A lot of people were surprised to hear that Team England Roller Derby's Ballistic Whistle announce that he did not intend to reapply for the role in the current round of recruitment. (The applications for the Team England (Women's) coaching and management roles are currently being voted on.) Considering his contributions to Roller Derby, both in the National teams, and also ongoing with London Rollergirls and Southern Discomfort, we thought it was a good idea to catch up with him and talk about, well, him. (This interview is also undertaken in collaboration with the UK Roller Derby Association, as part of our National Teams series.)
Ballistic Whistle (London Rollergirls v Rat City) (Photo: Steve Messerer)
Despite the wide range of your involvement in Roller Derby, you're probably best known as the Coach and Bench Manager of London Roller Girls, who pretty much were the vanguard of Europe's entry into the top levels of Roller Derby. Did you feel responsible, in a way, for representing the UK or Europe in the early days of LRG going across to the States (and is it more of a relief that other teams are now increasingly high level)? I don't feel that was ever a specific goal or aim of ours. From a really early stage we had aspirations of travelling to the States to play high level derby. That benchmark over the years has continued to be pushed on and on to test how far we can go. Through our first tour of the States, and the first visit of American teams to our shores it was quite evident just how much support we were receiving from the UK and Europe. Feeling that during our Stateside trips has always been amazing for us and serves as quite an emotional motivator when away from home. If we have had an impact on how enthusiastic other players and teams are for playing the sport then we've definitely achieved one of our aims.
Literally everyone we've spoken to before this interview has mentioned specifically that you're a nice guy (and you parodied this in your appearance in the LRG Fort Wayne's World promo videos [which sadly seem to have mostly disappeared from the internet]). Do you think this surprises people? Haha, that's nice of you to say. I guess I try my best not to irk people on purpose, but I definitely have my foibles and personality clashes just like anyone else. I guess what I find most interesting is how people will formulate an idea of you without ever having met you, purely by how they would expect a person in my position to be. I'll often meet someone for the first time and there will be a period of trying to balance out the shockwaves in our interactions as a result of how they expect me to behave. I'd really love to not have to do that.
As well as coaching and bench managing, you also find the time to play on track, with Southern Discomfort (as well as another signing we'll get to next…). How does your time on track contribute to your coaching decisions (and which would you rather be known as: a great coach, or a great skater)? I took some time off during the 2015 season to try and rehabilitate a back injury. It was during this season that there was a major swing towards formation defense. I realised after a number of months that I was lacking empathy for the difficulty our players had working against this formation. Some of the minor adjustments I was asking our players to make, were actually majorly difficult. Getting back into playing has helped me incredibly to understand what is possible and where the difficulties lie in the modern game. I also get the opportunity to jump in with Brawling from time to time, which I find incredibly helpful to understand what it feels like being inside of the on track action.
I roll all of these experiences into my coaching; I guess that answers your parenthesised question. I have no doubt that I love coaching more than playing. I feel like seeing my friends achieve amazing things is much more rewarding for me than achieving them myself. The great thing about fighting to see your team-mates reach their goals, is that you generally achieve yours as a result!
And you recently made the roster for the Team Australia (Wizards of Aus) who will be competing at the Men's Roller Derby World Cup in Calgary. How did you make the decision to represent your birth nation in the World Cup, and how does it feel to be on the team? Um, actually, it's not my birth nation. I was born in Denmark to a Danish father and Belgian mother. I arrived in Australia on my 2nd birthday and remained there until age 25. But, if you were to ask me what I considered my nationality it would be Australia.
At the first World Cup, I had the amazing opportunity to participate with so many of my great derby friends for Team England. Being a part of that team was a fantastic experience, but it wasn't until I was selected for the Australia team that I truly understood what the other players on that English team felt during that first World Cup. In hindsight, I felt incredibly guilty for taking that feeling from someone during the first World Cup, and I feel that is the special thing about that event. Playing for your nation is something that can call on something deeper. At all World Cups I have attended, both male and female, hearing the Australian national anthem has been a...tricky...moment for me emotionally. At this next World Cup, I am going to be so happy to be able to belt out the anthem without any mixed feelings.
You've been Team England Coach for two World Cups, and London Roller Girls coach for 5 years. While both positions are top-level coaching positions, are there more differences than might be apparent? Absolutely. There's no substitute for working with the same team week in week out. You can definitely deliver the most effective change in strategy and refine what you do on track on multiple occasions over a shorter period of time. With both teams you are dealing with a group of incredibly talented skaters, but with Team England it was much more of a situation of building cohesion. Nailing down defaults and making sure, as much as possible, everyone is on the same page.
With the England team, there was the tricky balance of trying not to be just Brawling + friends, but really appreciate that there are different ways to play. World Cups comprise a number of nations from the extreme fledgling derby countries to the most seasoned. We had always set our sights on taking on the most seasoned. Hopefully in coming World Cup cycles, there will be more English players in other teams who have more of that high-level derby play and will be ready to take on the best countries in the world. With limited training sessions, it becomes a lot more sink or swim when put into that intensely hot cauldron of competition, and so it is all about looking for the players who can take that pressure and really excel. Without the experience of that level, it comes so much more down to personality.
Recently, you announced that you would not be applying for the role of Team England Head Coach this time around. Can we talk a bit about your reasons for this, and your feelings about the decision? The 2015 season was one that definitely took a toll on me. Brawling, at the beginning of the season, had set ourselves what we thought was the ultimate goal (incidentally, we have since understood that the Hydra is not the ultimate goal). Having an amazing season and falling short at the critical time definitely hit me with my first proper feeling of derby burnout in the 9 1/2 years I've been in the sport.
This year we've set our sights even higher than the goals we set last year and I understand what that is going to take from me on a personal level. I also feel that this time around, we are blessed with a number of candidates that could really use this as a springboard to get that experience of that new level. I obviously have mixed feelings about it. Watching England at the World Cup is going to be tough as I'll be wanting the best for all my friends on that team, but will have zero input on helping them achieve that. I'll be waving the 3 Lions flag regardless.
And, what have been the high and low points in your 6 years as TE Head Coach? Again, it's only 5 years really as the lead up to that first World Cup happened in the same year.
The lows have always been any time we needed to make some kind of cut to the squad, whether that be to the charter that would go to an event or the roster of 14 that would play. I've been tasked with making these decisions countless times during my life as a coach, but it never gets easy telling talented players that they aren't going to have the opportunity, this time, to do what they love.
As bad as those moments are, they are eclipsed by the highs, and I feel like one of the biggest highs was our final against the USA at the 2014 World Cup. Prior to the game I had pored over and re-written my pre-game speech so many times I thought I had written the perfect speech. I got in there and saw all of those players looking at me to hear the message I had for them at that point. Prior to a game where getting all of the 1 percenters right mattered. I threw everything I had written out the window and just spoke from the heart. Anyone in that room will be able to tell you that the message was pretty simple. Regardless of its simplicity, I feel like it resonated with the players, and really struck a chord. In spite of the result, it was one of those games where we just felt like we were playing on point, executing our strategies so well. It all felt so streamlined and precise, against potentially the toughest group of individual skaters you could ever face on track. For it to culminate in one of my derby idols - Kamikaze Kitten - taking us over the 100 point mark in the final jam, I couldn't have asked for a better written story. For me, that game illustrated what Roller Derby (and playing team sport for that matter) is truly all about.
Given your experience in the role, do you have any advice to pass on to your successor as Head Coach? I feel like there are a lot of coaches out there who work with a top down decision making structure. The coach will dictate the direction and decisions the team makes, sometimes opening the floor to the players for input. When working with some of the best players to ever play the sport, it would be remiss of any coach not to leverage that knowledge and experience. Every single player that played for Team England has a wealth of experience, has an incredibly active derby brain. It's so important to keep those brains ticking over and thinking at a high level, rather than trying to stifle them.
Working with both Brawling and England has shown me that when you are dealing with these incredibly talented groups of players, you are just one equally important part of the team, rather than the single decision making point. Having said that, there definitely comes a point whereby the players need to focus on playing and the decisions need to be directed. The closer to game time this is, the more important it becomes for the coach to take responsibility for decision making. So, rather than a top down, triangle type shape, I think of it more of an hourglass decision making shape. The active brains in the team will feed their ideas into the team's leadership or management, and the leadership with all of this great information will compile it and disseminate a directed decision to the team to execute.
Lastly, coaching a high level national team at a World Cup is something that not many people the world over will ever be able to say they did with their life. It's exhilarating, and the more you put into it, the greater the reward will be. Don't fuck it up!