“Rayna Mayhem” – Reflections on Leadership from a Derby Girl

Written by: Jess Pijut

I have been active in sports my whole life.  I started in gymnastics when I was 6, then began diving at age 11.  I transitioned into team sports by playing softball on my junior high team. High school brought on volleyball which I continued to play at the Division II level in college.

Fast forward a few years, I got married, had 2 kids, and active participation in sports fell to the wayside.  I was a wife and a mother, and my family’s needs came first for a long time.

Years later, I started to feel more like myself when I began playing dodgeball, kickball, and volleyball in a local adult rec league.  There I met 2 women who played in the local roller derby league.  I was intrigued, but hesitant.

I started dragging my 5-year-old daughter to the skating rink as my “cover” so I didn’t stand out like a sore thumb as a lone, 32-year-old woman floundering around on those old, brown, junky rental skates. It turned out that I could still skate, so I thought, why not give roller derby a shot?  I attended an open recruitment, and a few months later, “Rayna Mayhem”, #137, was born.

I played flat-track roller derby for 5 years.  It was my stress outlet, I was in the best shape of my life, and it was always a conversation starter in awkward situations.  But more importantly, I learned a lot of life lessons that I carry with me and apply to my career in leadership here at Andesa:

  1. You WILL fall down – get back up.

Roller derby newbies are called “Fresh Meat”.  At my first practice, the very first thing we learned wasn’t how to skate, but rather how to FALL.  Derby is a contact sport.  You absolutely will get hit every time you’re out on the track.  There will be hits that take you out for longer periods of time than others – and I experienced them all – broken bones, a concussion, bruises, sprains, sore muscles, etc.  The important thing is that I always came back.  I might have been knocked down, but I wasn’t knocked out. Your team needs you, so you must gather yourself and keep going.

  1. Situational awareness is essential.

According to Clifton Strengths Finder, adaptability is one of my top 5 strengths.   When you’re on the track, you simultaneously play offense as well as defense.  You can go into a jam with one plan but have to turn on a dime and think of a new plan on the fly as circumstances are constantly evolving. The ability to think on one’s feet is key.  Thanks in part to derby, I can multitask like a champ!

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

A roller derby bout is broken into 2–30-minute halves, broken into 2-minute-long jams. During a jam, each team fields 5 people on the track – 1 jammer (the person with the star on their helmet who skates around and scores points) and 4 blockers.

There is so much going on that, if you don’t talk and listen to each other, it just doesn’t work.  Chaos ensues, and people run the risk of getting hurt.  Blockers might be busy holding the opposing jammer, but their jammer is coming up on the pack, calling for them to make a hole.  Maybe the jammer being held is running out of gas and needs to pass the star on their helmet to the pivot (the blocker with the stripe on their helmet that can take over as jammer if the original jammer can’t keep going).  I’ll tell you from experience, not much is worse during a jam than being that jammer who needs to pass the star, and the pivot never comes because they aren’t paying attention.  The bottom line is you not only have to TALK, but you must LISTEN just as much, if not more.

  1. Teamwork makes the dream work.

The roller derby community is the most diverse, inclusive community I’ve ever been a part of.  So many different people, so many different personalities… everyone with a unique story.  You have to work together if you’re going to be effective. My derby experience taught me what it really means to be a part of a team.   At the end of the day, you’re all working toward the same goal.  For 2 minutes, all differences are put aside for the betterment of the team.  You don’t have to be friends in the “outside” world, but on the track, everyone has a job to do in crunch time. It’s also important to remember to celebrate the victories as a team.

  1. Don’t count anyone out.

You might have an amazing coach, or a Team USA all-star jammer who is super awesome and scores all the points every time they go out.  But they wouldn’t be able to score those points without the blockers looking out for them and helping them when they need it.  The team’s smallest person could be the most effective blocker because they’re quick and have incredible footwork.  If you don’t give them the opportunity, that individual, and the team, will never grow.  Standing nearly 6’ in my skates, I wasn’t “typical” jammer size.  But did I practice jammer drills?  Yes.  Did I jam during practice and scrimmages?  Yes.  Did I jam during games?  A couple of times.  Did I score 30 points during a game AND successfully jump the apex?  YES I DID!!!

  1. When nothing goes right, go left.

I have this tattooed on the tops of my feet.  It’s a saying in the roller derby world because you’re always skating to the left (except for when your coach makes you do laps in the opposite direction and you fall all over the place because crossing your left foot over your right foot just isn’t the way your body is meant to work).  But it also means if you’re having a bad day, change it.  Don’t dwell on it. A bad attitude spreads like wildfire through the team.

As I come to work every day at Andesa and interact with my team of 11 very different individuals, spanning 4 very different disciplines, I keep these lessons in mind.  Their success as a team is also Andesa’s success, as well as our client-partners’ success.  Sure, there are obstacles.  We’ve been knocked down.  We’ve had new teammates added, and some have left.  We’ve had to change direction last minute.  But we’ve done it all as a team.  We’ve done a lot behind the scenes to foster that feeling of connectedness, and over the past year, I’ve seen our team grow by leaps and bounds.  I’m proud of each of the individuals that make up our team, and I hope they’re equally as proud to be a part of it.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) piqued your interest in roller derby, go check out a bout on YouTube.  Better yet, support your local league and attend a live bout (they’re family-friendly)!

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