Diary of an Adolescent Zebra – Brain vs. Brain

I had been planning on writing this blog post about my weekend. I’ve had 3 days of reffing in a row, and I’ve had a very different experience at each event.

However, what I want to talk about is mental toughness. When I took up reffing, I expected the hardest thing to be understanding the never-ending rules of roller derby and applying them to the game. Granted, this is indeed very challenging and I will always be getting to grips with it. But that is not what I find the hardest about reffing. My biggest challenge is mental toughness. As a human being I lack self-confidence, and this affects my ability to referee – I am permanently worried that I’m being noticed for the wrong reasons.

If I call a penalty, this doesn’t affect just me. It affects the people on track. It affects the person who has to leave the track. In a game, a referee’s actions will be scrutinised by the skaters on track, the people at the bench, other officials and also the audience. As a referee, you hear comments from most of these parties on a regular basis. You might be OPRing and as you pass by the bench you hear the team making comments about calls. The bench coach might be shouting at you. You might be jammer reffing and when you call a penalty on a jammer, they might react badly. When you *don’t* call a penalty on a jammer, the opposing blockers might react badly. In every single game, you will make decisions that other people will not like.

Every. Single. Game.

It has taken me a long time to make peace with that fact and for my skin to thicken. I like to please people, but that’s not what refereeing is about. Refereeing is about safety and fairness, and you will never keep everyone happy because roller derby is a competitive sport. My brain is tough on me for this.

Depending on the mood I’m in on the day, I might care more or I might care less about what other people think. What I try to remember is that a person who gets angry at my decision will only be angry momentarily, and then will move straight back to the game. They’re not thinking about me as a person – just that one action at that one moment in time. Maybe they’ll be stewing for the 30 seconds that they serve the penalty, but then they get back on with the game. In reality, my biggest critic is myself.

When I was a brand new referee there were times when I came away from scrims in tears because I was so frustrated by my performance and how my actions impacted upon others. In actual fact, if I’d spoken to anyone playing in the game I’d have been told that no one noticed me for the wrong reasons and actually I wasn’t the world’s worst ref. It was all in my head. I’ve had games where I’m so frustrated at myself for not being perfect – or even for calling a penalty that I know to be a good call but then getting a bad reaction from a skater – that I’ve been unable to focus on the game in front of me. These situations happen less frequently the more I ref, but I do still have days when I struggle.

I’ve written this post because I was struggling at Brit Champs on Saturday. The rest of the crew was very experienced, and my feelings of inadequacy were overwhelming.

So here’s what I say to myself, and what I want to say to any other young zebras: You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. You will miss things. You will make decisions that upset people. You will be at the receiving end of skaters’ anger. But all of this is the same at whatever your level. ALL refs make mistakes, miss things, make decisions that no matter how correct will be hugely unpopular. That’s part of the role. The only person out there making things personal is yourself. So take a deep breath, remind yourself that no one is expecting you to be flawless, you are doing the best that you can and that is enough. That is appreciated. Just get on with enjoying yourself.

At the end of Brit Champs on Saturday, the head referee came over and congratulated me on the decisions that I had made. So, go figure.


Welcome to the home of the Birmingham Blitz Dames! We're an all-female, full-contact, flat track roller derby team based in Birmingham in the UK. We skate fast and we hit hard! Our league is skater run and owned - and we're proud to work and play as a team, and compete at the highest level. We take women from all backgrounds and train athletes. Whether you've played roller sports all your life or never tried on a pair of skates - if you'd like to join a great team and play a fast-paced, hard-hitting, athletic sport, come and join us! See you on the track!

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