The First Lesson Is: Don’t Be Afraid Of Falling

16 Sep

My sister-in-law brought me along to her roller derby practice last night. She’s been doing the derby thing since March of this year, and I have been hella jealous. If there was ever anyone who was meant to be a bad-ass lady who roller skates, wears short skirts, body-checks other women and has a hilariously punny name. I mean, COME ON. That sounds like heaven to me.

Given all of that, why have I never tried to join a derby league in Toronto? Oh, I don’t know, because of Reasons I guess. I work a lot of evenings and didn’t want to have yet another night away from my family. I wasn’t sure how to find a good league, and was kind of freaked out at the thought of starting a new activity by myself with people that I don’t know. I’m not sure that I’m cut out for team sports; the idea of being yelled at by a coach makes me want to cry.

Most of all, though, I was afraid.

I wasn’t even sure that I could roller skate, for one thing – the last time that I’d tried was something like fifteen years ago at the now-defunct Forum Roller Rink in Cambridge, Ontario. I was there to celebrate the birthday of this dude that I had a huge crush on, by the way, and let’s just say that my roller-skate-skills did not exactly win me a place in his heart. As I recall, I fell. A lot. Embarrassing, sprawling falls, the type that cause people to point and laugh. Eventually I just sat off on the side, nursed a Dr. Pepper and tried not to cry. Story of my life, am I right?

Another problem was that I typically don’t enjoy participating in activities that I am not already good at, especially activities that involve me failing publicly. I have a very low threshold for embarrassment. I’m also a perfectionist, and I get frustrated with myself very quickly if I don’t master a new skill, like, immediately. Given all of this, it’s kind of amazing that I ever try anything new at all, although if I really think about it I can see that all of the new activities that I’ve tried over the past few years have mostly been things that I knew that I was sort of predisposed to be good at. For example, I had a feeling that I would be awesome at yoga because I’ve always been really flexible. Blogging didn’t intimidate me because, all modesty aside, I knew that I was a half-decent writer. I knew that I would be good at drinking scotch because it’s no secret that I’m a pretentious, snobby asshole.

I am not really good at any of the skills necessary for roller derby, other than a love of short skirts and the fact that I’m a hilariously scrappy fighter.

All kitted out - sadly no skirt, though

All kitted out – sadly no skirt, though. And yes, my shirt says, “The Bell Jar” on it.

Finally, the biggest fear holding me back was that I was afraid of falling. I was afraid of falling because of my bad knee. I was afraid of falling and being run over by other, faster, better skaters. Mostly, though, I was afraid of falling and looking stupid.

Imagine my surprise when my sister-in-law told me that the first lesson was going to be learning how to fall. Because, she said, I was going to fall whether I liked it or not, and learning how to do it properly would help prevent injury. Being a good skater wasn’t so much avoiding falling as knowing how to do it in a safe and controlled way.

So after wobbling pathetically around the rink a few times on my borrowed roller skates, I let her teach me how to fall. I learned how to fall on one knee. I learned how to fall on two knees. I learned how to do a four-point fall on my knees and forearms. I learned how to get up safely and quickly after each type of fall. Amazingly, after a good solid half hour of falling, I suddenly felt much more comfortable on my skates.

I had a sort of epiphany last night, skating around and around that open-air arena under the darkening Alberta sky. I realized how very much I need to learn how to fall in basically every area of my life. I need to learn that it’s possible to make mistakes and even fail and then get back up again and keep going. Right now, the thought of making mistakes in just about any arena – work, being a parent, my interpersonal relationships – makes me want to throw up. I feel like making a mistake is the end of the line, that there’s no going back, that whatever I’ve done will colour that relationship or work environment forever. The funny thing is that it’s almost never other people who make me feel that way; I make myself feel that way. If I inadvertently say something hurtful, or if I forget to do something or get something wrong, I have a really hard time forgiving myself and getting past it. To me, making mistakes feels like the world is ending.

But you can’t live like that, you know? You can’t just not make mistakes – that’s an impossible goal. Even if you are living the safest, most risk-free life ever, you’re still going to make mistakes. And anyway I don’t want to live that life – I want to take risks, I want to try new things, I want to push myself. So I think that I have to learn how to make mistakes, by which I mean how to react in an emotionally appropriate manner to my mistakes, and also how to work to quickly fix them instead of diving under the covers and crying for three days. I want to learn how to have arguments or even fights that don’t end with me apologizing profusely (or sobbing incoherently) because any kind of conflict makes me feel sick.

Most of all, I need to realize that if I want to succeed at something – anything – I might have to fail first.

There’s a theory by mid-century child pediatrician and child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott that says that one of the many reasons why play is important for children is because it’s a safe place for children to make mistakes. In play, children are able to explore the world and themselves without fear; they are able to try new things and make mistakes without serious consequences. Winnicott says, “It is playing and only in playing that the individual child is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

I think that maybe I need to re-learn how to play. I need more spaces in my life that feel safe enough to fall and fail in. I need to find activities that help me feel more comfortable taking risks in the rest of my life. Maybe roller derby is the perfect place to start.

Still a bit wobbly

Still a bit wobbly

And for the record, the rest of the practice was fantastic. I learned how to skate on one foot, how to stop and start, how to turn corners. My sister-in-law taught me how to “get a whip,” which involves skating up behind someone, grabbing them by the hips and pulling yourself forward and past them. I got to watch the more experienced derby ladies skate up to thirty times around the track in five minutes. I got to watch the “benched” players practice skating formations, jamming and taking hits. I watched people fall over and over again, only to get right back up and keep going.

It was amazingly great.



26 Responses to “The First Lesson Is: Don’t Be Afraid Of Falling”

  1. diahannreyes September 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Thanks for reminding me that sometimes in order to rise up, we have to first learn how to fall. šŸ™‚

  2. She Curmudgeon September 16, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    I think, the older I get, that the only lesson is don’t be afraid of falling. Everything else sort of follows.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

    • dancingwiththebeloved September 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

      Hello! You said it best! Thanks to you and to The Belle Jar for wise words.

  3. CoraWest September 16, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    Oh wow, I really relate to what you’ve written here. I, too, need to learn to be okay falling. And I need to learn to play. Thanks very much for a thought-provoking read. And you look like you’re having a blast there!

  4. Ari September 17, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    I tend to think that grown-ups, as a rule, need to play more. (One of the great reasons for having kids, although as this post demonstrates, there’s definitely still something to playing for oneself!)

  5. K. Kreiger September 17, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    brilliant. and now I want to get some skates šŸ™‚

  6. Antoinette September 17, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    I have been wanting to learn to roller skate for years. Maybe, now that I am all grown up, I will.

  7. Jen Donohue September 17, 2013 at 3:14 am #

    That sounds like a splendid lesson to take away from Roller Derby practice, for writing, for RD, and for life.

    There’s a few teams around here; it seems like Roller Derby as a Thingā„¢ is having quite the resurgence.

  8. Onegirl September 17, 2013 at 5:23 am #

    Hmmm, I’m thinking that if it was a skating rink in Cambridge, it may have been the Forum you were at? Or maybe that was before your time and the Phoenix was something that came after I left.

    • bellejarblog September 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

      Oh yes! I think it was the Forum! The Pheonix is/was at Bingeman’s in Kitchener. I’ve definitely been to both, hah.

  9. Eimear September 17, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Learning to ski at the age of almost-30 well and truly taught me that lesson about learning to fail… and I truly believe it’s one of the most important lessons I’ve every learned! Roller derby sounds equally effective;-)
    I recently read this … which was food for thought, even though some of the girls-are-like-this-boys-are-like-that reasoning doesn’t sit completely well with me. Worth a read though.
    Also, love your blog! e

  10. ceruleanstarshine September 17, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on Cerulean Starshine and commented:
    Applicable to everything, not just roller derby..but you know, that might be a cool thing to add to my 40×40 list…lol.

  11. iRuniBreathe September 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Great post. We (*I*) forget that falling is a part of life. If we are always upright we never see a different perspective or move forward. Thank you for this well-written reminder.

  12. Maggie September 17, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    I’ve started learning roller derby. I am not very athletic, disabled, and bad at team sports.

    Some days I just want to cry and quit. But the thing I’ve found with derby is that people are so, so kind and supportive. There’s no yelling. Maybe it’s partly that my league is geared towards letting anyone who wants to join to reach whatever level they want; which might just be basic because it’s fun and a workout, or might be that they want to end up really well-rounded and competitive players.

    I hate not being good at something. I haaaaate it. I hate mistakes and I hate being a slow learner. I know exactly where you’re coming from.

    I am probably never going to be any good at derby, for a few reasons. But that’s okay. Because I’m trying. And it’s still fun. And nobody minds that I suck. They still cheer me on and have nice things to say.

    My first full practice, 3 hours long, I wanted to throw up and die. It was excruciating. It’s months later now, and I see that I can do pushups, and hold a plank position, and I can skip, where I could hardly manage any of that to start with. So while I am still light years away from 25 laps in 5 minutes, I have things to be proud about even if they don’t seem like much.

    So I hope you’ll try derby too. It’s not easy, but it is satisfying.

  13. Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little September 18, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    Oh, this is wonderful. I help host my roller derby league’s “New Recruit Night,” and we are constantly harping on the need to get good knee pads “because you will fall on them. A lot. On purpose, even. Look! See? Tonight’s training class is practicing safe falls. On their knees. GET GOOD KNEE PADS.”

    But somehow it never occurred to me to use this point – “You will be learn how to fall; you will learn how to get up” – to encourage the newbies to be less afraid of falling, less afraid of embarrassing themselves, and less afraid of trying new things. This is wonderful. Thank you for inspiring me.

  14. Rhonda Kronyk (@pro_editor) September 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and often find pieces of myself reflected in your writing. However, this one particularly hit home. I, too, have been working harder at letting myself fall/fail/get up and try it again. It’s difficult some days, but every triumph, no matter how small, feeds the desire to try again.

    One of your statements particularly hit home. “I have a very low threshold for embarrassment.” I have felt this for years and have tried to explain it to others, but most people just don’t get it. I’ve never heard it described so perfectly before. Now I know what to tell them – if they still don’t get it, that’s their problem!


  15. mypotl September 21, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    My life motto is – Fear is temporary, regret is permanent! This is why I am going on 30 blind dates set up by 30 wannabe matchmakers- I am writing about it on – – the search for my potential one true love. It would be great if you could check me out! xx

  16. Suzanne Skaar September 26, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    Reblogged this on Barefoot and Political and commented:
    Recently, I’ve started learning how to be an NSO (Non-skating Official) for our local derby league, working up the courage to strap on the skates myself. After the epic crashes I witnessed at last night’s scrimmage, we will be upping our health insurance before I start trying. But this article from The Belle Jar is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t live a life where we’re afraid to fall. Check it out and follow her if you haven’t already!

  17. sexymoxiemama October 2, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    Wow! Amazing. I would probably kill myself or end up maimed if I tried to skate (have I mentioned I have not been in a pair of roller skates since I was 10).

  18. pam November 6, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    what an excellent metaphor for life; skating. I must agree with you about the fear factor. I am 42, and decided “If not now, when?” Since I never skated as a kid much, I decided to buy some good skates and go for it. I feel stupid, my neighbors laugh at me, i fall A LOT, I have some bruises, but I am out there, and can say that I tried, that I went for my dream and in that way, I didn’t fail at all.

  19. nikolejoan June 8, 2015 at 11:31 pm #

    Very recently found your blog and fell in love with your writing. I am not sure how you have gotten into my head and written down all of my thoughts though. I started derby 2 months ago and this post made me adore your blog that much more. Thank you!


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