Be Coachable

This is the first in a series of posts that have been rattling around in my head about lessons I’ve learned from taking up a sport in my 40s. The summary of the back story here is that I started out with Derby Lite in 2012, got kicked out, went back a year later, and,… well, I fell in love with roller derby. Apparently this is a thing that happens. I sat in the bleachers, watching the game with an intensity and focus that made me realise I wanted to play.

It is the curse of smart people everywhere that their lived experience is one of more or less consistent reward. We quickly get good at nearly everything we try. Some things are so easy that they they become boring long before you master them.

Roller derby has not been one of those things for me.

David Foster Wallace, in his “This is Water” speech, says, “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” This is a perfect description of my experience of learning to Be Coachable. I went into this with a mindset that the skills required for derby would, like everything else I’d ever tried, come at the pace everything else had.

They didn’t.

In fact, I was asked to leave Derby Lite because I was not following instructions. To be fair, it had been said that if we were uncomfortable participating in a drill, we could sit it out; this turned out to not be entirely true. Rejection, right there at the beginning, caused me to undertake some serious introspection. I really wanted to learn to skate, but I have a long history of getting into trouble for not doing what I’m told. Because, you know, I’m smarter than everybody else. I’d become quite spoiled to doing things at my own pace on my own terms… because I had avoided doing things that required me to participate in a group.

Does not play well with others. I’m independent. I don’t fit the mold. That’s good, right?

Turns out that when you want to learn to do something that is Really Hard from someone who already knows how to do it, independent thinking becomes an impediment. So the first year of my skating career sucked a lot more than it needed to because I was just too gosh darn independent. In hindsight, that cost me a great deal, and it is still really fucking painful for me. I have no one to blame but me.

The idea of shutting the fuck up and just listening popped into my head on a drive home from a speed skating session. At the time, it wasn’t a particularly well-formed thought. No, that epiphany didn’t come until later. In fact, I think it’s still sort of sneaking up on me from time to time and smacking me in the back of the head.

A year ago, thereabouts, I started going to a new program run by The Windy City Rollers called Learn To Skate. At the time, this program was being run by Poppy Spock. Man, I really admire Poppy. I’m pretty sure a tornado could go directly over her, pass on and she’d be the only thing left standing. She is also the only woman I’ve ever known who can jump from a kneeling to a squatting position. She did it on her first try. I was at that moment (and will always be) in complete awe of Poppy Spock.

The first thing that Poppy said to us was, “Be coachable.” This meant not talking back, not saying can’t (and sure as fuck not saying won’t). It meant that we would do what she told us to do, how she told us to do it. This is how “shut the fuck up and listen” got a name. Be coachable. This is where the idea started to congeal. Poppy has skills I want to have. She’s in the room, telling me how she got them (unpaid). But if I’m not coachable, I won’t learn shit.

Let me back up for a second and describe roller derby from an insider’s perspective. I won’t insult you — you can search for videos on YouTube about roller derby to learn how the sport works. You get up before dawn on a Saturday and drive to a rink for speed skating session where a 9-yr-old on inlines will shred your ego as she whizzes past you. You go to your league practice at the end of a long, draining day at work, put on our smelly gear (that is sometimes still damp from your last practice), and maybe Surprise! We’re doing TIME TRIALS today!

And all the time you sweat. Just unbelievable amounts of sweat. Like there’s no chance you’ll be able to wear these clothes again without washing them amounts of sweat. Salt crystals form on you amounts of sweat. Hair completely soaked through amounts of sweat.

And all of the time, you fall. At first, you’re terrified of falling, so you skate around stiff as a 2x4 and wonder for days afterwards why you’re so fucking sore. That doesn’t keep you from falling. Because, you know, you’re doing things like jumping over shit. On skates.

After you fall a few dozen times, you start to get the idea that nothing bad really happens when you fall. Then you start to love falling because it gives you an adrenaline rush. Also because your teammates cheer when you eat shit. In roller derby, it is said, “If you don’t fall, you’re not trying hard enough.”

And then, one day, you get cleared for contact. Yes, that’s right. Not only are you on skates, but someone bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced than you is going to skate directly into you and knock you onto the floor. On purpose. Because that is how the game of roller derby is played. Eventually you learn to love that, too. Adrenaline is addictive.

If you’ve never played contact sports before, the first few times you intentionally slam your body into someone else’s body will be an uncomfortable feeling for you. Then you look back over the past several months of training and think, “This whole fucking ride has been uncomfortable.”

I have a post about discomfort, too. That is not this post. This post is about what it means to be coachable. Be coachable means that, if you REALLY WANT IT, shut the fuck up. Take everything you are “automatically certain” of, in your mind, put it in a box and stash it in a corner. It is only when your mind is empty of all notions, all fears and insecurities, that you are ready to learn.

From Poppy Spock, Cuban Miss Elle and dozens of other coaches, I have learned to be a great deal less arrogant. I have learned to put a leash on my certitude and righteousness and rein them in. It feels if somehow I’ve been liberated. I feel like a kid again; the world is vibrant and real — there is still so much to learn. It is thrilling.

I recommend it with all my heart.

Erin Ptacek