looking terrified, and were told to chill out. We were then split into groups of 3-4, each with an assessor, who branded us with a number to indicate their ownership of us.

Wait, what?

Okay, that may not be the exact rationale behind it.

As well as our regular coaches, we had a bunch of A Team helping to assess us (they wouldn’t confirm their hire rates. Sorry, guys). To distinguish “their” Fresh Meat from the rest of the crowd, they wrote numbers on our arms in pen. Our assessor decided to number us according to helmet colour – I was 3R for my red helmet, and the rest of my team were 3B (for blue) and 3G (for black. Black is goth). I’m pretty sure the 3 came from the assessor’s own roster number.

Once we had been labelled, we pretty much carried on with a normal session, going in circles and performing our various tricks on cue – even transitions. The only difference was that people were watching us while holding clipboards.

If there is one thing I hate more than shoes, it’s clipboards. The sight of someone holding a clipboard and looking at me expectantly is enough to send me into a frenzy of terror. What’s on their checklist? What are they writing? WHY ARE THEY JUDGING ME?

Still, things went pretty well for me until we got to pack work.

I’ve worked really hard on not freaking out when skating so close to people. I’ve asked people for help with it at open skate, I’ve deliberately steered myself through groups to desensitise myself and practice avoidance, and when we’ve done the whole “coach diving sadistically in front of you” thing on Sundays, it’s been working out okay for me. Today, one of our assessors dived in front of me in a fall-small position.

What I was meant to do:

Skate around the human obstruction, demonstrating awareness and control. If a fall occurs, fall into a safe fall-small position, remain in place until the pack has passed, then get up and rejoin.

What I actually did:

Panicked, crashed into the assessor, tried to go over her and ended up sitting on her. Apparently I managed to get directly onto her head, which is either awful or awfully impressive. I then fell off, tried to adopt the correct fall-small position directly next to her and proceeded to have a hysterical freakout despite the fact she was completely unhurt and was strangely unconcerned by the fact I had just basically mounted her like a horse.

As you can imagine, this is a bit of a deviation from standard skating protocol as described above. Everyone seems to have been wildly entertained by it, although I’m not exactly sure how it will affect my assessment results.

If you are reading this, brave assessor, sorry about that, and also about apparently nearly kicking you in the face when I finally moved myself off your head.

I bet that wasn’t on those clipboards, though, was it?

Fresh Meat: The Reckoning

It’s assessment weekend for us.

My fresh meat crew, London Rockin’ Rollers, starts assesment on Sunday. The London Roller Girls fresh meat are going through theirs on Saturday, coincidentally. We’re rooting for you guys as well.

For us, the assessment is in two parts. Tomorrow, we’ll go through individual skills and two weeks later we’ll go through pack skills and some hitting (I think). The point is to see whether it’s safe to start teaching us to scrimmage. If it’s not yet safe, that’s not a huge deal. We are integrated into Wreck League either way, and if we can’t scrimmage yet, we’ll work on whatever we need to and be periodically re-assessed until we’re ready.

I know lots of us are a bit stressed about it (although after my tantrum last week, I’m surprisingly calm, personally) but I think that in our panic over laps, transitions, plow stops and jumps, we’ve failed to notice a few things.

The water bottles

In Fresh Meat sessions, we deposit water bottles in the middle of the hall – the track goes around the outside, so this is the most convenient place to put them, and it’s where we come together in between drills etc for instructions and what have you. Nobody thinks much about this. It’s not important.

But the fact that it isn’t important is really significant. In weeks one and two, skating to the middle and depositing and retrieving bottles was not that simple. We’re a large group of mixed ability. We’d grab at each other, fall over and flail. We were a tangled mess. I’m not saying there’s never a flail or fall now – but in general, we’re sliding into place, taking a knee smoothly and not even thinking about it. When did that happen?

The pack and the whips

We did some whips last Sunday. Whips are great. You grab onto someone’s arm a bit and pull as they flick, and you go fast. They’re in that Drew Barrymore movie so clearly very important, and they’re the most fun EVER.

I’m sure we were all thinking about correctly receiving the whip itself. That was the point, after all. But when we took the second whip and were accelerating round, we were being thrown right into the back of the pack – that’s a whole bunch of us skating so closely that we have to move without picking up our feet because otherwise we’ll trip on each other.

A few weeks ago, we would have crashed and fallen like Skater Skittles. On Sunday, we just reintegrated ourselves into the group and kept on going. I’m sure there were flails. I’m sure there was the occasional near collision. But overall, we have gained the basic control and confidence to be whipped into a group and rejoin it safely. When did that happen?

The Transition

No, not that transition. Although we’re actually really getting those.

When we started Fresh Meat, some of us could barely pick our feet up. At some point, something has changed.

Remember crossovers? For those of us who hadn’t learned to skate before, we had issues like “but but but I’ll trip” and “you want me to put my foot down WHERE?” Now, we have issues like “I don’t think I’m pushing enough with my back leg to properly gain speed on the corners”.

What about pacelines? The first time we tried to weave through one of those, it was a massacre. Now we’re too busy figuring out how to keep in a proper wall with a partner while doing it to notice that we’ve learned to not only weave, but maintain position and not smash into the person in front.

At some point, our worries have gone from being able to skate at all to being able to do advanced stuff like transitions and laterals and speed skating and different types of jump. Different types of jump, people! How realistic did jumping of any variety sound to you 12 weeks ago?

When the hell did this all happen?

I think we’ve failed to notice just how much we’ve changed. We do relay races with grapevine stepping, knee taps and transitions and our only worry is whether we’re fast enough. We get on a track at open skate with 30 people all doing different things, and move around each other with control and consideration. Guys, we’re doing really, really well.

We’ve all focussed so much on “getting through” assessments. But I’m really proud of us, way too proud of us for worrying about that. This is our chance to show off just how far we’ve come in so short a time. Let’s not waste it with self-deprecation and fear, okay? We’re too good for that.

Heads up. Shoulders relaxed. Knees bent. Vagina (or penis) lights down. We got this, guys. We’re more than ready.

Fresh Meat: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Transitions

League structure update!

A Team have confirmed that if you have a problem and don’t know how to solve it, they actually are for hire. They’d like to point out that they can be found coaching Fresh Meat, at that massive social event we all went to together a few weeks ago and, well, training right after Fresh Meat on Sundays. So not really that difficult to locate.

B Team seem to have no specific objections to my revised description, but as clarified above, if someone throws themselves in front of you in a pack or puts a shoe on the track, it may actually be A Team. Some of A Team helpfully distinguish themselves by occasionally wearing terrifying face paint. This is very helpful and intimidating – thanks, guys. Other than that, B Team have not explicitly stated that they are for hire.

Fresh Meat and Wreck are still happy to be classified according to their pub attendance.

Updated structure, in order of Sunday training times, is therefore as follows:

Fresh meat: Sunday morning training group, where we fall over for two hours then go to the pub.

A Team: If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire them. Luckily, it’s quite easy to find them. Don’t wander onto the track in front of them as they are quite fast and sometimes bounce violently off each other. Occasionally, A team wear upsetting face paint just in case the violent bouncing wasn’t traumatic enough for you. They may also throw themselves in front of you to see what you do, or put a shoe on the track. A Team members may also be on B Team so good luck telling everyone apart.

B Team: If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and you can find them, you’re still out of luck because you can’t afford to hire them. If someone has just thrown themselves in front of you to see if you can avoid them without either of you dying or put a shoe on the track it may have been someone from B Team. They are 100% proven to exist. I’ve had several of them tell me so, and some helpful photographic evidence sent to me. B Team members may also be on A Team, at which point they are presumably for hire.

Wreck league: The guys who eventually turn up to the pub if we keep drinking for long enough.

I had a rebellion last week.

Before I started Fresh Meat, I started going to Dalston Open Skate. Open skates are great. They are basically free-training sessions where anyone of any level can turn up (provided they have full safety kit) and work on anything from basic skating to violent bouncing. Violent bouncing is usually kept to the second half of the session, and although there is no formal coaching, there are plenty of people around who are happy to help beginners.

On my first night at Dalston, I was shuffling around slowly. A few weeks later, I had learned to knee-fall, jump and had even started something resembling crossovers. I was deliriously happy. Every week, I would turn up, go aimlessly in joyful circles, attempt to stop, accidentally spin around on the spot and fall over, and spend the next several minutes telling everyone about it. If I saw someone doing something I liked, I would enthusiastically attempt to copy it (which is, incidentally, how I started jumping). If I saw someone going fast, I’d futilely but happily attempt to race them (without telling them, obviously. I’d have no chance then). I felt like my ability to learn had reached the giddy heights of “basically normal”.

Then Fresh Meat started. And by week two, I was an emotional wreck.

I’d like to be really clear here that this was not due to pressure from anyone involved with Fresh Meat, LRR, or Dalston. Nobody put pressure on me. Everybody told me that I was doing fine and there was nothing to worry about, and that comparing myself to everyone else was extremely unhelpful and not at all the way to go.

So of course, being me, I panicked. Did someone accidentally trip me over while doing a knee fall? Clearly it was because I was incapable of staying on my feet and inherently inferior to my fresh meat comrades. Did I accidentally skip a person while weaving in a paceline? Terrible. That’s probably never happened before in the entire history of rollerskates. Am I really uncomfortable skating in a pack? Jesus Christ, why was I even born?

It’s not like I was having no fun at all. Most of the time on skates I was still pretty happy going in circles and making dinosaur sounds, but the pressure I was putting on myself was definitely taking a toll. At my worst, I spent a few days walking around with a massive face bruise because I had become overly frustrated with myself over something silly and tried to slap sense into myself. Pro tip: do not slap yourself in the face while wearing wrist guards. They have hard plastic on them.

It was probably a good thing that I took off for over a week to juggle in Italy at this point. When I came back, I turned up at Dalston as normal on a Thursday and I snapped.

I was done with transitions. I was done with different types of stop, and most of all I was done with assessments. I was furious at my own stress, and all I wanted was to go back to pre Fresh Meat days and go in circles and race people at random.

Just in case I wasn’t clear enough earlier, nobody made me stressed about this stuff but me. I take full responsibility and most people doing Fresh Meat probably don’t do this.

My rage lasted for about five minutes, and when it was over the stress didn’t come back – but the fun did. Suddenly, I quite liked transitions after all. Hell, even going sideways wasn’t such a bad thing. And it turned out I could still attempt to race people who go approximately twice as fast as me (I’ll win one day, I swear).

Assessment day one is this Sunday. Let’s see if my stress-free state lasts. And let’s all hope they don’t test us on league structure, eh?

Fresh Meat: what exactly am I talking about?

First, a brief update to my last post. Several people have informed me that actually B Team is 100% real, and I know several of them, and in fact many of them are in charge of us on Sundays. Awkward. I’d therefore like to retract my previous speculation as to whether they are mythical unicorns, and amend my description of league structure as follows:

Fresh meat: Sunday morning training group, where we fall over for two hours then go to the pub.

Wreck league: The guys who eventually turn up to the pub if we keep drinking for long enough.

A Team: I don’t know who these guys are but if you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire them. Also they start training as soon as fresh meat are finished, and you probably don’t want to wander onto the track in front of them. Not joking. They are quite fast and sometimes bounce violently off each other.

B Team: Has someone just thrown themselves in front of you to see if you can avoid them without either of you dying? Has someone put a shoe on the track? That was probably someone from B Team. Do not piss them off. Incidentally, if someone just ran up beside a pack of you screaming “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD” in an attempt to terrorise you, it is DEFINITELY someone from B Team. You guys are the bestest. Please don’t throw shoes at me or set me on fire. Please.

Nobody challenged my description of A Team. Make of that what you will.

Now that it’s going to be over in about three weeks, it’s occurred to me that it may be helpful to describe what Fresh Meat is like, beyond “we fall over and go to the pub.”

Starting from what seems like years ago but was actually just May, about 25-30 of us have been turning up at a sports centre in Tottenham at the unholy time of 10am every Sunday. Once the desk staff let us through, we head en masse into a sports hall and strap on so much protection that we’re unrecognisable, get our skates on (heh) and make our way onto a large, circular track painted onto the floor, depositing water bottles in the middle of the room for later.

I like to get on early at this point, because it takes me at least ten minutes to remember exactly how I’m meant to cope with having wheels on my feet. Not everyone needs those ten minutes. We’re a hugely mixed group. Some of us (by which I mean me, and in my case it really does show) didn’t skate at all as a kid, meaning we don’t have much muscle memory of it to draw on. Some of us skated years ago. Some of us skate all the time and literally jump backwards over things (yeah, you know who you are). Same goes for sports experience – some of us already do other sports, some of us haven’t for a long time.

Because roller derby is a full contact sport on roller skates, there’s a certain level of basic skating competence required before you are allowed to have a go. Fresh Meat is the course that all noobs have to go through in order to make sure you have this.

You also have to have full kit. If you don’t have the skates and all the pads, you don’t get on that track. This is not being needlessly picky – you ARE going to fall onto your knees, you ARE going to land on your wrists, and if you do not have all the gear you are leaving in an ambulance. So we turn up, kitted out, and get on track with a vague idea of what we are going to be learning that day – we were given a course outline and other information when we first started.

After a brief warmup, which is much less horrendous than a parkour warmup, we usually skate around the track together and perform things we’ve already learned on demand. Different stops, different falls, whatever. We’ll then learn new techniques, do partner and group drills, and by the end we’re usually a bit tired. We’ll then stretch, and get the hell off the track for the next guys (see league structure description).

I could talk about the various skills we’ve had to learn and in which session – derby stance, crossovers and the dreaded transitions – but while those are all interesting, they’re just skills. Whether you’re trying to do a backflip or to skate backwards, learning a new skill is basically the same process – observation, progressions, making mistakes, drilling. What’s very different (for me at least) is doing a structured course to learn a new sport, with an assessment at the end.

I’m used to doing hard things. I’m not good at them, but I’m used to dealing with them. Parkour can be stressful, after all, and I’ve written before about how difficult it can be to deal with being an unusually slow learner. With everything else I do, however, there are no assessments. There are no weekly learning outcomes. This makes being a little bit slow an entirely different ball game. I’m not even going to pretend I haven’t lost sleep over this.

It’s not that people are harsh. There’s a certain amount of PE-style whistle blowing, which definitely took some getting used to, but nobody is mean. There are no coaches standing over me demanding I get transitions right immediately or else (which is lucky, because it’s not going to happen any time soon). On day one, I was definitely intimidated – having people introduce themselves as “Blaze of Gory” and similar is just ever so slightly disconcerting, even when you’re expecting that kind of thing – but if anything, people are more patient than I imagined.

Then there’s the social element.

Friendships develop in parkour all the time. People get to know each other, go to the movies together, run through tube stations pretending to be velociraptors (some of us get a bit excited after movies), but there is a very different social dynamic in Fresh Meat.

In parkour, classes are drop-in. You get new people at any point, and they either last or they vanish. In Fresh Meat, we all started at exactly the same time, we’re all working on the same things and we’re finishing together. Fresh Meat isn’t drop-in, so we see the same faces pretty much every session. This means we’ve become a single cohort of rollerskate warriors, working as a team to get through the assessments together. This is a new experience for me. It’s kind of nice.

Assessments start next week. I’ll let you know how we go.

The Official EJC Gainz List

I had an experience last week.

I went to the European Juggling Convention for the third year running. This is a massive annual convention held in a different European country each year. Thousands of jugglers and acrobats pretty much descend on a town for the duration, transforming a large amount of space into a temporary village. The action is centred around several big tops, a massive campsite that does get progressively scruffier as the week progresses, various indoor gym areas, a food stall area and whatever big outdoor spaces we can turn into juggling spots.

This year, we had a university campus in Bruneck, Italy. We were surrounded by towering alpine mountains from which we could see hang gliders spiralling around under absolutely blazing sunshine.

The convention is too big for anyone to experience everything. My week centred around a juggling gym, a dedicated acrobatics space and the grassy areas outside, a coffee/bar tent and a giant AstroTurf pitch which was surprisingly nice on bare feet. I also ignored almost all the workshops offered in favour of free training, unlike last year when I almost killed myself trying to learn partner acrobatics, aerial hoop and other physical stuff every day.

So I was mainly just doing my own thing, apart from some flexibility workshops and acrobatic and skating help from Emmet, the ever-bearded Irishman who regularly persuades me to take up insane-sounding activities and can touch his head to his toe. And yet somehow I made progress, in some cases quite dramatic, in several different things. Here is my Official List of EJC Gainz:

Contact juggling

This is a thing I do, but have neglected horribly for the past couple of years. Despite this, I found that I was suddenly able to walk around with a ball on my head after years of slow progress and overwhelming failure. Not just walking, either. Lunges, crouching, turning, sit ups and push-hands games with people. I have no idea where this came from.

I also made mega gains on rolling the ball to the outside of my elbow and stopping it there, and figured out that I could do a cartwheel while passing the ball from hand to hand. It’s not a great cartwheel, but that’s a damn good trick, so I’ll take it.

Tumbling

I finally managed to learn backwards rolls, and also cartwheels with much straighter legs. Emmet gets credit for that. I also got to try out an airtrack and do somersaults onto a massive crashmat, both from the track and from a giant foam block. Shockingly, I didn’t die.

Flexibility

I touched my elbow to my toe (same side). Again, Emmet gets credit for this, largely because of a weekend workshop I’ll post about another time.

Parkour

Parkour gains? At a juggling convention? Madness.

After years of failure, depression and fear, it turns out I can actually kong just fine. Who knew? And given a big foam block, I can do a double kong. Okay, I go inches, but I’ll take it. It’s gains.

Acrobatics

I can officially stand on peoples’ shoulders and walk to other peoples’ shoulders. If anyone needs someone to stand on their shoulders let me know. Seriously – I’d like to do more partner acrobatics, but am somewhat lacking in the partner department, which is holding me back somewhat.

Skating

It turns out loosened trucks are a total game changer. I can turn and everything!!

Bizarre squat stunts

I squatted a friend (whose shoulders I later stood on) for five reps in return for audience approval and a shot of vodka squirted into my mouth from a water gun. This was for a renegade show, which are late-night free-for-alls in which jugglers stand up and perform increasingly bizarre tricks or acts in return for alcohol. It’s hardly a physical gain, but it took a reasonable amount of confidence to stand up in front of a crowd like that and risk heckling.

So why all the sudden improvements? My day consisted of being baked out of my unshaded tent by a merciless sun every morning after far too little sleep, eating when reminded by helpful people that it was dinner time now and a breakfast croissant eight hours ago was not really enough to live on, being dehydrated, training very vaguely and drinking alcohol most evenings. These are not ideal conditions for gains.

Not going to complain, though. I’m off to Beckton for more backwards rolls!

Fresh Meat: oh god someone put a shoe on the track

As mentioned previously, I’ve started roller derby. This is basically a sport played on a rounded track in which two people have a race through eight people who are having a fight about it. Also everyone is on rollerskates.

In order to join a derby league, you have to be able to skate without dying, which complicates matters. New people are put through a Fresh Meat course, where they are taught the basic skills (or drift slowly around in slack-jawed confusion while people with shiny helmets blow whistles and attempt to teach them the basic skills, anyway. I’ve never claimed to be a quick learner).

Once you are through Fresh Meat, you join the Wreck League (it’s short for wreckreational). Beyond this, league structure is a mystery to me. As far as I’m concerned the league I am involved with is like this:

Fresh meat: Sunday morning training group, where we fall over for two hours then go to the pub.

Wreck league: The guys who eventually turn up to the pub if we keep drinking for long enough.

A Team: I don’t know who these guys are but if you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire them. Also they start training as soon as fresh meat are finished, and you probably don’t want to wander onto the track in front of them. Not joking. They are quite fast and sometimes bounce violently off each other.

B Team: As these guys train in between the A team and Wreck, I don’t see them at the pub and don’t have to avoid the track at all costs to avoid being maimed by them. I’m therefore not 100% sure they are real.

Fresh Meat training sessions are such a happy time. There you are, going round in an anticlockwise circle (fuck clockwise) with your friends while people with interesting names yell things at you and blow whistles… and then it happens. Someone in charge deliberately puts a shoe on the track.

They might have put a shoe on the track because they want you to go around it. Or maybe they want you to jump over it. Or maybe they just like freaking us out. Who knows? Fact is, they’re bigger than me, their helmets are extremely shiny, they have quite aggressive-sounding names and that whistle is REALLY LOUD, so it’s best not to ask too many questions.

You may be wondering why this is a big deal. Shoes are harmless, right?

Nothing is harmless when you are going around a track on roller skates. Slight sticky bit on the floor? PANIC. Someone went past you quickly? APOCALYPSE. Piece of grit gets in your wheel? OH MY GOD WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. Being much bigger than grit, shoes are the ultimate horror.

The first stage of finding a shoe – or even line of shoes – on the track is denial. Surely they can’t expect you to go around that? What if you trip on it and break all your limbs? And jumping – really? You have wheels on your feet. Is that even safe? Surely they don’t mean it. It’s all a mistake and someone will move it in a minute and everything will be okay again.

The second stage is anger. How could they do this to you? What loving god would allow this? All you want is to go around in circles, maybe fall over screaming a few times, and they shove a shoe right in your way? What the hell is that? It’s Women’s FLAT TRACK Derby Association, not Women’s SHOE-STREWN TRACK Derby Association.

The third stage is bargaining. Maybe we can just kind of slow down and go past the shoe instead of around it? Or maybe if we give it another few months, then try again? We’re not saying no to shoes on the track, just… maybe not right now?

The fourth stage is acceptance. You cannot escape the shoe. The trouble with a rounded track is that when you run away from something on it, you come right back to it again seconds later, so frantically sprinting away doesn’t work – and don’t even think about skating off-track. “But there’s a shoe in the way” is apparently not a valid reason to cross that line. So now you’ve accepted you have to deal with the shoe (or shoes), what do you do?

Generally, you are expected to go around or over them.

Around:

Approach the shoes (it’s likely there will be more than one). Don’t be tempted to turn around and go the other way – someone with a really scary-sounding name is probably watching you, and is definitely faster than you and WILL catch you.

Look at the shoe. Look at the coach. Shuffle past. Experience sadness at your failure.

Over:

Thankfully, years of parkour training have just about prepared me to hop over an object just a little bigger than my own foot. Basically, use your legs and scream a lot and before you know it the Shoe of Death will be behind you.

Good luck with your shoe challenges!