Beginner’s guide to Roller Derby

If you saw Drew Barrymore’s Whip It and fancy giving roller derby a go here’s all you need to know. As with skateboarding, it will also help in your quest for this week’s must have fashion accessory – bruised legs

It’s a funny thing is roller derby. You can easily have lived your whole life having never heard of it, but, if you have heard of it, chances are you’re spotting it all over the place. It’s that rare thing of not being the women’s version of a man’s sport. It’s has always been a sport for women. It’s also the fastest growing women’s sport on the planet and there are, at the last count, 911 leagues worldwide. Every single one of those is amateur and self-organised. Sixty-two of those are in the UK and the oldest league, the London Rollergirls, regularly pull in crowds of up to 1000 fans at their bouts.

What is roller derby?

Contrary to popular belief there’s more to the sport than a bunch of women bashing each other about a track – although that certainly is a factor. It’s actually an incredibly tactical sport with a whopping 43-page rulebook. A bout is divided into two-minute jams in which each team fields five players. Among those five are a jammer, a pivot and three blockers. The jammers begin behind the rest of the pack and their goal is to lap the pack as many times as they can. The teams try to help their jammer through the pack while trying to stop the opposing jammer. This can be done with full body contact but douchebag moves like elbows, headbutting, tripping and so forth are not allowed and will see the instigator sent off to the penalty box for a minute. This video explains the whole thing very well.

What gear you need

The initial set up can be a bit pricey but it’s all worth it. You’ll also find that you upgrade your gear the better you get and the more seriously you begin to take it. Fortunately, as the sport has rocketed in popularity over the past few years, more and more skate shops have appeared that cater for derby.


The skates you need are soft, like trainers, and don’t go higher than the ankle. The hard plastic ski boot-style are entirely inappropriate and will only give you a broken ankle. You probably wouldn’t be even allowed to skate on them. For the ultra skint out there you can start on cheap skates but you’ll quickly be itching to upgrade. The best starter skates out there are the Riedell R3s which cost around £115.These will see you for a lot longer.

If you do want to skate outdoors for a bit of practice (which is pretty necessary if you’ve not skated in a long time), you’ll probably want to change the wheels to some that won’t rattle your teeth and help you feel at least vaguely stable. Something like Kryptonics True or Radar Energy if you’re feeling flashy would be fine.


Any skate helmet will do. Cycling helmets can’t be used but you can use your skate helmet for cycling. It’s worth trying them on before you buy as it needs to be a snug fit and not slip around on your head.


In roller derby you fall over a lot and you fall over hard so aggressive skate pads are very much needed here. A lot of skaters tend to start with Anarchy pads and then upgrade later. You need knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards. If you’re feeling rich then pads from Triple 8 or Smiths Scabs will keep your knees good and unsmashed. Some skaters also wear gaskets under their kneepads as well, just to keep their joints in place. Also, remember to wash them occasionally. Those pads get stinky.


Any boil-and-bite mouthguard from a sports shop will do and they can be picked up for as cheaply as about £1.50. Should the urge take you, using a dentist’s mould you can buy personalised ones for around £30 but something like this is perfectly good for long-term use.


This online shop is selling the full roller derby starter set up for £170, which, if you do your sums, works out a fair bargain. And just imagine the excitement when a package this big turns up at your house.

Find your local roller derby league

These days there tends to be more women wanting to skate than there are spaces in the leagues, especially if you live near one of the more established ones. So the first thing to do is find your local league and get on the waiting list. tells you where they all are. In some cases you may find yourself waiting a few months, others may take you on straight away but don’t worry – the wait is worth it.


If you are left waiting then this gives you bags of time to get your gear together and get as much skating practice in as possible. Head for your local flat smooth large surface and get skating. Or better yet, go to the roller disco if you have one near you. It might even be worth getting in a couple of professional lessons as well. The league you’re hoping to join will probably have an online forum so join it and start talking to people. Ask if there are any other new skaters who want to meet up and practice. Chances are there are at least 10 other women out there also wanting to get started.

Go and watch

Go and watch other leagues’ bout. It’s the best way to learn. Go along and watch what the skaters do and scream along with the rest of the fans. It’s as fun a day out as you’ll have anywhere and it’s also the best way to learn about the sport.

What happens next?

Once you’ve gotten inside your league you’ll be put through a training programme to teach you how to skate, stop and fall safely. Roller derby in the UK adheres to the rules set out by the Women’s Flat Track Association and before you’re allowed to play properly you’ll need to master all of their minimum skills. Don’t worry, your league will teach you everything you need to know.

Skate name

Almost every UK skater adopts a skate name. Some see it as an alter ego, just a bit of fun. However, as a gentlewoman’s agreement, no skate name can be too similar to anyone else’s. To check that no one else has got your name already check it on this register. Once you’ve picked your name and you’ve become a full member of your league you just need to ask the person in charge of submitting names to submit yours, along with your number (which only has to be unique to your league). If you need inspiration, some of the best ones include Must Hang Sally (Royal Windsor Rollergirls), Fox Sake (London Rollergirls), Die Sharona (Okanagan Shuswap Roller Derby Association), Maiden Hell (KC Roller Warriors), Uber Alice (Rocky Mountain Rollergirls)…

And lastly

Enjoy it. There’s nothing out there quite like roller derby. You will meet the most fascinating, diverse group of people, all of whom are tough enough to want to have something that’s their own. Barristers mix with nurses and computer programmers and the main thing on their mind is trying to knock each other over with their bums. Leagues are not-for-profit and everything is run by the skaters and you’ll be expected to chip in and help out. Training will be twice a week at least and there’s lots more to do with planning and promoting bouts, training new skaters, finding venues, selling merch, finding sponsors, running the website, designing the programmes, planning after parties and helping to raise funds. It will take over your life but it’ll all be worth it.

For more info on roller derby head to the WFTDA site

The London Rollergirls Season Championship is on July 9 – go watch!

Words by Catherine Gee

Photos from LRG flickr group under a Creative Commons License


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