Negotiating Safety: Healing Through a Contact Sport

In the fractions of seconds before the body flying at me at speed with devastating intent actually impacts, I have a crowding multiplicity of voices that clamor for top feeling and then dull to a white noise of focus. In the tunnel vision of this moment, the roaring crowd around me that echoes what had been in my head matters no more. There is only this other body coming at me—and my own bodily history of hit and return to draw from.

I counter into the impact, digging in, working with the physics demanding equal and opposite force, denying the intent, holding my space. They ease up momentarily, and the crowd fills back in, but my focus is on the next play.

There are so many ways that people negotiate the world—but being hit on a regular basis tends to be far from the expected norm. For those of us who choose to live in the zone that sits beyond the usual expectations of lived experience, negotiating the hits in contact sports can be challenging—and rewarding—in ways beyond the obvious.

Chris Bojanower / Creative Commons

I play roller derby. Defined initially around women’s bodies, and now at the affirming edge of sport in its gender-diverse engagement, it is also a sport that has written an open letter to the International Federation of Roller Sports (FIRS), and Olympic Committee (IOC), rejecting top-down hierarchies and affirming the ways that the players of the sport themselves get to define the rules and boundaries of the game.

And yet still we fail in a million tiny ways to care for and support those who make up a large portion of our sport. From often daily harassment incidents to systemic failures of structures like Title IX, through to physical and emotional demands that coaches, training partners and teammates have, trauma has all too vivid a place in the connection to these moments.

When you examine the statistics around sexual assault, the categories of people most vulnerable to experiencing it almost perfectly coincide with the range of people who play roller derby, and indeed many other contact sports. Queer? Check. Women? Check. Gender non-conforming? Single parents? Ages 12-34? Check, check, check.

That ability to take the process into our own hands becomes crucial. Even if in every sport there are always compromises—because attendance requirements, fitness goals and showing up for teammates or making weight for that one big fight is a thing that might not be negotiable. The problem in these negotiations is that the specificities of trauma are important and irrelevant at the same time.

I can think through the ways I engage with drills, hits and game play in generic terms: How can I be safe? How can I hurt productively? How can I use my history to work with me? But acknowledging specific triggers and incidents are crucial, because they affect me. Feeling weak as muscles tire and strain affects one friend in ways that test them beyond measure, while I feel nothing more than the usual amount of fatigue. Being physically reminded of how easily I can be overpowered at times is one of the most testing of mine. And cis men on the track with me is a hard boundary for me personally that I cannot push—I have too many experiences of violence with them in my everyday life outside of derby to have the wherewithal to engage with it there.

But there are still voices that gaslight those needs. There are voices that tell assault and trauma survivors that they need to be “healed” or “fixed” before they should consider coming to that sport. When I hear those things being said, I am inarticulate in my anger—dumbfounded and silenced.

Because the contact in these sports can be the healing—if we can find our way there, if we can be supported in accessing it. If when I negotiate the boundaries of my safety I am testing myself, finding the edges of where I can be, how strong I am in a physical and emotional sense, where I can compromise and where the walls still lie.

Some days a hit is a challenge that I rise to. Some days it beats me down. Some days the catch in my throat or the tightening in my chest remind me that it’s still an ongoing process. That healing is not linear. Sobbing this out in a bathroom is the only solution one night. The next, I’m winning a game with the same resources.

It is in this space that easy pop sports psychology terminology like “resilience” can turn toxic. A term for encapsulating the kinds of teammates that grow and respond best to challenge, resilience has its own cruelness—assuming as it does that there is some kind of easy starting point that everyone has, that each challenge is equal for all who experience it, that the person showing up at the rink isn’t already exhausted from being resilient in the face of the kind of systemic intersections of racism, sexism, transphobia, able-ism, homophobia and trauma thrown at our bodies all day every day.

The athleticism that I have learned makes me lean and “toned.” It adds muscle bulk, but in ways that the world diminishes as I become more and more compact, as I curve and flatten in new ways. I’m understood as less powerful, as easy game for harassers. That same workout changes other people’s bodies in different ways—all strong, all vulnerable.

My sport makes me more powerful, but also more tired. More strong, but also more fatigued.

I now have more experience of violence, but in productive ways—or at least usually productive. I negotiate hits and physical contact in ways that make me feel safe—or at least usually safe. Sometimes there is nothing productive or safe about this negotiation, and stepping away feels like the only solution in that moment. It’s a process. It’s non-linear.

It looks like healing.

Genevieve Berrick is a writer, editor, researcher and teacher who currently runs the worldwide roller derby reporting website, Derby Central. Her work extends beyond derby to feminist, queer and social justice locations across the world, and includes film-making.

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    Comments

    1. I thoroughly appreciate your shared thoughts on contact sport and … words fail me, sorry about that. To state inadequately, your words resonate. I’m a rape survivor and carry/carried a great deal of trauma, and after being chased while running (wasn’t the first time), I decided I’d had enough. Angered that idiots were using fear to rob me of my favorite pastime, I enrolled at a local martial arts academy where I learned Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and a pinch of Krav Maga. Imagine the realization that I never felt so strong as when I traded sweeps, throws, kicks, and pins with my sparring partners. Of course, learning there had its own land mines, and a variety situations triggered flashbacks and breakdowns without warning.

      I don’t know where I’m going with this, to be honest. I’ve loved contact sports since I was little, but martial arts existed on an entirely different plane. I discovered that working the heavy bag was insanely therapeutic and, the biggest revelation of all, I actually LIKED fighting. Throwing people, making them tap out, sweeping them to the mat when they least expected it: all of it fed this new thirst for physicality that I never knew I had.

      AGH, still rambling. Sorry. Anyway, thank you for writing this. It reached me, and I’m driven to think about my very gendered experience with contact sports and the ways it healed and challenged me. All the best to you.

    2. Being a sports fan, this blog was an amazing read. Sports is such a genre which needs informative as well as stimulating facts and information – you got them all!

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