“The Ultimate Mental Toughness Guide” Positivity Rhetoric as Ableism in Roller Derby

Surely positivity, by nature, isn’t a bad thing. So how is positivity rhetoric ableist?  Here I will show how it is, in reference to my sport, Roller Derby.

Roller derby is a team sport played around a flat oval track. There are up to five people from each team on the track at any one time, four blockers and one jammer. The jammer gets a point for each blocker on the opposing team that they pass. It’s basically a human obstacle course played on roller skates.

Generally roller derby is thought of as an ‘alternative’ sport. A sport that is forward thinking, feminist and empowering. It can be both fun and camp, and serious and athletic. Don’t get me wrong; I think roller derby is great in many ways. However, like all other modes of ‘doing,’ it is constructed with its own flaws, misjudgements, and oppressions. [1]

That’s the formalities out of the way. For a while now myself and some other people in Team Crazy Legs have been thinking about how discourse about positivity in sport, and in our sport in particular, hurts us. Team Crazy Legs is a challenge team,[2] which “skates out for mental health and invisible illness.” This can includes a variety of things, from anxiety and depression, personality disorders, bipolar, chronic fatigue syndrome, anaemia, chronic pain issues and a multitude of other experiences. Whether or not TCL skaters consider themselves disabled, a lot of us have been finding some of the rhetoric in roller derby ableist.

Leah from TCL wrote this awesome short article about the ‘skate hard or go home’ T-Shirts that are circulating.[3] The premise is that it is ableist to encourage people to ‘skate hard’ all of the time. Not all people are capable of skating hard, all of the time. And that should be OK.

But it doesn’t end there. There are many examples of ‘fitspo’[4] attitudes in Roller Derby, the world went wild when That Skater played out the rest of the game on a broken ankle. Articles like this occasionally circulate: “excuses are for Douchebags.”[7] Of course sports psychology can be important for lots of skaters, and skating at the highest level requires resilience, but there is nothing wrong with showing weakness or vulnerability as well.

“If you nurture a positive, athletic environment with a schedule and focus; if you nip negativity in the bud and encourage skaters to improve and push themselves, you are going to attract skaters that are willing to work during the paid practice time and invest themselves in the league.”[8]

And sorry Elektra-Q-Tion, your blog is just peppered with ableist attitudes and language. For example, in ‘Are You a Sore Loser?’ by Tara “Silver Fawkes” Moscopulos, she claims: “Don’t ACT on your feelings, but you are allowed to have them”- Sorry but some people can’t help but get visibly upset. I have emotionally unstable personality disorder. Sometimes I can’t not act on my feelings.

In ‘People You Will Meet in Derby’ Elektra claims that “The Bad Seed (aka The Storm Cloud)- ”“… [will] come into practice is a craptacular mood and proceed to infect everyone else with their shitty mood or attitude.”[9] As if someone having a depressive episode isn’t afraid of being seen as ‘toxic’ already.

When writing this I reopened the dialogue and reached out to TCL to ask them for their opinions/experiences. Many said that they found these articles hurtful. One skater said that they often heard ableist language in banter among team mates. For example “don’t go crazy” was used when referring to people trying to keep control on track.

Kay, another TCL skater wrote: “People who talk about this don’t always realise for some of us mental toughness is actually turning up to training when you just want to hide away in your bed. That some of us spend our entire life working on our mental game.”

It’s a big and complex area to discuss (some derby names are VERY problematic), but in relation to ableism some derby names are pretty offensive. Does Psycho Suzy really know what its like to have a psychotic break? Does Wheel Crazy know what it is like to have a manic episode? Maybe they do, but maybe not. If they do, more fire to ’em. If they don’t maybe they shouldn’t make a witty name out of other peoples experiences? Our experiences of being ‘crazy’ should not be used as someone else’s metaphor or pun.

Can you see how these things could perhaps hurt a person who is depressed, or is living with chronic illness? Someone who is just happy that they made it out of the house, let alone to training? A person whose body functions differently? Society has been telling some of us “its ok, just smile and think yourself better” for sometimes most of our lives. This doesn’t help, or work, and even crosses over into gaslighting[10]

Someone with depression or low self esteem can’t just think themselves positive, otherwise we would have done it by now. Someone with chronic pain can’t ‘visualise’ themselves into a perfect performance. For some of us getting up and going to work feels ‘tough.’ For some of us still being alive feels ‘tough. It isn’t quite so easy to take Kid Block’s advise and ‘tell yourself you are awesome’ and ‘give no shits’ for five hours a week, when your brain is telling you that you are worthless, useless and crap for the other 163 hours.

This discourse also suggests that the mental and physical health of people is their own responsibility. This is hugely problematic seeing as societal constructs may have caused some of the problems people experience. If someone of an oppressed gender is depressed and has low self-esteem because they are constantly harassed on the street, this is not their responsibility. Chanting ‘you are more than an object’ into the mirror for an hour a day is probably not going to help.

Additionally, ‘sports psychology’ may interfere with any psychological treatment that a person may already be getting. It may mess with a persons system of care. This kind of carelessness or thoughtlessness makes up abelist culture, and erases our experiences.

Leah gives some good advice in her article:

“-Think before you speak.

-If what you’re going to say is based on shaming someone into pushing, then don’t.

-Remember that you are not anyone else’s doctor so you have no idea what their health situation is.

-Encourage people instead.

-Tell them when they do something well and what they can do to improve.

-Read up on fitspo and how it feeds into ableism”

To this I add

-Stop using ablest language in a derby context. Crazy, stupid, psycho, fool, idiot ect are oppressive.[11]

– When writing articles acknowledge people with disabilities, or those who don’t fit into privileged discourse. Your well-meaning advise does not suit everyone.

– Reconsider your derby name if it might make a joke out of something you haven’t experienced.

-I felt really low and was struggling with the idea of going to training. A friend said ‘go half and go home.’ Why can’t this be ok?

-Taking breaks if you are ill should be encouraged. Someone will be a better team mate if they are coping bodily/internally.

-All leagues should treat mental health and chronic illness as an injury, and allow people with illnesses time off without being penalised.

Of course this ‘mental toughness’ discourse is not limited to roller derby and applies more to other sports.[12][13] This doesn’t make it OK that we do it too. This over competitive, ‘do or die’ attitude that most mainstream sports maintains is directly linked to a patriarchal capitalist ideology. [14]And as well as thinking that ableism is bullshit, I think that capitalism and patriarchy are bullshit.

Roller derby is a progressive sport in many ways, maybe it doesn’t have to mirror the abelist and oppressive dialogue of the mainstream. Maybe that is unavoidable to some extent, but maybe we can stop telling people with depression to suck it up, and people with chronic illness to try harder. Maybe training once in a while is us trying our damn best. Even competitive skaters should feel OK about time off.

[1] Its generally pretty white, cis and expensive and therefore exclusive. This is a post for another day.

[2] Challenge teams are teams which don’t train together and are made up of lots of different skaters, usually from different teams who skate because they have a shared aspect of their identity. For example the Vagine Regime is made up of the queer skaters, and Team Metal Legs is for skaters who have returned to skating after suffering a serious injury.

[3] http://verdantstar.tumblr.com/post/132482355103/we-need-to-talk-about-skate-hard-or-go-home

[4] Short for ‘fitness inspiration.’ Fitspo is very problematic as it body shames everyone, disabled people included.

[5] Estrogeena Davis, published 13/06/2011. http://www.allderbydrills.com/2011/07/positive-visualization.html [Accessed 11/11/15].

[6] Kid Block, published 14/05/2014, https://kidblock.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/blocking-with-the-head-the-importance-of-the-mental-game-in-roller-derby/ [Accessed 11/11/15].

[7] Ginger Snaps, http://www.derbylife.com/2011/08/excuses_are_douchebags/[Accessed 11/11/15].

[8] http://khaostheoryblog.com/2014/09/30/league-rebuilding-how-to-jumpstart-the-healing-process-despite-tension-and-conflict/ [Accessed 12/11/15.]

[9] Elektra Q Tion, http://elektraqtion.blogspot.co.uk, [Accessed 11/11/15].

[10] Suzannah Weiss, published 26/10/2014 http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/10/common-phrases-gaslighting/. [Accessed 11/11/15].

[11] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mFuLdr7Rz8sC&dq=ableist+language&source=gbs_navlinks_s

[12] http://believeperform.com/performance/applying-positivity-in-sport/

[13] http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/fitspos-ableist-narrative/

[14] Tony Collins, Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History (London: Routledge, 2014).


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