Roller Derby Saved My Soul (but hurt my knees, and back, and shoulder…)

31 May

Photo courtesy of David Crane. Me falling courtesy of sin-e-star, TCRG.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way – roller derby is awesome.  It brings together a super-cool community of skaters, refs, production staff, volunteers and fans.  It gives us new-found confidence, fitness, fearlessness and friends.  It is a great, great sport and I love it.

What I don’t love are the injuries.  Go to any derby game ever and you’ll see at least one benched player, maybe on crutches, maybe in a sling, watching her team from the sidelines.  Go to any derby practice and you’ll see at least one girl unable to continue.

Way back in 2007, the WFTDA conducted a survey looking at the incidence of injury in roller derby.  Some eye-opening stats:

  • Of 1,070 respondents – 574 (46%) reported an injury that kept them from participation on one or more occasions
  • Of those 574, 262 (46%) report a knee injury (far and away the most common)
  • Of those 262, 36 (14%) specifically mention the PCL in their description of their injury. This does not count respondents (20) who did not specify which knee ligament they had injured or the many others who said they had injured their knee in some unspecified manner.
  • 133 (12%) reported an injury that required either emergency hospitalization or prolonged physical therapy

There’s a fair bit of information out there about diagnosis and treatment (read Papa Doc’s posts about your back, shoulderships, knees, shins and ankles).  Derby Life even has an article on the psychology of derby injury.

So, why are we injuring ourselves so frequently?  There are a few possible reasons:

1) We play a full contact sport.  In sports, injuries happen.  When you become an athlete, you assume a certain amount of wear and tear on the body.  NFL football players, too, have a high incidence of PCL injuries (3.5-20% according to pre-draft physical exams), then again they also have 6-figure salaries and sports-medicine professionals on staff.

2) As female athletes, we’re biomechanically predisposed to knee injury.  Lots of current research suggests that female athletes are 2-8 times more likely to injure their ACL than their male counterparts.  Mostly the studies have looked at basketball and soccer, and have examined the differences in the way that men and women land jumps and change direction suddenly.  There are many potential factors in the increased rate of injury for women: wider pelvis, increased Q-angle, hamstring to quadriceps muscle imbalances, neuromuscular control,  and so on.  Whatever the reason, we can’t change our biology, so we need to strengthen our supporting muscles to compensate.

3) We under-prepare for the physical demands of the sport. A lot of fresh meat have no idea what sort of physical toll the sport will take on their bodies.  Too many veteran skaters are only active when they’re on their skates.  Without strength training and cross-training, proper nutrition and hydration, we’re asking for trouble.

4) We’re too eager to play.  The best predictor of future injury is prior injury.  We need to reinforce slow and steady progression of skills for our new girls.  They should always be ready for the next challenge that derby throws at them, both physically and mentally.  I’m not saying to go easy – I’m saying push them to the edge of their limits, but not over the edge.   For veterans, we need to encourage an atmosphere where injury rehab is an okay thing.  We need to be understanding and supportive, and let skaters take all the time they need to come back to the track.  If we don’t, we end up with an unending cycle of injury and more skaters benched longer.

We’re also too eager to practice.  Too often derby trainers (and I am totally guilty of this) cave into pressure (real or imagined) that we are paying for arena time so we should be using our practice to skate.  We all have real lives, so tacking on an extra 15 minutes to the start of a practice for offskates warm-up and another 15 at the end for cooldown and stretching just doesn’t seem practical.  However, spending the better part of your season on the bench isn’t very practical either.

This is where soccer leads the charge in injury prevention.  By participating in “prehabilitation” drills addressing mobility, stability, and power, women athletes were 9 times less likely to injure their ACL.  The two systems  getting the most press are:

  • FIFA’s F-MARC 11+: A prevention program for amateur soccer players.  Teams that performed 11+ at least twice a week had 30 – 50% less injured players.
  • Santa Monica Sports Medicine Foundation’s PEP Program: This prevention program consists of a warm-up, stretching, strengthening, plyometrics, and sport specific agilities to address potential deficits in the strength and coordination of the stabilizing muscles around the knee joint.   Yielded up to 83% ACL injury reduction.

Roller derby doesn’t (yet) have a comprehensive injury prevention program.  Perhaps it’s that we’re all a bit insular and like to keep our routines to ourselves.  Perhaps it’s that the sport is so new that there just isn’t enough demand or scientific research to devise and implement such a program.   I say, let’s get on it.

Skaters; follow a program that addresses your unique needs, your pre-existing injuries and your goals – remember your prehab as well as your cooldown.  Invest in a foam roller to look after your tissue.  Push yourself hard at practice, but listen to your body and don’t let your ego get in the way of your well-being.

Coaches; talk to your sports medicine people, bring them in for clinics.  Care for your injured skaters and give them time to heal.

Trainers; take the time to do off-skates conditioning, do it properly and often.  Don’t know where to start?  There are 2 great links just above, they might not be derby-specific, but they’re better than nothing.

Smarty-pants kinesiologists, physical therapists, strength coaches, and personal trainers;  reach out to your local derby league.  THEY NEED YOU.  Once we have some experts working on it, let’s come together and share what we know.  Knowledge is power, derby people.

Wanna read the research?  The articles below are just a start:


7 Responses to “Roller Derby Saved My Soul (but hurt my knees, and back, and shoulder…)”

  1. Lily September 8, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    The second link no longer has the workout plan. If you have a good link please share. I’m fresh meat that has jumped into the sport. Thank goodness I haven’t gotten hurt yet. I’d like to be proactive.


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