Another Derby #1: Classic Roller Derby

Learn the origins of roller derby in the first chapters of Another Derby.

Chapter 4

The True Role and Purpose of the Pivot

The pivot is a strange position in WFTDA and RDCL roller derby.

There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for singling out a blocker and putting a stripe on his or her helmet within the context of the modern game. Other than occasionally getting exclusive access to the pivot line or becoming a penalty magnet for unspecific pack fouls, the pivot is really nothing more than a plane-jane blocker. Any regular blocker could technically have those designations without needing to be distinguished with a different helmet.

Two pivots do battle. In classic roller derby rules, this meant something significant. (Photo credit: Mark McCoy)

The only thing that sets the modern pivot apart from the rest of the pack is their special—but narrow—ability to become a jammer, should the team’s current jammer pass their helmet cover to them during a jam.

But even then, the pivot position doesn’t mean anything. All the star pass actually does is active transfer jammer status, vacating the poor, neglected pivot position until the next jam. Not only that, a star pass forfeits lead jammer status (or the potential to earn it), meaning part of the thing that makes the pivot special, is a negative!

I mean, teams and tournaments like giving out Jammer MVP and Blocker MVP awards to players most effective in offensive jamming and defensive blocking. The pivot gets no such accolades. (Have you ever heard anyone say to a player after a game, “hey, you did some really great pivot work out there?”) The position has almost no relavance during jams and no meaningful impact on gameplay, where as blockers and jammers do. It makes you wonder if  having a pivot position makes sense in the first place.

Some folks within the WFTDA membership wondered this, too. Sources tell me that there were enough people suggesting the elimination the pivot position from flat track roller derby, that it was taken under consideration in the initial stages of the current WFTDA rules revision process. I’m told that idea didn’t make it out of the first round of member voting, though, so at least for the next few years there will still be pivots around to stay far away from the start line they lend their name to.

That anyone might consider getting rid of the pivot altogether is saddening to me.

What many people don’t realize is the pivot, in its original form, is an integral part of roller derby, no less important than the jammer position. In fact, there’s a strong case that the pivot, not the jammer, is the key to making the simultaneous offense-defense nature of the sport truly work the way it was intended to.

The pivot is so critical, in fact, trying to take the position or its true function and purpose out of roller derby—or not properly compensating for its removal—could potentially be holding back the evolution of game in a manner similar to football before the introduction of the forward pass.[1]

MADE and USARS understand what meaningful pivot play brings to the table, which is why their roller derby rules include a pivot that is much, much more than a blocker with a skunk stripe. Whether the major players in the WFTDA and the RDCL will ever see the need to follow suit is, of course, entirely up to them. But at a bare minimum, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to understand why the position was devised and added to the game almost 70 years ago…because it’s kind of a big deal.

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The classic pivot begins a jam with all of the abilities and restrictions of blockers. This includes the requirement they stay within the pack, trying help their their jammer or impede the other jammer from getting out, fighting for positioning among opposing blockers, etc. This is no different from any form of modern derby today.

However, what makes the pivot position special is how they can turn into a jammer and how this ability affects jam and game strategies for both teams.

In classic derby, once a jammer broke from the pack to start the jam, all five remaining position players on both teams (the other three jammers and both pivots) immediately became eligible to also break from the pack in an attempt to go for a scoring pass behind the lead jammer. This gave pivots—who started at the front pack by rule, remember—the best chance to take advantage of this secondary scoring opportunity.

Technically, this meant that all six position players from both teams could race around the track in an attempt to score on the four remaining blockers in the pack, though this rarely ever happened. At most, you might have seen three or four players out on the jam battling for the lead position. In the later years of classic derby, sequences with multiple jammers battling on the track were often predetermined sequences so as to put on a good show for the audience, as opposed to it happening legitimately.

A legit set of rules that had two active jammers and a scoring pivot on each team could work in the reality, at least theoretically. However, a setup that allows three, or even two players out to score for each team would probably be a nightmare to officiate if the modern game as we know it tried doing the same thing, what with needing dedicated refs for every player that could potentially go out on the jam.

Modern derby rules with scoring pivots (MADE and USARS) only allow for a maximum one player from each team to be out on the jam and eligible to score. However, the rules still maintain the ability for the pivot to break from the pack and attempt a scoring pass after the other team’s jammer becomes lead. Should the pivot go out on the jam, that team’s jammer reverts to a regular blocker (while still wearing the star) as if a panty pass occured en passant.

This effectively gives a team two offensive chances to break from the pack during a jam. Conversely, this means a team wanting to to earn an unopposed scoring opportunity during an equal-strength jam can no longer concentrate all of their defensive assets on a single player from the other team, instead requiring a more balanced defensive strategy and total pack blocking coverage.

Think back to the concept of fair and equal pack formation jam starts. Even if you force a team to start in a box, or in a rigid formation, or force them to skate forward, if the back of the pack was still deemed more advantageous to a team, they’re still going to want to get there after the jam begins, defeating the purpose of the start formation rules.

As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Even if you force-feed the pivot line down the pack’s throat, they’re still not going to line up on it as long as a rear-wall pack start is a viable strategy for one or both teams.

Ideally, the front and rear of the pack would hold equal importance, and teams would fight for both of those locations at the same time. However, if there is only one offensive threat to defend against, and that threat (the jammer) is always coming in from the rear, the rear of the pack will always be a better place to be than the front on the initial pass.

This is especially the case in WFTDA and RDCL rules, where a team caught too far out in front of the pack is required to stop blocking the opposing jammer at the top of the engagement zone or during a no-pack for fear of penalties. This is a limitation the team blocking at the rear does not have to worry about, since all they need to do keep the opposing jammer behind them is skate forward, when necessary, to escape punishment.

The only way to give equal importance to both the front and rear of the pack, therefore, is to also put a threat at both the front and the rear of the pack, something that compels a team to constantly use their defensive resources to cover both ends and balance things out.

This is the reason why the pivot position originally came into being.[2] Both a blocker with benefits and a jammer with restrictions, the pivot is a scoring threat that—by rule—starts at the front of the pack, and is therefore a player that the other team must defend against in some capacity. To do that, a team would need to put some of their blocking resources forward in the pack to cover them from getting into position.

It’s this functionality that is critical in making roller derby work the way it was originally intended to, with teams playing offense and defense simultaneously.

Consider that in WFTDA and RDCL roller derby, if a team wants to completely dominate a pack, it needs only to trap or goat a single member of the opposing team. With both jammers on the track, keeping the jammer behind a 4-wall is all it takes.

(On a power jam, keeping control is as simple as getting a lone blocker behind a wall. After that, engagement is optional since the other team has no way of speeding up the pack again on their own, making realistic defense nearly impossible.)

Effectively, a wall-on-one isolation play allows a team to ignore up to four opponents in order to produce a dominating offensive opportunity. That is to say, a team needs only stop 20% of a team to gain 100% control over them. Talk about unbalanced!

Now imagine what would happen if a pivot was able to break from the front of the pack to chase a lead jammer and go for a scoring opportunity. If a team wanted to earn a similarly dominating offensive opportunity on a jam, no longer would they be able to get it by going 4-on-1 at the rear of the pack. Instead, they’d need to earn total control of the front and the rear of the pack simultaneously, keeping both the opposing jammer and the opposing pivot behind them for as long as possible while their jammer circulates.

A) Red’s rear 4-wall would be rendered completely useless if the blue pivot had the ability to score on the play, as she could freely block, then chase, the opposing jammer. B) Red overcompensating for this by putting too many defensive resources on the blue pivot will make it easier for the blue jammer to get out of the pack, producing the same effect. C) In both cases, the red team’s defense did not cover the entire pack. The only way to get their jammer out unopposed for a significant amount of time would be to cover both the blue pivot at the front and the blue jammer at the rear at the same time.

The pivot threat at the front of the pack requires a team to simultaneously play good defense against the other team at both the front and rear of the pack if they hope to have any decent amount of time to make a scoring pass unopposed, let alone multiple passes. Therefore, a team must play offense and defense simultaneously at all times, against the entirety of the other team (not just one player) in order to do well on the play.

That is the very definition of roller derby, and it’s the pivot that makes it happen.

With a setup like this, it becomes clear why a fair and equal jam start is important to making the active pivot game work correctly. If the pivot was made to be able to score WFTDA play without mandating an equal formation start, the team whose bench is closer to the pivot line will have an easier time putting their players forward in the pack to protect their pivot ahead of them and impede the jammer behind them, defeating the purpose of the position.

If you force teams to (mostly) equalize position before the jam starts, no matter what strategies either team comes up with, there’s no way getting around executing them without having to deal with an opponent starting right in front of you, next to you, and behind you all at once. That also means they’re not all walled up behind you or all in front of you before the jam starts, something that can sometimes be unpreventable under current jam start rules. This balances out the start sequence and eliminates the need to switch benches at halftime, among the other benefits mentioned previously.

An active pivot also makes the game more tactical. For a pivot to be effective for his or her team, they must be proficient at blocking and jamming. Situations may dictate they do one or the other or both during a jam, so it’s important they have the skills physically, and know their surroundings and situation mentally.

Just as today’s jammers should know where the opposing jammer is at all times, real pivots must also keep a constant eye on their opposite number. Pivot positioning is critical to success, because much like having lead jammer gives a team a significant advantage in the jam, being the “lead” pivot most forward in the pack also comes with perks.

A) Being “lead” pivot can help the blue team’s offensive chances by preventing the red pivot (and red jammer) from breaking from the pack on a scoring run. B) On the flipside, should the red jammer get out first, beating the red pivot for “lead” position allows the blue pivot to follow unopposed, diminishing the red team’s chance to score and giving the blue team a chance of stealing a few points.

With both pivots starting at the front of the pack, the pivot who winds up in front at the critical moment of the jammer break-out is going to be the one that’s better at getting there and staying there. Once a pivot establishes themselves as leader of the pack, what they do up there is as important as it is for the rest of the team to help their jammer break out.

There is a lot of responsibilities riding on the pivot, being both a team’s last line of defense and offensive Plan B. It’s for this reason that a team’s pivot—not their jammers—was generally regarded in the old days as a team’s “playmaker,” acted as the team’s coach or captain, and was usually the team’s best player.

Because they needed to be.

Still, the ability for a pivot to immediately chase after a jammer may seem like an overly powerful tool for a team to have at their disposal. The point of roller derby, after all, is for teams to get their jammer through the pack. Having a “safety valve” in the form of the pivot might give teams less of a reason to get their jammer out.

However, for as critical as the active pivot can be for a team, jammers are still the core function and primary purpose of playing the game. Remember, pivots are merely blockers until a jammer establishes themselves as lead on the jam, and a player earning lead jammer status is ten times more powerful than that of a pivot or jammer following them out of the pack.

Lead jammers always have the first opportunity to score on a jam. They can more easily block players attempting to come up from behind, as opposed to a trailing player who has limited legal contact options in getting by. Most importantly of all, they control when the jam ends, the ultimate defense against letting the other team scoring points. The name of the game is scoring points, and if the other team is preventing you from doing that through early jam cut-offs (whether they score themselves or not), you’re never going to score points and you’ll have a hard time winning.

It’s always priority one for a team to get their jammer out first. Pivots battling for front pack positioning is important, but still not as important as containing the opposing jammer before they are freed from the pack. Pivots who drift too far away from the pack in the forward engagement zone, may eventually win the spot from the other pivot , but in doing so may put themselves out of position (or worse, out of play) and make it easier for the other team to get their jammer out first unopposed.

The following example is how an effective pivot, with good teamwork, can really make a difference for their team on a jam. A situation likes this makes the pivot the very embodiment of what roller derby is: A balance between playing offense and defense.

A) The pivots fight for front position a few feet ahead of the pack. Meanwhile, the red jammer is about to break out. B) Instead of continuing to push forward for the best offensive position at the top of the pack, the blue pivot drops back (still skating forward) to play defense and contain the red jammer. This allows the blue jammer to break from the pack and pick up lead on the jam. C) The blue pivot slows the red jammer enough for the blue blockers to regain containment. To prevent the red pivot from chasing her out, the blue jammer eats the baby and blocks the pivot to suck them back into the pack. D) The blue pivot can then recover the front position and contain the red pivot, freeing the blue jammer to go on a scoring pass unopposed. This gives the blue team the best possible offensive opportunity, thanks to teamwork, great solo blocking, and smart pivot play.

There may be game situations where a pivot always pushing for the front of the pack is not always the most optimal strategy. A pivot breaking out will leave their team without a forward pack blocker, which could make it much more difficult to keep the speed of the pack under control (assuming the front of the pack is redefined as the pack during a pack split, as is the case in USARS roller derby rules).

Also, depending on personnel matchups, a pivot’s best option may be staying on defense, or delaying a breakout while their jammer fights for better pack positioning in case the jammer needs to become a rear blocker instead. This may be a more favorable play when a team may prefer their pivot plays defense instead of their jammer, or a team’s jammer is much faster than their pivot and that jammer is almost out of the pack.[3]

The active pivot adds a whole new dimension of strategy to roller derby. Without one, roller derby is one-dimensional, mostly predictable,[4] and at times, flat-out boring. But by adding a new variable to the mix, teams will suddenly have a wealth of offensive options available to them…but derby always being an offensive-defensive balance, this also means they would need to defend against many more possibilities as well.

Almost as if by design, the pivot also makes roller derby more exciting. In the modern game, the crowd always gets the loudest when both jammers break from the pack in close proximity. However, this excitement is generally short-lived by a quick jam call-off by the lead jammer, or when the lead jammer gets passed by the trailing jammer in flat track play, resulting in an immediate stoppage and a crowd buzz-kill.  (Lead status, if earned by a player, does not change in WFTDA play once awarded after the initial pass.)

With a pivot that can break from the pack to score, that moment of “HOLY CRAP THIS IS AWESOME” can happen on more and more jams, if not every jam. Jammers could still call off the jam immediately, but in doing so they might leave points on the table that a braver jammer and a better-defending team could scrape off from the rear of the pack on subsequent jams. The jammers that have the biggest cajones to plunge into the back of the pack with a scoring threat hot on their heels, and the most faith in their blockers to be in position to get those points at just the right time, will likely end up the victors.

All of this could be made possible because of one of roller derby’s most fundamental and most important positions: The pivot.

Can roller derby function without this key position? Of course. The WFTDA and the RDCL seem to be getting on just fine without one. However, since they don’t have an equivalent replacement (by a rule or a different position player) for the role the pivot was originally designed to fulfill in the game, there are still the problems of slow starts, split packs, and apprehension to assist a jammer during a power jam, among other things.

There’s no doubt that if a team has no reason to keep skaters or their defense moving forward in the pack, they’re not going to do it. Modern play seems to be proving this as the months go on. If left unchecked, it could become an irreversible issue, owing to skaters training to play the game in the (subjectively) “wrong” way, lacking the skills to play the game the “right” way, should the rules change or they decide they want to move up the ranks in their aspiring derby careers.

My heartfelt suggestion to the WFTDA and RDCL is that if there ever comes a point where the evolution of your rules come to a stagnation point, and you want to add more (legitimate!) action to your style of play, in all situations and scenarios—you’re going to have to find a way to make it so players always have a reason to play defense at the front and rear of the pack at all times. You may not need to make it so a team has an offensive threat at both the front and rear at all times, such as with the active pivot; but at the very least, find a way to make total pack coverage important, not just a wall at the rear of it.

Perhaps the modern game should begin thinking about ways of making the pivot position unique again in derby, even if that entails keeping them a non-scoring player. If you’re going to just keep them as a special blocker, then make them truly special with actual gameplay abilities that regular blockers don’t have. Otherwise, just get rid of the pivot altogether.

In a sport that’s all about playing offense and defense at the same time, one player on the track should be the ultimate balance of both. If your jammer is the ultimate offense, and your blockers are the ultimate defense, there’s got to be something in the middle to keep things balanced, the pivot point that prevents one or the other from swinging the game’s flow and fairness too out of control.

Ultimately, this is why the position was called a “pivot.”

pivot (pvt) n.

1. A short rod or shaft on which a related part rotates or swings.
2. A person or thing on which something depends or turns; the central or crucial factor.
3. The act of turning on or as if on a pivot.

The pivot is named a pivot, because that’s exactly what it is. The person playing it can turn a jam around depending on their play. It is the thing on which roller derby depends on to keep balance in the game. The pivot is the central and crucial factor in what makes roller derby what it is.

Perhaps one day, the pivot will be again able to live up to its name.

~ ~ ~ Continue to Part 2: Rollergames ~ ~ ~

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Chapter 4 Footnotes:

[ 1 ] Hold this thought, because I’ll be revisiting it later in the series. Here’s a teaser for you to chew on until then: What was football like before the forward pass? What is roller derby like with 8-wall blocker starts? What do both of these things have in common? Return

[ 2 ] WFTDA rules officially refer to the pivot as a “pivot blocker.” In the context of roller derby history, this nomenclature is as silly and conflicting as calling a football player an “offensive wide receiver lineman.” They are different positions for a reason…or at least, they’re supposed to be. Return

[ 3 ] Player combinations and personel matchups are a huge, huge part of sports strategy, with coaches always looking to exploit mismatches of a top line against a weaker players. Until enough player data is on the books to analyze the particular strengths and weakness of top skaters, roller derby will be lacking this strategical depth. When it eventually comes in, knowing which individuals are going up against each other on a per-position basis will be just as important as how a team works together. Making the pivot as important as the jammer would only add to this. Return

[ 4 ] Most of the things happening with loophole derby, non-jams, split packs, etc. I saw coming months before they happened. In the very first article for this blog, written in April 2011, I warned that teams could intentionally commit penalties to split the pack and score free points. A year later, the split packs are here, but no penalties are being issued. The intentional penalties are happening, but mostly taken defensively, not offensively. Even if you may not agree with me on some of my arguments, the fact is that many of the things I’m arguing against are happening in games, and probably will continue to do so even after the WFTDA updates the rules for 2012. Return