Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart (or Your Tib/Fib)

7 Jun

Maybe it’s just bad timing.  Maybe it’s just bad luck.  Maybe the stars have aligned in an unfavourable way, but something is up with my derby peeps these days.


They all seem to be breaking their bones.  No joke – 3 people that I know personally all had ankle or tib/fib breaks within a week of each other.

According to this 2012 post from one of the MRD skaters, ankle breaks are pretty common in Wisconsin, with a break happening  “every couple of months.” Not fun, but certainly not out of the ordinary for any given derby league.  Often, these breaks result in surgery and lengthy recovery time.

Was this rash of breaks a weird coincidence?  Probably.  Super unfortunate for all of the skaters?  Certainly.  Systemic problem in the way that we’re teaching derby skaters to stride, fall, and recover?  Perhaps.  League-level problem in fatigue management and safety protocols?  Heck, could be that too.

I’ve been giving knee and ankle injuries a great deal of thought since these breaks went down.  As head of training for my league, I care deeply about the safety of our skaters and I don’t ever want to be teaching things that knowingly put girls in harm’s way – other than all of the slamming into each other.   Derby is a full-contact sport and injuries are going to happen, we all know that.  Having said it though, we need to evaluate if there are preventable factors that we’re ignoring that are resulting in these kinds of injuries.  Is falling on our knees, or trying to tuck our feet beneath us (as in a baseball slide) the best course of action – sure we’re falling small – but are we falling safely?

983837_10152890605000383_1979368557_nBack when I started writing this blog, I asked if maybe we could be doing better things for our knees (after seeing a crazy run of knee ligament injuries in our league).  I’m not alone in wondering if what we’re teaching is doing us more harm than good, Mercy Less posed some wonderful questions about it 2011 and Punchy O’Guts wrote a beautiful article in April that I read and re-read all the time.

I think Mercy is totally on point when she asks, “Who decided we have to fall on our knees in derby in the first place? Why? What criteria was used in this decision? Who tested this idea?”

The likely answer is we made it up ourselves (with heavy borrowing from skateboarding), and shared what worked best for us at the time.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the lovely things about roller derby is the open sharing of tools and information – but 10+ years later we still haven’t, as a whole, looked outside of our little community to really examine the science of roller derby and the long-term effects of the skills that we teach, nor have we come to a consensus about how to keep ourselves safer.  The new WFTDA minimums are getting better (knee taps instead of knee falls, no baseballs or suicides), but we’re still teaching girls to fall small and use their knees.  Why?  We’re still teaching falling drills, period.  Why?

After reading Punchy’s article (a million times), where she asks if other sports teach falling, I too tried to find examples of falling drills in any other sport training, and came up with nothing.  The closest I got was this video, which is not a fall at all, but rather a resistance of falling.

Obviously every break, sprain, strain, and tweak is different, and we ARE going to fall.  Maybe if we stop teaching (perhaps injurious) falling tactics and let skaters fall naturally in ways that their minds deem safe in the moment, we could avoid some nasty injuries.  Our brains are magnificent things and will try to protect us in sticky situations.

HOWEVER, derby is a team sport, and the safety of the other skaters on the track needs to be taken into consideration as well.   I remember the firestorm when Atom first released their small profile pads.  The derby-verse was awash with criticism of the sprawling, which is the norm for speed skaters (and artistic skaters, and soccer and volleyball players, and so on).  People said, ‘we’re not speed skaters, we can’t fall that way, think of the other skaters we’ll be kicking the feet out from under’.  Which are all valid concerns.  But football, hockey, and rugby players get hit and fall, and they all sprawl or roll, trusting that their teammates are skilled enough to navigate around them.  They have a little more space to work with than we do, sure, but we can’t ignore that virtually no other sport advises that athletes “take a knee”.  Then again, this is just me borrowing ideas from other sports again – what we really need are some facts of our own.


Here’s what I think is the most important part of what Punchy has to say:

“I think falling drills are counterproductive. I know of several skaters who, when blocked or start to lose their balance, default to falling instead of trying to stay up. I think this happens because the muscle memory says it’s time to fall, rather than find your balance! spin out of it! use the momentum! If those skaters had more balance training and less falling drills, I think they would spend less time kissing the floor and more time as an effective teammate.”



More Stumbling, Less Falling

Punchy outlines some awesome balance drills in her post.  Here are some more that we’ve started to incorporate at our league:

Partner Perturbations:  Get into partners.  One partner stands on one foot, maintaining her balance.  The other partner pushes, pokes, and prods (safely) from all angles.  Balancing partner uses her core to stay upright.  Perturb for 30-60s, then switch legs.  You can do thing moving or stationary.

Sumo Fights:   Also in partners.  Partner pairs spread themselves out on the track, each on one side of a line (this works best when the line is not raised – you can also do this with painted lines in a hockey arena).  Partners lean heavily on each other trying to push their way over the line while moving forward.  Coach skaters to keep their supporting leg underneath them, use their glutes and abs to push, and not to rely solely on upper body.  Push for 30-60s, then switch sides.  This drill is not about aggression – it’s about controlling your body – no hitting, just even pressure.

In addition, let’s teach more avoidance, agility, and awareness, so that falling skaters are less of a hazard.

Balance drills are a part of the solution.  Offskates warm-ups are a part of the solution.  Sound strength and conditioning are a part of the solution.  Examining the way that we teach (or don’t teach) falling is part of the solution. Encouraging skaters to take FULL recovery is a part of the solution since the greatest predictor of future injury is previous injury.

Managing the fatigue level of skaters at practice is another component.  Especially in the summer, when attendance levels can be lower than usual, we need to be careful not to over-do it, and allow sloppy drills and scrimmaging.  Sure, injuries can happen any time of year under any circumstances, but if numbers are low and fatigue is high, high-risk drills might not be the best practice.

Reaching out to experts in this sort of thing is also a part of the solution – as a community we need to be less afraid to ask for professional help when we need it.

We need to spend less time fussing over the tiny details that we love to fight about – who’s eligible or not eligible for Champs, whether jammer penalties and passive offence breaks derby – and more time seeking out answers to the big questions – how this sport actually affects our bodies both short and long term, how we can keep our skaters the safest while maintaining the excitement and spirit of the sport.

I love you, roller derby, but I don’t love when you break my friends.  Let’s work on it.


Got a break?  In recovery?  Here are some resources that might help you:

Roller Derby Athletics – How To Survive a Derby Injury

Derby Hurts Community

Examiner – Ankle Strengthening

Five on Five – Coming Back from a Break


16 Responses to “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart (or Your Tib/Fib)”

  1. ashnburn June 7, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Awesome post!!! I think we still need to teach falling, but more so how to get up safely ie no hands on the floor. I totally agree that teaching balance is much more important!!

    • How We Roll Fitness June 7, 2013 at 2:13 pm #


      • ceriffwrdd June 9, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

        Both Tib Fib breaks I saw and attended in a medic capacity were both caused by fighting the fall, they were pretty much carbon copies of each other. Of course, part of the game is to stay on your skates, that goes without saying but if you are going to fall, you need to just let it happen and not fight to stay on your skates. Going to the floor and getting up is better than wobble, nearly fall, over correct your balance, leg twist, toestop drag then fall awkward in a leg twist and CRACK!

  2. Booty Quake | Roller Derby Athletics June 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    Thanks for mentioning my injury recovery article! I think yours is a great piece. It’s worth re-examining the things we hold as self-evident, from time to time. Fall avoidance! yes!

  3. Angela Spetts June 7, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    Very interesting article. Our league has had far more major ankle injuries in our 5 and a half year history than major knee injuries (8 to 1 or 2 if I counted correctly). I don’t know if there’s any one thing (or even combination of things) we could do to make this better, but hopefully we figure it out sooner rather than later!

  4. Jenna Klauk June 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    I don’t want to derail the convo here – I like that we’re talking about serious injuries and how we might avoid them (peeps seems to avoid this topic – we get squeamish, I think), but after shattering both of my lower legs in derby (not at the same time – separate injuries a year apart) I think I have a little to contribute to this topic. I have now broken 7 bones playing derby (and I’m still playing – 6th season). To be fair, I’ve broken another 7 bones doing nothing at all like derby. My tib/fib fractures took place in 2011 and 2012, and both required surgery and metal. My left leg (2011) sports 2 plates and 12 screws. My right leg (2012) had 1 rod and 4 screws until I had the screws removed a few weeks ago (not an option with the other leg). The two injuries occurred under very different circumstances.

    The first was at practice, and no one touched me. We were working on a lateral movement drill – stepping side-to-side while NOT rolling forward. For me, this is a nightmare drill. I know now that I should have bowed out. I have incredibly loose joints and very long feet. I can juke and jump all day if I’m moving forward, but that drill is just an invitation (for me) to trip. I caught myself starting to roll forward and tried to drop a toe stop, but I was already off balance. The toe stop grabbed the floor hard – my foot rotated one direction while my body fell the other way. If I had NOT fought the fall, I probably would have gotten out with a nasty sprain, but my jammer instinct was to stay up, and that resulted in the massive spiral fracture to both bones.

    The second was during a game – I went hard and fast at the opposing jammer in that “sweet spot” in the turn. I had a lot of momentum when I hit her, and rebounded hard. I was hanging on with just two wheels as I pulled back into the center of the track, but an opposing blocker came flying from behind just as hard – she caught the back of my left shoulder as I was rebounding on the inner two wheels of my right skate. The directly opposing force snapped all the bones in my lower right leg. I never saw it coming. I
    suspect she didn’t either.

    Fighting the fall isn’t always the best idea. It really trashed my leg in 2011. (The second injury, however, I could not have avoided unless I stayed in bed!) Falling small isn’t always safe, either. Knee falls are really only useful when very controlled. I think we still have a lot to learn about how to play this sport (one of the reasons it is so fascinating, right?) – how to play smart, how to play safe, how to play fair, how to play an exciting game for the fans…. There aren’t any easy black-and-white solutions. There’s no ONE rule that will work. We have to be (like EVERY OTHER athlete) highly adaptable, well-trained, and conditioned for our sport. The answer in any fall will lie in the precise conditions of that fall, together with the skill, ability and physical attributes of the players involved. It’s going to be different every single time. We, as players, need to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, and be prepared for the possibility that we can make a choice that can harm or spare ourselves or another player. At the same time, we must balance that awareness with the clear objectives of the game. And we also must accept that there will be injuries (received and inflicted) that are unavoidable. It’s a full-contact sport.

    • How We Roll Fitness June 10, 2013 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks for your comment. I 100% agree that there aren’t easy solutions, nor is the one rule that will always spare us or others injury. I’m just interested in having the discussion, and exploring all of the options that we have.

    • necronancy June 11, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Hi Jenna! I am recovering from a tib/fib break about a month ago and your post resonated with me greatly. I applaud you for bringing up personal limitations and restrictions. No one knows us better than ourselves and I must say, in agreement with you that any drill can be hell for anyone. Although my injury was unavoidable, I will say that the sprain and recurring re-injuries on the sprain were avoidable. I think we can be our own worst enemies here. In any sport, teammates and league mates can be very encouraging and supportive, but sometimes we need to learn (when injured) when to say no. Had I had taken the time to allow my sprain to heal, I wouldn’t have been at practice that day etc… We push ourselves and our friends help push too (a good and bad thing).
      In practice, we must be able to be honest with ourselves and say NO to a drill we think may be detrimental to our health. Its’ not being lazy, or anything like that – saying no will allow us the time to heal, while remaining active both physically, and within our leagues. I understand the other side though, if we’re healthy enough to put our skates on we should be able to do this or that – but we are responsible for our own behaviours and actions, and are responsible for our own health.

  5. Q June 11, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    Hey, a lot of people we know with this injury seem to do it in a mohawk turn gone awry. What would you suggest for prevention?

    • How We Roll Fitness June 12, 2013 at 8:30 am #

      Tough to say, since the circumstances of every fall are different. I would make sure that before doing a Mohawk turn, skaters are rock solid on their one-foot glides, and transitions. Skaters who are unsure can tend to over-rotate and then fold their leg underneath them as they fall. If you break the turn into freeze frames, the control should improve.

  6. Inskatiable June 11, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    Actually, I used to race bikes and at a junior cycling clinic when I was 16, we did practice falling off our bikes while riding slowly in the grass. Of course we weren’t trying to fall on our knees, or any other joints. It was more of a tuck and roll kind of falling, but nevertheless, there is an example of another sport that does teach falling.

    However, after playing derby for 5 years I do think that we do way too many knee falls on purpose.

  7. lovelylikebeestings June 12, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    Another thing to remember is that a lot of the ankle injuries are total flukes–we all know someone who “was just standing there!” when they fell and broke their legs, or fell because of the break rather than the break causing the fall. Because we are a very DIY sport and derby attracts the type of tough women who are so passionate about it that we tend to over-train or work above our skill levels I think it’s important for teams to start looking into working with athletic trainers who can really look at the skaters and say “stop–don’t do this, you’re not ready for it yet” at practices and boot camps. All that being said, balance training is absolutely important and not just for new skaters getting their skate legs.

    • How We Roll Fitness June 12, 2013 at 8:26 am #

      Totally agree! We need to be reaching out to professionals who can help!

  8. TG June 13, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Coming from a martial arts background we spend a lot of time learning how to fall safely, with the emphasis being on falling “roundly” (e.g., roll with the fall, don’t try to use wrists, elbow or back to resist the fall), so it’s been a struggle for me to learn to fall on my knees (it’s more natural to fall on my back, or side of my hip/butt). Earlier comments make sense, develop amazing balance so you fall less often, BUT, when the fall is inevitable, fall naturally, small, safely, and get up quick.

  9. JaysAnatomy July 15, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

    I actually had something related to add to this. I’m a ref who comes from a background in CrossFit, Jiu Jitsu, and Karate (was also an aggressive in-line skater for years). Falling is and isn’t natural, our bodies fall in a way to protect the head at the expense of every other body part. When I started jiu jitsu and didn’t know how to fall I tore my rotator cuff trying to stop myself with my arms. After 4 years of training which included ukemi (basically falling practice) I fall instinctively in ways that spread the impact over a larger area. While reffing a double header (womens bout followed by mens) I had 3 guys go down in front of me in the outside ref lane. Instead of falling hitting or panicking, without thought I went into a forward roll over the skaters and came back up on my skates, not even loosing the pack. Point being some form of falling practice is indispensable. However I feel it should perhaps be taught off skates first on a cushioned surface, and the type of fall should be re thought. The current fall is meant to minimize hazard to other skaters as well as the one falling. I am going to tap some resources in the martial arts and free running world to see what ideas others may have. Also in addition I think a lot of falling can be prevented by doing more training to build a stronger core.


  1. Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart (or Your Tib/Fib) | wyrdsis - June 10, 2013

    […] Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart (or Your Tib/Fib). […]

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