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Roller Derby and the Fine Art of Sisu

Sisu: A Finnish concept and cultural construct that describes strength of will, determination, tenacity, grit, bravery and acting rationally in the face of adversity.  It’s not temporary bravery, but a sustained courage that Finns hold dear as an important component of national heritage.

There are many terms in other languages that don’t translate neatly into English: the German Fremdschämen comes to mind- a vicarious embarrassment one feels when witnessing someone making a fool of themselves in front of a crowd.  As a matter of fact, roller derby and Fremdschämen could be a whole separate and wildly entertaining article, but I digress.

The Finnish Sisu, defined above is one of these concepts.

Here, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, one will find some of the largest populations of people of Finnish ancestry outside of Finland proper.  Given the isolation during the winter months and the extreme weather, Sisu is definitely a ubiquitous and very much applicable term. As a newcomer to the area, I had never heard of anything like it; but now I find the concept intriguing and culturally fascinating.

Moving here in 2015, not only did I learn about Sisu, but I also joined the local roller derby league, the Keweenaw Roller Girls.  Starting as a brand new, older, out of shape skater, it became apparent after my first graceless time on skates that I had a lot to learn!  A healthy dose of determination, drive, and stubbornness in addition to receiving wonderful support from my league are what kept me going.  I would soon learn that tenacity combined with stubbornness is what lies at the heart of Sisu.  And boy, does it apply to participating in all aspects of roller derby.  Perhaps it’s something we all possess, but the Finns have just been clever enough to put a name to it.

For me, Sisu kept me going in the following situations:

Fresh Meat:

My debut on quad skates mentioned above, was not pretty, and I know I’m not alone.  I barely made it away from the safety of the hockey rink boards.  I think I had fun… but I frankly was too preoccupied with not dying to remember.  The following days required Sisu: muscles I didn’t even know I had were killing me! My husband kindly solidified my resolve when he said something to the effect of “maybe this sport isn’t for you”.  I had a violent attack of Sisu and vowed to not give up in spite of some muscle soreness and husband comment-making.


One aspect of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) minimum required skills test needed to be passed by all skaters in order to safely bout.  Twenty-seven laps on a regulation track in five minutes: my white whale.  It took me close to two years of skating before I finally passed this test. But for the grace of Sisu, I would have definitely packed it in and allowed it to defeat me.  No doubt about it, 27/5 is a beast, but one that (ugh I sound like my dad here) builds character and fosters Sisu in even the most capable players.

Not Being Historically a Very Skilled Athlete:

Read: generally a hot mess athletically.  The heading says it all, and I know I’m not alone in the derby community in having been picked last for more than one team growing up.  The beauty of roller derby is that there’s a role for everyone, providing they have Sisu and are willing to work hard to discover what that role may be.  I personally highly value my league’s commitment to fostering training and athleticism in skaters of all abilities.

I’m sure there are many more examples that I’m forgetting.  That’s the thing about Sisu: it isn’t necessarily something one consciously commits to exerting, it’s something that comes from deep within when we feel like giving up.  Thankfully I haven’t been very injury prone, but many fine skaters I know have been.  It’s Sisu that keeps them committing to treatment, rehab, prehab, returning, and overcoming fear of re-injury.

At the end of the day, it’s definitely easier to walk away from a challenge, but there’s no reward in that.  Exerting Sisu and playing roller derby go hand in hand- keep that in mind next time you have a particularly terrible practice, or you pull a muscle.  In my eyes, roller derby is for everyone, especially those lucky folks like us who now know the power of Sisu.

TJF 5/18/18