3 Thoughts on Moving Derby Forward (Literally)

Reason why skating forward is the key to advancing the sport forward.

The last few weeks have been good for roller derby fans. While the flat track season has yet to get into full swing, the banked track community is running full steam ahead with great games left and right. They’ve been having so much fun early in the year, flat track teams and skaters have been wanting to get in on the action.

Last month, the Oly Rollers came down to San Diego for their first-ever game on the bank. Last week, the WFTDA Champion Gotham Girls went Hollywood to take on the L.A. Derby Dolls. This past weekend, the March Radness exhibition bout at the Doll Factory featured some of the country’s top skaters sprinkled into the Los Angeles/San Diego rivalry.

For a derby fan like me, it’s heaven. For a derby advocate like me, it’s also heaven.

In a wonderful coincidence, these three games are perfect examples of why roller derby is at its best when players are in motion. A pack that naturally and constantly rolls forward (and rules that actively promote such happenings) makes banked track games faster, more dynamic, and a whole lot of fun to watch.

Though the style of play is different, the WFTDA and flat track roller derby in general could take a few lessons from the world of the tilty-trackers. After all, roller derby is still roller derby regardless of the surface it’s played on.

With that in mind, here are three observations from the last three banked track games played in Southern California.

Slow packs and rear blocker walls work great…until they don’t

Oly 123, San Diego 102
February 18 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds

As is their style, San Diego heavily relied on rear blocker walls throughout the game in an attempt to trap jammers, goat blockers, split packs, and keep the pace of the pack nice and slow for their own jammers to pile on the scoring passes against Oly.

To facilitate this, the Wildfires blockers began almost every single jam with three or four of their blockers butting up against the rear of the blocker start box. As a result, San Diego usually started with the Oly jammer behind a 3- or 4-wall at the back of a very slowly moving pack.

This is a stiflingly effective a defensive tactic, one that’s very common in flat track play. The argument could be made that it’s even more effective on the banked track, as their rules make it illegal to skate backwards. This can make it nearly impossible for a team getting too far ahead of a slow pack to retreat and help their teammate through.

However, for as well as the rear wall strategy can benefit a team using it, there were two jams early in the game that demonstrated how devastating it can be for that team if it backfires.

This first example shows what happens when the San Diego rear wall breaks down. Psycho Babble, the Oly jammer, manages to slip around it and get lead jammer relatively easily. Here’s a video (no audio):

This left San Diego in the worst possible position. Their jammer was stuck behind Oly’s 4-wall at the front. The SD blockers couldn’t just let the pack split; not only would they get a clear penalty, it would give Psycho more time to make her scoring pass. Worst of all, they couldn’t do very much to break up the front 4-wall since Oly had position and were good in staying in front to keep it.

This made it easy for Psycho to get a full five points on the play. She could have gone for another pass or two had she not called it off early, actually, as there was still a decent amount of time left on the jam clock by then.

This jam shows the negative of an all-hands-on-deck rear wall blocking formation. To put it simply, if the wall is defeated before the pack splits, that team is fucked.

A) Your typical dual 4-wall slow start. B) If the rear wall breaks down before the pack splits, it will accelerate in an attempt to contain. However, this can lead to a blocker sealing off her own teammates if the jammer slips around the edge of the wall. C) The increased rear wall speed lets the team at the front also speed up, ultimately giving them an immense positional advantage. Without a “Plan B,” the team at the back is bound to give up multiple scoring passes during the play.

The preceding jam is another good example of this concept.

In it, San Diego had a 3-2 pack advantage. Again, San Diego lined up all abreast behind Oly. Again, the rear wall was defeated by Oly’s jammer, springing Tannibal Lector out for lead on the jam with Oly’s two blockers walled at the front of the pack.

In the (soundless) clip of this jam, notice how relatively quickly the pack is moving, as well as how easily the two Oly blockers are keeping all four San Diego players behind them.

Strictly by the numbers, four players should have no problem getting around two, or at the very least, trapping one to make it easy to control the pack and spring their jammer.

But because Oly had superior positioning at the front of the pack, and the pack was moving at a fair clip thanks to San Diego starting the pack speed change, they were able to comfortably maintain that pace and stay moving with enough speed to keep all of San Diego behind them for a significant amount of time. Given the the two blocker penalties Oly was serving on the jam, this was extremely impressive.

These jams demonstrate an important fundamental of roller derby defense: The faster a player is moving forward, the easier it is to keep others behind them.

There’s a vicious cycle in roller derby at the moment, particularly in flat track play, where the rush to line up a rear wall naturally brings about slower jam starts. Slow jam starts make make 4-walls extremely effective, which therefore make the rush to line up in a rear wall more and more necessary.

The thing is, though, that a 2-wall moving forward at a moderate pace can be just as effective at holding back a jammer, or in Oly’s case, an entire team. Gotham also did this to Philly at WFTDA regionals a few months ago–two held back five, in fact–so the concept is no different in flat track play.

If a team has a full contingent of blockers, putting fewer defenders in a single wall is also a safer play. Having other blockers more forward in the pack gives a team that many more chances to slow down the other jammer or more opportunity for offensive blocking.

The problem is that it’s neigh impossible for one team to build up to a comfortable pace unless the other team agrees to come along with them, something that rarely happens owing to the strategy of the rear blockers keeping things slow and waiting for the pack to split.

When the pack does speed up, it’s generally because the a rear wall is on the verge of failing, forcing the blockers in the rear to accelerate forward to contain the jammer. This makes it possible for the blockers in the front to also accelerate forward without fear of destroying the pack, which has the nice side-effect of making it easier to keep the opposing jammer behind them.

Tragically, this benefit to the front wall is rarely enjoyed owing to the inevitable split pack that gives the fore jammer a free pass through the wall.

If blockers would try or otherwise be compelled to start the pack rolling at a decent pace (such as through rules updates) they might find it easier to block opponents and give themselves more flexibility with pack blocking strategies. Unfortunately, until the “all or nothing” strategy of a rear 4-wall starts giving teams “nothing” more often than “all,” not much will change on that front any time soon.

However, since roller derby likes to make safety a priority, maybe this next thought will knock some sense into people.

The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object

Gotham 122, Los Angeles 158
March 3 at the Doll Factory

I love it when Gotham plays on the banked track. Many of the slow derby strategies that WFTDA rules make possible—the ones that cause me to bust a vein when they are executed—are rendered a lot less effective in banked track rules. This, in turn, gives me fewer things to bitch and moan about. (Anything that does that must be good.)

Still, there are situations where Gotham gets what Gotham wants by keeping the pack slow from the start, or goating a blocker during a jam to bring its speed to an effective halt. Gotham is so damn good, they can generally get what they want no matter which rule set they play by.

However, a consequence of slow packs goes back to the notion of the “all or nothing” play that modern derby rules (flat and banked) sometimes force teams and individuals into, particularly those caught out near the top of the engagement zone.

We’ve seen it hundreds of times before: A team on the power jam has trapped a blocker behind a wall and stops the pack, leaving the other blockers on defense with little room in the engagement zone to build up enough speed to slow up the jammer.

In situations like these the only real chance the defense has is to go for the big hit that would spill the jammer out of bounds, forcing them to reset and give the trapped team a fair chance to block at a slower speed. Unsurprisingly, this desperate lunge is unsuccessful more often than not.

But when it does connect, physics take over.

You may be familiar with the irresistible force paradox, a thought experiment that asks, “what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?”

Well, why don’t we watch and find out?

Here’s a jam where Gotham’s Brazil Nut plays the role of the unstoppable force, and L.A.’s V.Lee reprises her role as the immovable object.

Looks like the immovable object wins!

Unfortunately, V.Lee’s shoulder clipped Brazil Nut’s helmet in the action of this hit, which, coupled with the force of the impact and a bit of forearm on the way down, resulted in V’s immediate ejection from the game pursuant to RDCL rule 7.7.2.1, “an action deemed by the officials to cause an extraordinary physical threat to others.”

Now, I love a big hit as much as the next guy. You know, things like bone-crushing football tackles, hockey hip-checks along the half-wall, and wrecks during races. Judging by the crowd reaction in the Doll Factory, they loved it as well.

However, I have two problems with this hit and its circumstances.

First, ejection off the hit itself. That V.Lee hit Brazil Nut that hard isn’t exactly “extraordinary.” Even if the hit didn’t make contact with the head and V.Lee kept her arms tucked in, I’m pretty sure Brazil Nut would have still been cracked open with the same amount of force. It was just a perfectly timed block on a fast-moving player; Newton’s first law was responsible for most of the aftermath.

Factoring out the force of the hit, then, the only two things V.Lee did “wrong” were to clip Brazil Nut’s helmet—something I have a hard time believing was intentional—and the use her forearm, which obviously could have been prevented.

But they already have rules covering those illegal actions: ”blocking to the head” and “arms” penalties. Why the ejection? Why not assess the two major penalties and get on with it?  Was it the force of the impact that turned two ordinary penalties into an extraordinary threat? (If there are any Enforcers reading this, some clarification would be great.)

If how hard someone falls down becomes a factor in a player’s ejection, that introduces a gray area into the rulebook that we could do without. Especially, when you consider my second problem with this situation.

In my opinion, slow packs are potentially very dangerous. When the object of the game is for jammers to race around the track and lap their opponents, they’re generally going to be doing that with a good deal of speed. However, when the pack or players within it are not moving (or moving clockwise, if on the flat track) there will be times, such as this one, where enormous collisions may occur.

It’s an inevitability, really. The kamikaze blocker lunge is one of the few options a defense frozen in a slow/stopped pack can do to hold up the opposing jammer, particularly on power jams. If it connects, bodies will collide with each other with a great deal force.

A stationary blocker has little choice but to be an “extraordinary physical threat” to a jammer attempting to streak by at top speed. If that blocker times the hit perfectly (regardless of it being legal or illegal) the jammer could decelerate from very fast to not moving in an instant, no different if the jammer hit a wall or pole that they couldn’t avoid in time. Even for tough derby girls, that’s an extremely dangerous situation.

 

Even with bulky padding and full-face helmets, football players are not immune to physics. Big hits like this are common in football, but it makes no sense for roller derby to play in an environment where similar impacts may be possible.

Look at the bigger picture. As we speak, sports leagues across the country are finally realizing the dangers of concussions in contact sports like football, hockey, and soccer. It’s coming to light that everyone from the youth leagues up to the pros is vulnerable to brain injury from a jarring impact or a hit that gets you in just the wrong spot, regardless of direct contact with the head.

For roller derby, I worry that as jammers get faster and blockers get stronger and more agile, you may get a situation where an even more impenetrable blocker legally hits an even faster jammer from a near-stationary position and causes a serious injury to that jammer. Or worse, they might not even know an injury has happened until later in life when that jammer’s brain starts turning mushy from a few too many hard hits.

Injuries can never be 100% preventable. However, a league and its players should take action to minimize the risk whenever and wherever possible. Derby folk may want to consider ways to encourage blockers and packs to naturally move forward on the track (let’s not bullshit around here: inching forward very slowly is not any different than stopping) to keep jammer closing speeds down to more reasonable levels.

Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. When it comes to protecting players’ health and safety, maybe it’s better to be proactive and overprotective sooner, rather than to wait until it’s too late.

Bonnie “Holy-Fucking-Shit” Thunders

San Diego (w/Guests) 115, Los Angeles (w/Guests) 134
March 10 at March Radness

The March Radness exhibition game is secretly my most anticipated bout of the year, flat or banked. Many of the best skaters from around the country converge on the Doll Factory to teach their trade to eager campers…and then, just for fun, they play a full-on banked track game within the L.A./San Diego rivalry. That’s a perfect combination, right there.

This year was extra-special, as the team rosters were loaded with more guest skaters than in years’ past. Choosing more of the best campers to fill the game roster was great, but adding the likes of Atomatrix, Bonnie D.Stroir , Hockey Honey, OMG WTF, Psycho Babble, and others helped make the game live up to the event it was named for.

The game was incredible. Absolutely, positively, indescribably incredible. There’s no other way of putting it, really. If you saw the it, you know what I’m on about. If you missed the game, what are you waiting for? Watch it right now!

I mean it! RIGHT. NOW.

It’s difficult to explain how great this game was. Instead, I’ll stick to what I’m good at and explain why it was good. I could probably take up another 2,000 words doing it, but I think I can do the job in just two:

Bonnie Thunders.

Bonnie, can you move to L.A.? Pretty please?? (Photo credit: Joe Rollerfan)

I sometimes forget how good a player Bonnie is. Obviously, she’s a world-class athlete and an elite skater whether she skates at an angle or on the level.

But at least as I see her when I watch her online playing games with Gotham, she doesn’t often do anything that stands out to me in a way that screams “I’m a really good player! Look at me!” All I see is a moderately fast skater who is very good at watching her teammates goat a player while she speeds past some stationary blockers to pick up points without doing much of anything to really earn them.

However, when she comes to L.A. and skates on the banked track, I see a player who zigs and zags around players and bolts through packs like the lightning that runs down the sides of her legs. She’s not the outright fastest skater I’ve ever seen, but goddamn, is she quick on her feet.

In pretty much every second-half jam she had the star in, she was unstoppable. She passed everyone so quickly and so cleanly, actually, there was no threat of a split pack or out of play calls that would have given her a free pass. Not that she would have needed it, unlike so many other jammers.

That’s one of the big beefs I have about slow derby tactics, particularly the “wall of humanity” jam starts that made the WFTDA playoff season something of a farce. When everyone starts with their butts glued to the jammers, there’s no room for anyone to build up speed and there’s no room for highly skilled skaters to maneuver. This neutralizes individual skill, making who gets through mostly a matter  of which team is holding the back of the pack and who is best at using brute force.

Banked track jam starts are only slightly better; teams still stay away from the pivot line as if it were the plague, but at least the nature of the banked surface and the required forward motion rule leads to blockers rolling forward more often and more quickly than their flat-track counterparts.

However, this ultimately gives jammers more room to jam, since more pace in the pack naturally opens up gaps between blockers. This gives players like Bonnie Thunders the space to…well, be Bonnie Thunders.

A) A jammer faced with a slow pack and a mass of bodies in her way doesn’t have many options of getting by elegantly. B) However, a pack that’s moving forward will tend to have more space between blockers owing to speed fluctuation, giving a jammer more options and space to get through.

By my eye, the banked track environment seems to suit Bonnie’s style of skating much better. (She seems to like it, having played against L.A. in all three of their first three interleague games this season.) Because packs are usually (but not always) moving at a decent pace, jammers like Bonnie have the room to do spectacular things.

WFTDA rules, as they stand at this moment in time, produce slow packs for the vast majority of jams. Granted, a lot of that has to do with the fact that jam starts start off so mind-numbingly slow, and the rules update due out a few months from now will certainly address that. In any event, this log-jam of bodies seems to restrict what jammers can do on their own.

I get frustrated when I see things like that happening during a flat track game. Part of that is because I want to see action, not inaction. But truthfully, I think the skaters themselves are just as frustrated about it, and at times I kind of feel sorry for them.

I have a hard time believing that someone who really loves to skate, also loves to claw their around the edges of a giant roadblock or slug their way through a mass of bodies that don’t want to budge. It doesn’t surprise me that when a flat tracker plays a game on the banked track for the first time, under rules which do a better job encouraging movement, they only thing they have on their mind is that they want to do it again as soon as possible. The smile on their faces and the enthusiasm in their voices say it all.

Little wonder, then, that L.A.’s training camp is the hottest ticket in roller derby. It sells out in minutes; everyone and their mother wants to skate on the banked track and get training from some of the best skaters in the country. Oh yeah, it also gives them free admission to the March Radness game, which I bet is secretly their most anticipated game of the year, too.

It’s an all-star game in a way, isn’t it? It features some of the best skaters in the country, there’s no real pressure to win or lose, and it’s uber-fun for the players, the campers, and the audience. Best of all, it’s a banked track game in the Doll Factory, an environment seems to bring out the absolute best in players.

Once everyone settled in and the second half got going (I really mean this, dammit: WATCH IT), there were some grade-AAA quality exciting jams. Besides the ones where Bonnie Thunders was single-handedly obliterating packs with her jukes and jives, there were at least four genuinely intense jammer races with the lead jammer looking to scrape off a few points from the rear of the pack before the trailing jammer could catch it up.

It was during these jams where I got a glimpse of what I consider to be “perfect” roller derby. When both jammers got loose, each of them hit the afterburners and dug super-deep to squeeze out every ounce of speed in an effort to gain or make up whatever distance they could.

Jammers like Atomatrix, Psycho Babble, and Chargin’ Tina are fast to begin with. But when you unleash them two of them from the pack on the same jam, look the fuck out. When a top skater ramps up the intensity and kicks it into top gear for real–for really-real–there’s nothing else like it.

And I’ll bet you a million dollars the players jamming at top speed were loving every second of it.

By the way, when both jammers are out on a jam, something funny happens with the pack. It doesn’t move slow. It doesn’t move fast. It always seems to move at just the right speed, with all the blockers engaging each other, fighting for positioning, in an attempt to slow or speed the pack depending on which jammer is out in front.

Perfect.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

These three banked track games1 show that getting derby packs moving again is a good idea.

Packs that move instead of stop make it easier for players to maintain blocks and give teams more flexibility with pack coverage strategies. They give teams holding the front of the pack room to take advantage of their superior positioning. Moving packs can help minimize the force of potential collisions between slow blockers fast jammers, making the game that much safer to play. It also makes the game more dynamic and a hell of a lot more fun to watch, giving good skaters the room needed to go absolute ballistic.

I hope the the RDCL, the WFTDA (especially the WFTDA), USARS, and any other roller derby sanctioning body sees the advantages of rolling packs and acts accordingly to implement them, or to at least takes steps to discourage slow movement. This can be done without disrupting the style of roller derby each of those organizations and players within them wants to play.

Remember, the problem I have isn’t with “slow derby,” per se. I just want to see a fair mechanism that allows a team not wanting to play slow derby to get things moving by being better than the other team.

Besides, if moving packs mean we can have more flat track games look more like the the banked track games that opened the 2012 season, is anyone really going to argue against it?