Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Do One Thing

I've been playing roller derby for almost 10 months now. I'm far better on my skates than I was 10 months ago, but I'm still nowhere near where I'd like to be. Lots of things still terrify me about the game, and the amount of both skill and knowledge that I have to acquire to get there is often completely daunting.

Months ago, a teammate let me in on her personal mantra for derby improvement: Do One Thing.

It's impossible, in the limited practice time my team has, to learn everything all at once. And trying to do so will likely just muck you up on the track, whether you're trying too many things at once, or not concentrating on nuances of a skill, or even just not paying attention to where other people are. You can't do everything. So Do One Thing. Pick one thing, each practice, and make a concerned effort to do that thing to the best of your ability. Maybe it's holding the inside line and not letting the jammer past you while you're holding it. Maybe it's the perfect 180 single knee fall. Maybe it's keeping an eye out behind you while you're skating forwards. Whatever. Do One Thing.

One of my biggest issues on the track is that I get frustrated with myself far too easily, as my knowledge of the game and strategy far outweighs my personal physical ability actually, y'know, do any of those things. (Stop taunting me, Tomahawk stops.) And it trips me up. I start thinking about what I want to do, what I should do, and the next thing you know, I'm in my head not paying attention, and the jammer has danced past me without even a glance from my direction.

Last night, though, I Did One Thing. I made a concerned effort to listen to my teammates, to pay attention to where we all are on the track. By doing that, during scrimmage, I was able to see two of my teammates pull out to the front of the pack, chasing down the opposing team's jammer, and to hear a 3rd behind me, caught behind the other team's blockers. And I was finally able to put listening skills and derby knowledge together, as I skated in between the two groups, forming a bridge that kept the pack intact, and enabled my teammates up front to knock their target out of bounds. It was a tiny thing, a thing that only lasted a few seconds, but it was One Thing. A thing I'd never done before, and my first conscious instance of being able to put all the pieces of the derby puzzle together, at once, on skates, in the middle of an actual jam.

It felt pretty damn awesome.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Roller Derby & Branding, or, We Love the Petty Stuff

I can't believe I'm writing a blog post about this. I really can't. North Central Regionals ended YESTERDAY, and SOMEHOW, I am still involved in a conversation about TEAM COLORS.

Fighting on the internet: we're all winners, here!

So here's how this came about:
In the North Central Regional tournament final bout, Windy City (Chicago) was playing Minnesota. My home bracket is Eastern, my current bracket is Western. I'm not super familiar with the teams in North Central, besides by name only. Having attended college in Wisconsin, my choice in who to root for in this bout was based on one thing: Whoever isn't Chicago. So, let's be clear here: I WAS ROOTING FOR MINNESOTA.

When I tuned in to the bout, from my apartment here in Boulder, CO, several minutes after the bout had started, I realized that I had a problem: I had no idea which team was which. This shouldn't be an issue, I thought. Teams have different colors. So which team is which color? Looking at the pixel-y scoreboard on the WFTDA free feed, Windy City's logo appeared to be blue/black/white. Minnesota's logo was red/gold. Simple! I will root for the -- oh. Wait. There's no red/gold team on the track. There is one team, in black/white. And another in blue/black. This... this does not narrow things down. Maybe the logos will be on - no, I can't make out the logos on the uniforms of either team, they're too low-res. Furthermore, neither team's uniforms had the names of the players on the back. So while the announcers were able to identify each player by name, I had no idea who was who, or who was playing for who.

At that point, I did what any reasonable netizen would do: I asked The Googles. Pulling up Minnesota's page, I was greeted with a front page full of RED AND GOLD. Ok. Still not helping. So I looked for their team picture. Their allstar team does not have a picture in the "teams" section of the website. So I looked at their home team pictures. They have 4. Their teams skate in: orange/black, pink/black/white, green/black, and red/white. None of these are their logo colors, nor are they the allstar team colors. I remained confused.
{Update, 1/30/13: Team photos are now included on the MNRG site. There is still no team that uses Red & Gold as their colors.}

Finally, through the grace of the internet, I asked the feed announcers to clarify. Luckily, they did, and all was well. But somehow, this turned into a giant can of worms that I am STILL TALKING ABOUT.

(For the record, Windy City was skating in black/white, and Minnesota was in blue (aqua) and army green, not black. The low res feed was clearly not helping me out yesterday.)

Issues that appear to have been conflated in all of this:
- I do not hate MNRG, their fans, or anyone else associated with the team.
- I do not hate their All-Star team's colors.
- I don't think their logo is ugly. (Or stupid, or anything else.)
- I do not think their uniforms are ugly. (Or stupid, or anything else.)
- I do not want their colors to be black and white.
- I am not calling for the skaters to stop training to address this concern.
- In the face of Nationals, I do not believe this is a pressing issue for anyone associated with the team. (If it is ever addressed at all, it is an off-season discussion.)
- I don't think the MNRG All-Stars are the only members, or only "important" members of their league.
- I am not belittling their current fanbase, who clearly already know that the MNRG All-Stars skate in Aqua and Army.
- I don't expect anything to change because of me.

All that said, I have to admit: I'm confused as to why MNRG uses colors in their logo that do not correspond to any other color scheme in their league. I'm confused about why their allstar team and their logo are different colors. I don't understand what purpose it serves, on a local OR a national scale. I don't understand how it helps their branding initiative, or enables MNRG to be recognizable as an entity.

Logos are not just a cute picture that you slap on a shirt. They represent an aspect of a branding initiative that is meant to distinguish your product (in this case, a roller derby team/league) from all the other similar products out there. In the case of derby, this is critical. With 1000 leagues worldwide and growing, with (let's assume) more than triple that many teams competing (home teams, jr teams, etc), it is important for these logos and these brands to be unique. Because, let's face it, there are only so many skull/skate/derby pinup variations to go around. (I'm being facetious, internet. Not every derby league loves these things in equal measure, or at all.)

To make that uniqueness resonate with your fans, or to be accessible by potential fans, there needs be some sort of consistency within the brand. In the case of a sports team (on any level) this is usually by team colors. The team colors reach across the brand. They're the color of the field, the color of the uniforms, the color of the rally towels. (Again: I'm aware that derby does not have fields. Or rally towels. Yet.) They're a way for fans to identify not only as supporters of their chosen team, but to identify each other, as a community. You're never going to mistake a Jets fan (green and white) for an Eagles fan (forest and silver).

Now, derby is a little different. We have leagues, and within those leagues there are travel teams, home teams, junior teams, maybe even a rec team. I'm not saying that with that much diversity involved in a league, that all teams must have the same colors. (While some professional sports teams, such as the Phillies, tend to integrate a common color scheme across their farm teams as well, it is not the gold standard. Nor is it a wholly accurate comparison, since farm teams for the parent league play other farm teams, not each other. I digress.)

However, it seems logical that the travel team, the allstar team, whatever you call it, should be the core of the league's branding effort, at least on a national stage. They are, after all, the team that observers in other cities (states, divisions, countries, whatever) think of when they think of the league. When my dad calls me from Philly and talks about Rocky Mountain, he's talking about the 5280 Fight Club, not the Red Ridin' Hoods or the Sugar Kill Gang.

And to that end, it makes sense, to me, to have your league branding effort and your allstar branding effort synch up. Have the logos match. Have the colors match. You can call them the 5280 Fight Club, or the All-Stars, or the Liberty Belles, or whatever you want - but to everyone in your non-local market - anyone that isn't a rabid fan (and let's be honest - that's most fans. The conversion rate from "new fan" to "megaloyal fan" is pretty high, but every new fan has that initial entry point.), they're simply Rocky Mountain. Minnesota. Philly. They're synonymous, and they're the largest public face your league has. What advantage is it to have them represented by different things? By having a disparity in your league/allstar branding effort, you're simply making it that much more difficult for a new/potential fan to identify your product.

So, after a really, really embarrassing amount of back and forth on this with people I've never met on the internet, it has come to light that the reason for the logo/uni differential is... tradition.

MNRG were one of the first flat track derby leagues during the derby resurgence of 2004. The logo, designed then, was never conceived as a marketing tool for a broad audience. As for the evolution of the uniforms, away from the logo colors, I have no info. But basically, the reason for the split is "that's how we started, we're not gonna change it now!"

Which, to me, is preposterous. You're not the same team that you were 8 years ago. Not only are you a different team, but derby is a different sport. To hang on to this old logo, sentimental as it might be, is looking backwards, not forwards. While some might see it as a nod to history, to tradition, the fact is, it causes confusion and breaks up brand consistency. Refusing to evolve your brand is not a cute, kitschy kickback. It's a stubborn, shortsighted means of denying growth to your product's development.

At this point, I'm half tempted to start pulling up various timelines depicting the brand-growth of professional sports teams, from conception to how we know and love them today. Things that include changes in team location, name, color, logo, font, uniform style, hell, even socks. The thing that make these changes necessary is time. Repositioning your brand helps to distinguish it from other similar brands available on the market. The thing that makes these changes stick is consistency. Sports teams change their branding initiatives all the time. But when that happens, it's a systematic, across the board change. Their new uniforms match their new website match their new hats, match the new colors of the dugout and the new logo on their stationary. They don't change the team uniform colors, then keep the old colored logo because it reminds them of their history. That's inconsistent, and doesn't send a coherent message to their consumers. (They do, however, keep an archive of the old branding, and continue to release "retro" styled products. That's also a completely different positioning of the old logos.)

I'm quickly losing steam here, so I'll sum up:
I don't hate the MNRG logo. I just think that it's inconsistent with their brand. If they had someone take 5 minutes in photoshop with it, to update it to their All-Star teams colors of aqua and army (and changed the website color scheme accordingly), everything would be hunky-dory. In synch. Not confusing to new fans - and, yes, there will be new fans, who will be just as confused as I was by their current lack of consistency.

Next month, MNRG (who sadly fell to Windy City) will face Charm City (Baltimore) in the first round of the National Championship tournament. Both teams will be playing live in front of a non-local, to either team, crowd. The broadcast will be viewed not just by fans of the teams, or the divisions they play in, but by all roller derby fans. But Charm City's colors are actually red and gold. Short of the announcers announcing, over and over, that MNRG is in the aqua and army (because fans do not all tune in to the feed at the start of a bout - and the vast majority of fans will be watching this from home, not from the Broomfield Even Center.), it will be up to the fans at home to figure out who is who. And a 10 minute Google search that solves the problem only by process of elimination is not good marketing. Not for MNRG, not for WFTDA, and not for roller derby.

{Update, 1/30/13: Michael McFarland has written an awesome article about the specific artistic flaws of derby logos, that compliments my issues here almost perfectly. Check it out: Rebranding Roller Derby: Athletic Logos and Sports Design

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coming Clean or, We Call This Burying the Lede.

I've been rolling this around in my mouth for days, now, and I still don't know how to say it.

I've typed more than a handful of versions out, and none of them seem right. The thing is, I'm leaping in to NaBloWriMo, and I honestly don't know how I'm going to manage a month's worth of entries without coming clean about this to the blog.

And I tried do a "short" version of it, but it just turned into a long version anyway, so if you're interested, read on. And if you're not... I dunno. Skim. Maybe there'll be important bullet points along the way.

When I started this blog, I had every intention of chronicling my story of quitting grad school and moving on with my universe, through the lens of depression (which every therapist I've ever been to has agreed has some sort of hold on me), general anxiety (only the more recent therapists have agreed that this might be a thing), and social anxiety (subset of general, painfully obvious to everyone around me.)

It has been, and is, harder than I thought it would be, mostly because it's difficult for me to write about how hard things are, or to wrap things up in a tidy bow at the end of posts. The thing is, depression sucks. Anxiety sucks. They're not "oh I had a bad day so I took a bubble bath and now I'm better" posts, they're "I'm too incapacitated by sadness to take the 10 steps from my bed to my bathroom to fill up the bathtub" posts. They don't end on high notes, or with solutions. And I've been scared to post, publicly, about how I'm "really" doing.

The other part was that aside from a few moments of abject depressive hysteria, very few of the things I was writing felt true. And since I couldn't figure out why, I just... didn't write.

Switching gears: A few years ago, a friend of mind who did happen to see those depressed-hysterical thought-spews recommended a book to me. I glanced at the author's website, but never really followed up on it. It had a hokey title, and sounded like a self-help book. Neither of these things have any sort of appeal to me.

But funny enough, something about it must have grabbed me, because every few months, I'd go back to the website, and wonder if there might be something to all of it.

Last month, I was low. Lower than I've been in a really long time. Hysterical, phone-a-friend, serious thoughts of self-harm low. (It's hard to say any of this out loud, in public. My gut instinct is to cover it all up with platitudes and denial - "I'm ok now." "I'm fine." "Don't worry about me"'s. I don't want anyone to swoop in and try to save me, but at the same time, I desperately want to stop hiding the sheer fact that yes, sometimes there are these things, and they're bad things, and they're terrible, and they're hard, but they're TRUE. I'm not comfortable hiding my depression anymore.) After a late night at a friend's place, freaking out her boyfriend with my crying, I did one of the hardest things I've ever done as an adult: I walked into a bookstore, and headed for the self-help section.

The best part of this was discovering that the book I was looking for was not, in fact, shelved in the self-help section. It was in Psychology, which, ironically enough, made/makes me feel less crazy about the whole thing.

I picked up a copy of the book that my friend had recommended to me years ago, and started reading the introduction. And there, at 7pm, in this independent bookstore in the heart of downtown, I started crying. It would've been sobbing, probably, if I hadn't learned how to cry silently years and years ago.

3 pages in, and already the author had identified behaviors and patterns that I could barely explain to myself, let alone verbalize to other people. Things that I had been thinking about and living with and knowing for as long as I can remember being able to, y'know, think.

These things in my head, about my head... they weren't just symptoms of the depression, of the anxiety. They're a whole separate thing. And it's not bad, it's not scary, it's not yet another disorder to lump on top of the others, it is, at its heart, just a different way of interpreting sensory data, and a difference in how data is processed and acted upon. Not bad. Not scary. Just different.

I identify as what Elaine Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Person. If you're interested, you can poke around on her website. The link she includes to the basic assessment test is super telling, and likely does a better job of explaining what being an HSP is and feels like than what I could do in my own words. (For the record: Aron suggests that if you score a 14 or higher on the self test, you are probably Highly Sensitive. I scored 23.)

Reading her books have been a strange journey of self discovery for me. I'm not learning anything new, per se, but it's wonderful and scary and freeing to not only have a name for what goes on in my head, but to know that there are other people out there. And to know that I'm not broken.

So there. That's that. I'm an HSP. I'm not sure how that information is going to manifest itself in this blog, but I felt that it was important information to share. Maybe it'll give you a better perspective on how I live my life, make the decisions I make, think the things I think. Maybe saying it out loud, in the blog, will let me be more open and honest with my process - both how I'm progressing, and how I'm getting there. Right now, I'm really not sure.

But being open about feels real, feels true. Feels like a Thing I Need To Do in order to keep moving forward with things.


Now you know.