Trust Your Gut: Support Your Alts, A Team Primer.

Trust Your Gut: Support Your Alts, A Team Primer. Photo credit Danforth Johnson

Several weeks ago, I penned a piece about the Alt Year – that frustrating period that a skater spends trying to make a roster, but game time after game time finds themselves instead stuck outside the rostered 14, on the Alt list. In it, I listed some of the common nasty feelings that Alts experience, and why they are poisonous to your derby career. I also laid out a step-by-step plan to making your Alt year your bitch.

But the Alt year isn’t just about the Alts themselves and their mental game. Derby leagues, coaches, and captains all have a responsibility to their whole team, Alts included. And the specific needs of that group of people often goes unacknowledged, to the detriment of the team – particularly because they can (incorrectly) often be thought of as some kind of add-on to the team proper.

Over the years, I’ve seen incredibly hard-working and talented skaters walk away from their teams, sick of their thankless plight on the Alt list. Roller derby leagues need a new way of talking about this phenomenon if they hope to retain their most promising skaters. So let’s launch an important dialogue about it, starting right now.

If you’re a coach, captain or teammate, the season haitus is the perfect time to really think about how you can support the whole of your team to be the best they can in 2016.

Alts often feel unsatisfied and confused about their position on the team, but they also don’t want to come off as ungrateful or like they’re in any way reluctant to fully commit to the team. They don’t want to seem like a bad teammate by complaining or asking for more than they’re being offered, but that doesn’t mean their needs shouldn’t be met.

Coaches and captains can help make all the difference to the team by being more aware of the Alts’ needs. Even fellow teammates have a crucial role to play.

If you’re one of those people, here are the 5 key things your Alts need you to know.


Your Alts need you to know that this is NOT the position they dreamt about when they joined roller derby.

It completely sucks to ‘pay your dues’ and make attendance like everyone else and still not get to play. Their friends and family are all asking them when they can see them play, and they have to tell them, over and over, that they’re not going to be on the track this game, but maybe next time…? And then repeat.

It sucks. It really, really, REALLY sucks.

And yes, it is a part of the statistical necessity of learning, and putting together any game roster, but numbers or the learning curve as an explanation doesn’t make that emotional toll any less. Just acknowledging that price can go a long way.

2. “Talk to me.”

This is roller derby, and communication is key both on and off the track. Model that. Talk to your Alts.

Seriously, you cannot talk to them enough. Be upfront with your Alts about their position on the team, and what kind of play time they should expect throughout the season as you get a sense of it yourself. Even acknowledging that variables may change is useful here, but remember to update those expectations.

If your team has a charter of 20, you have more than a handful of skaters who will be cycling through the Alt list throughout the season. Give them some idea of what they should be focusing on in order to be a good teammate. Talk to them before the roster comes out, so that they’re not left alone staring at the computer screen and coming up with reasons to quit derby because they don’t know how to hope or plan for more track time.

Don’t be wishy-washy here. Be direct. “We believe in your potential to become a great skater, which is why we want you training with the 14. But you shouldn’t expect to see very much play time this season.” That works. Then give them tips and pointers. It’s better to delight someone with unexpected play time later, and help them focus on the future, than disappoint them again and again, all year, with no hope for more.

3. “You have a responsibility to develop me as a teammate.”

As you are well aware, being the captain or coach of a team is full of responsibilities aside from the basics like leading drills, being there on game day, and talking to the refs. Your Alts are your responsibility, just as much as any of the other players. Look after them.

One day your star players will retire. They will get injured. They’ll get ‘the 9-month injury’ (read: pregnancy). Who will move up into their place? Your Alts need to be trained thoroughly, alongside the 14. This is the only way they will learn to work with the team, and the only way the team can learn to work with them for exactly those moments.

Make sure you are inviting your Alts to every team practice, every team meeting, and every team celebration, and they never get treated like anything less than a full member of the team. You can be a model for this behavior, and you can directly create a culture that maintains and enforces this.

Photo credit Danforth Johnson

Photo credit Danforth Johnson

4. “Carve out a role for me.”

I can’t stress this enough. Alts are in the perfect position to provide the team with off-skates help and expertise. In fact, if you’re not carving out a role for your Alts, you’re really just wasting your team’s best support resource – they know the team, their needs, and personalities, and they are focused in on that at every game time.

Teach your Alts actions tracking, bench coaching, jam coaching, and how to assess derby stats (you are using stats, aren’t you?). Your Alts will feel better having a tangible impact on the team’s strategy. They will get to know the game better. You will have the help you need to run your team smoothly, and if something happens to you, there are people who know what’s happening right there to step in with support.

You can have them practice bench coaching during home team scrimmages, or you can take a field trip together to practice stats and actions tracking for a neighboring team. Have them take stats or track actions on your next opponent.

Take the necessary time to teach your Alts these important roles, and provide them with opportunities to practice. Try to especially do this in a way that does not cut into their skating time at practice, so they still have a chance to move into the regular 14.

5. “Grant me respect.”

Each of these tips rolls into this one essential mandate: respect your Alts as athletes, and as people. Reasonable, dedicated people with thoughts and feelings.

Don’t dismiss or discount your Alts’ frustrations; they are very real, and have a real impact on your team. Talking to your Alts about their role on the team will help them manage their expectations, but it will also help you learn more about their desires and goals, and help maintain team morale overall as their teammates see respect modeled across the board.

Respect can manifest in a whole range of practical ways.

For example, I know some Alts who love travelling with the team to out-of-town tournaments, and will opt to do it every time, no issue. And I also know other Alts who have a hard time getting off work and aren’t sure if the personal cost is worth the trip if they know they aren’t going to play. Both of these approaches are valid, and neither type of player is intrinsically more or less committed to the team.

Give your Alts a choice with clear reasons why you might prefer one over the other, but either way, you should fully support their choice. If your Alts want to travel, help pay their way as much as you would help the rostered players. If your Alts want to stay home, don’t hold that choice against them – every person on the team has a lot of variables to consider when they make those choices, and you won’t necessarily know every one of them, so accept that they’re making the best possible decision they can.


Every coach and captain should think carefully and genuinely about how they’re going to develop their Alts throughout their Alt years, even if it means that they need to reconsider some of own assumptions and practices up till now. And this is the perfect time of year to do that.

As I’ve mentioned before, Alt years are a mathematical fact. Ignoring or lamenting that fact is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Instead, let’s look right at one of the other key facts about Alts: They can be a terrific resource to the team!

Their talents really can take your team to the next level, in so many ways. Their dedication and drive keeps their rostered teammates on their toes, forcing the entire teams’ standards higher and higher. They can be the best resource to support play on game day, and throughout the whole season. This is a great time to plan to foster and encourage this in your whole team.

Take responsibility for your Alts and you will be on your way towards growing a healthy, sustainable, and successful team.

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