Maha El Nasser – Interview


Maha El Nasser is a Roller Derby Coach from the US, now based in the UK. ?Maha got hooked on the sport after taking part as a player, she left her previous role as rowing coach to commit full time to roller derby.

Having coached at Leeds Roller Dolls (a club in Yorkshire, England) Maha now focusses on the development of Roller Derby in the UK and has formed her own organisation called Rule 56 which aims to support the growth of the sport.

We thought it was about time we shared with you Maha’s coaching journey and her aims in developing the sport in the UK…



So roller derby is a new sport ? or an old sport with a shiny new athletic twist. I play flat track roller derby (as opposed to banked track, which is where it has its origins). Flat track is predominant mostly because it?s a lot easier to rock up and do, you just need a floor big enough. We skate on any surface available, really. Any place that will let us put our wheels down.

The game is run as two 30-minute periods. Each period is broken into jams. Each jam lasts a maximum of two minutes. Every new jam is an opportunity to field a different set of skaters (or not). Each team fields four blockers and one jammer. The jammer scores points by getting through the pack of blockers and then lapping the pack, one point for each opposing blocker they pass on each turn of the track. The blockers? job is to stop the opposing jammer and to help their jammer. That?s it in a nutshell. A very simplistic nutshell.

There are some good explanations of roller derby out there, but they?re all a bit longer. Go forth and Google.

So why am I passionate about it? I love the strategy. I love that it’s like a big full-contact jigsaw puzzle. I love that it?s a developing sport so every single time you watch a tournament people are playing the game differently. The rules keep getting tweaked to reflect new ways that people are manipulating the game. It keeps it interesting and fresh and every single change demands a new skill or ability or skating style. You never stop learning and adapting.

One thing that really sets roller derby apart at the moment is that unlike most sports, women have shaped our game and forged the way forward in roller derby, and are the leading athletes that all the skaters, regardless of gender, look up to and want to emulate. And of course, these role models empower other women to take up the sport and continually push the boundaries competitively. Although competitive, the roller derby community is accepting and supportive, and the most inclusive of all sports.

Its the community that I find really unique about roller derby. Because of how it?s developed and the ownership that the players have taken to build this sport up from scratch; it’s built on their rules and on the rules of the world we live in now. There are no historical preconditions or expectations. It strives to be accepting of everyone and when it isn’t, when it starts to feel exclusive in some respect, the community tears that open and expands again.

I moved to coaching roller derby because I started playing roller derby and it took over a bit. It?s not a unique story in our sport. It takes over. I tend to be an all or nothing sort of a person, so I was happy enough to throw myself all in. The coaching started bit by bit.

Very few leagues in the UK have actual coaches the way other sports understand them. Mostly the teams coach themselves, usually by committee and a lot of it is skill share rather than programmed coaching. It depends on the league, how long they’ve been around, and who happens to be skating with them, really. It?s very diverse, but it generally comes down to active skaters coaching their teammates. So as soon as you can stand up and have a skill to share, you?re set to leading the others.

It’s not a bad thing. So many people who never considered coaching or who lacked self-confidence have found their feet in coaching through the no other choice path. But clubs still struggle with putting together coherent strategies and training narratives that meet the needs of their members.

When I started as Head Coach for the Wrecking Brawls, I had the confidence that I could coach, but I was pretty in the dark with how to teach people how to skate. Even with my years of experience I felt lost and grasping for resources that either didn?t exist or were hard to find. Spending the first 6 months wondering if you’re ruining new skaters by doing it wrong is not a nice feeling. And it?s not a necessary one. Coaching networks and certifications aren?t a panacea but they can help.

Rule 56 is the beginning of an idea of how to strengthen roller derby by providing resources and opportunities for the community. It is a community that is so full of skill and good will that some days I think if they had the time, roller derby folk could rule the world. But that?s the thing, there?s not always enough time amidst all the other things a developing sport is contending with. We need more resource to build some of the foundations of a sustainable sporting community. Rule 56 is trying to fill some of those gaps, offer the foundations for the community to build on and grow.

Coaching is a big one of those foundations. We don?t currently have a recognized certification pathway. This limits growth not only as individuals and coaches, but also in terms of getting into schools, running classes, being on the radar of the sporting world as a whole. While they aren?t the be all and end all, certifications can add credibility and opportunity and bring people in.

The conference (Derby Stance UK : Coaching Summit) is intended to provide food for thought for existing coaches, but also a space for discussion for the community. Alongside clinics and sessions about the how to’s and the theory behind coaching, we?ll be facilitating workshops to identify what the community needs and wants in order to improve and strengthen our coaching. The UKRDA (our national governing body) is very supportive of the event and will be using some of the outputs of the discussion sessions to map out the next steps in the development of a coaching pathway.

We have so many great speakers from across sport and across roller derby. Nadia Kean ( is one of the preeminent roller derby coaches and will be our featured speaker, delivering the key note as well as delivering sessions on learning types and recognizing athlete indicators of learning. Ballistic is the head coach for London Roller Girls, one of the top five teams in the world, and has coached Team England in the last two World Cups. He?ll be speaking about explorative coaching methodologies. And then we have coaches from other sports that will be contributing their experience from working in more established sporting environments. Chris Baird has worked in Premier League Football and will be speaking about programming movement. And Jenna Downing, world champion Inline skater who runs Wheels Extreme will be speaking about motivating young athletes and the value of sport.

Because we’re focusing on creating networks and working together to build the sport, having the FCN involved is paramount. Vicky Huyton will be speaking about the value of networks and what makes a successful coaching network this will hopefully be a catalyst for our next steps as coaches.

As for how people can get involved first off, if there are coaches from other sport that have something to contribute, get in touch. We want to offer as much possibility and opportunity to the roller derby community to see different coaching development models and how different sports use their coaches. It would be amazing to have a few more voices in that conversation.

If folks want to come along and learn, tickets are here. It is focused on building the roller derby community but non-skaters are more than welcome if they want to learn more about roller derby or if they think they might be interested in coaching roller derby.

And, last but not least, if people want to come and chat about coaching in an informal environment, maybe have a go at skate ramps or meet some new people, we?re hosting a big party at The Works for our delegates, but it is open to anyone who wants to come along.

I don’t think I have an ultimate goal. Coaching for me is a selfish pursuit. It’s something that helps bring me out of my own head and connect with people and with sport. I love it. I want to progress to being a better and better coach and I want to help people achieve things in sport that they didn’t realise they could do. But really, I just want to be there surrounded by roller derby, being happy.

What we need to note is that the UK is about five years behind the States in terms of engaging with roller derby and building a local sport community. The roller derby resurgence and the development of the sport as it exists today all began in the States. Americans have heard of roller derby. The British public hasn?t. So within that context, you can start to understand some of the differences in the culture of the sport community itself.

Big teams in America pull in people and pull in cash to watch them play. A lot of UK teams don?t bring in enough people to make a profit so essentially they pay to play. This means we don’t play as much. American leagues developed a system of home teams which not only build up local community following but mean that they can play without travelling (America is vast). In the UK, we?ve not got a non-skating community to drive the fixtures or as much of a need to create an intraleague sporting environment since the next league over isn?t 100 miles away.

Because the sport is just that much more established in the States, it feels like a Sport and they host Sporting Events. In the UK, everything is all still very grass roots. It is evolving. Initially UK roller derby modelled itself entirely on the American structure. That structure doesn?t work quite so well for us, but it’s taken awhile to figure out why and how come. In the States it feels like roller derby has its identity. In the UK, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that is and how we can make it work for us.