Strong Communities, Stronger Learning

Over the years, I’ve joined a variety of interest-based communities – the StrongFirst community, the NKT Scholar community, the Precision Nutrition community and, of course,  the derby community.  Each of these communities bring something unique to my life and learning.

Derby is a prime example of community building in action – a group committed to finding information and making decisions that better conditions for everyone involved.  And yet, I hear all the time about struggles to find help and challenges in group decision-making.  Why can working with a group be so tough, especially when the community in question is so awesome?

Even though I’ve been entrenched in derby for 6 years now, I didn’t really start thinking about how a group can best learn together until I attended the StrongFirst Kettlebell Instructor certification last November.  Here were 30 or so people I’d never met, or met only in prep for the certification, and for those three days they were my family.  We sweat together, learned together, cursed together, and we bonded in a way that only shared biological events can do to a group.

My takeaway was that StrongFirst isn’t just about building strength and skill. It’s about building community and compassion. It’s not just about demonstrating beast-like capabilities on the gym floor, it’s about demonstrating grace and respect in all you do.  The instructors don’t just talk a good game, they walk it every day.

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I’ve experienced the same support from NKT and Precision Nutrition.  Seasoned practitioners are keen to help newbies, Facebook groups help you navigate skill development.  If you have a question, just ask it, chances are you’ll get an answer.  Their codes of conduct were clear, everyone knew the mission of the organization, and, above all, you were encouraged to seek help.

I feel privileged to be a member of all of these groups, and am awed by the support that’s out there.

Which brings me back to derby.  The derby-verse is full of communities, group learning, and shared biological events.  It’s overflowing with amazing people who know a lot about how to run a league, how to solve operational problems, how to impart skills.  Derby has the WFTDA boards, RollerCon, clinics and workshops – all sorts of avenues for information sharing.  The pathways to support are endless.

And yet, when faced with learning a new skill or tackling a new problem, so many of us feel lost and alone.  Why don’t we ask for the help we need, given that there are so many ways to get it?

Unlike solitary learning, community learning means working with other people and being receptive to viewpoints different from your own – this can force us to examine our stances.  Group learning also includes a certain amount of admitting that you don’t know everything about everything.  Add to that the intimidation factor of reaching out to someone who might know things that you don’t *gasp*, and sometimes you get so nervous that you decide to fend for yourself.

The older I get, the more I realize that momentarily looking dumb is worth the payback you get from asking.  People generally like to respond to questions – it makes them feel helpful.  I’ve asked help of people I was completely star-struck by and they were always gracious and kind when responding.

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So, asking for help shouldn’t be the issue.

What about receiving help?  When you learn something new, sometimes the information you receive challenges what you think you know.  When we feel as though our principles or intellect are being challenged, we get defensive.  Being defensive is antithetical to growth.  There’s tons of empirical evidence showing that folks will defend a position they don’t even feel that strongly about if they feel as though they’re being challenged – it’s often why diets don’t work.  I might not love Twinkies, but if you tell me I can’t have them because they are awful for me, I will fight to keep them in my life.  If your back is up, your mind likely isn’t open.

When I go to a workshop – derby or otherwise – I try to enter the room assuming that I don’t know anything.  That way, I’m ready and willing to have my assumptions challenged and my mind blown.

Another awesome (and challenging) thing about building shared community knowledge is that even though group members use different tactics to accomplish things and come with diverse points of view, pretty much everyone is working for the greater good and believes in what the organization is trying to do in the world.  Too often, we forget that we really are all working towards the same goal.  We get bound up in the little details, figure everyone is against us, and try to slug it out on our own.  Just as with resistance to asking for help, those feelings come down to clarity, communication, and open-mindedness.

Our travel time as derby players, the ridiculous amount of time that we spend crashing into each other at practice, our team dinners, our board meetings, our tournaments – these are ALL opportunities to build a strong, smart community that shares what it knows.  A community that can thrive.  What are some practices that can get us there?  Here are my best ideas:

  • Put community first – when derby decisions need to be made think, “Is this good for roller derby at large?  Is it good for my league?  Is it good for my team?  Is it good for me?” – IN THAT ORDER.
  • Let’s all be clear about where we want to go and what we want to accomplish.  On a global, league, team, and individual level.  There will be lots of ideas – make sure to actually listen to them all.  WFTDA has a mission statement, so (likely) does your league – seek it out, clarify what it means, let it inform the way you do things.
  • Reach out.  Often.  Even when you think you have the best answer, see how other people are doing it.
  • Assume you don’t have the best answer – that way you’ll be open to a variety solutions and strategies.
  • On the other side of that coin, don’t be afraid to be an expert.  Offer help, share interesting ways that you’ve solved problems – the value of outside perspective should never be underestimated.
  • Take discussions slowly enough that you can see when the argument is actually different parts of the same solution.
  • Finally, remember that people work and learn differently.  Most groups will have a dreamer (the one with the big ideas), a doubter (the one who questions those ideas), and an engineer (the one who puts the ideas into action).  All of these group roles are valid – Dreamers aren’t just idealists trying to tell you how to do things better, and Doubters aren’t trying to tank the project – they’re understanding things in the way that comes most naturally.  And no project will get off the ground without all three.

Derby is a sport full of incredibly strong women – let’s share our strengths, our insights, and our knowledge to make our community just as strong as its members.

photo courtesy Joe Mac

photo courtesy Joe Mac

Want a super-comprehensive guide to making group learning work?  Give this a look.

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