Building more than “just” a B-Team

I have been a skating member for leagues of different sizes, ranking, and cultural expectations. I have visited, coached, and reffed more than 50 leagues in 20 states and five countries. Each league’s BoD was structured slightly differently, each coaching staff ran a different way, each team dynamic was different. There are threads of familiarity throughout each, however. There are commonalities of good and of bad, of support and of discord. When a league is split into separate teams, there can be either an equal share of positive growth, or lines drawn in the sand.

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My time at Charm City was spent on home teams and on the C Team. It gave me a chance to really get my mind right and my goals straightened out. Photo by Tyler Shaw Derby Photography (http://tylershawprintscharming.zenfolio.com/p417558588)

I was given the opportunity to referee and stream announce the B-Team Championships held in Atlanta, Georgia in October 2016. I got a chance to talk to the skaters from different teams and I heard comments that I have heard across leagues across the world. You would watch these teams and think “How on EARTH are they not on the All Star team?” In some cases, it’s a matter of the league having too much talent, so they [essentially] have two All Star teams. In other cases, you hear skaters talking about how they are passed over because of a conflict or lack of commitment seasons ago, negative talk from coaching, or flat out Elitest dismissal from All Star coaches and team members.

I have been pondering this blog for over a month now, to express how we can build a positive environment for our skaters and be sure that no one feels negative connotation in being “Just a B Teamer”. Also, substitute “Home Teamer” or “C Teamer” etc as necessary.

Before I dive in, you may be thinking to yourself already, “BUT OUR LEAGUE IS A MESS TO BEGIN WITH! HOW CAN WE EVEN START MAKING OUR B TEAMERS FEEL IMPORTANT??”

To which I would reference you to another lengthy blog: League Rebuilding: When a middle ground is needed between ‘competitive’ and ‘rec’ derby

Positive Spaces

Creating a positive space for your league members is very important to the mental health of everyone. When I say ‘positive spaces’, I mean track times where no one is insulting each other, scrimmages where abuse towards the refs is not tolerated, and times where league members can talk to their coaching staff about goals and concerns.

Too often I have heard recounts, or experienced myself, stories of the All Stars and B Teams not trusting one another, or shouting when receiving big hits, or sneering on the line when a new jammer steps up. I have also seen All Star and League coaches ignore B Team skaters completely. I have talked to skaters who feel as if they are blown off when they look for feedback, or that coaches neglect to offer words of encouragement to anyone but the ‘superstars’.

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Namur Roller Girls’ B Team still has plenty of talent. Photo by NSP 189 (http://www.facebook.com/nsp189)

As a coach, a captain, a league-mate, be aware of your attention and energy. It is easy to fall into the trap of only complimenting the top skaters, since they probably are doing rad things on the track. Make sure to be aware of your skaters that are learning and progressing, and offer them compliments (and critique) along the way as well. Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to get the occasional “Hey, your plows are looking way better!” to keep them happy, positive, and on track. Being the All Star coach and making a guest appearance at league practice to help with developing skaters (even just once in awhile) can make a huge difference in morale.

Too often I have heard officials talking about abusive skaters on the All Star team. The skaters are know to shout and scream at their team and the officials, with no repercussions; no disciplinary action. To allow top skaters the right to be abusive creates a culture of acceptance of such actions, which then lets other skaters (the proteges) believe it is acceptable behavior. When one level of skater is punished for behavioral issues, and the other is not (the ‘lower level’), you have a recipe for dissent and anger among the ranks, all in the name of “keeping talented skaters”.

This is not a safe space. This not a place where players or officials will continue to come with a happy face to learn. They will become despondent, bitter, and (if lucky) they will transfer. If derby is unlucky, they will quit altogether. Nurture and support people, do not beat them down for imperfection or for penalty calls you did not agree with. Do not tolerate those who do either, no matter how many apexes they jump per game, and no matter how many jammers they soul crush.

Building Cultural Value in Your Other Teams

What are the goals of your All Star team? To win games? Gain rankings? Beat other teams they come up against with strength, strategy, and increasing skills?

Now how do you practice those things? Against one another, of course, but there will come a time where your All Star blockers will understand the fundamental tactics and tendencies of your All Star jammers, and vice versa. Yes, they will continue to push each other, but there comes a point where a team must play against another squad to keep from plateauing.

Who, then, does your All Star team have to compete against on a regular basis?

Yup. Your B Team.

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Tampa Roller Derby’s Sea Sirens (C Team) are so dangerous with skilled players like Cookie Jarr’d, that they have been known to beat all star and B teams from all over the state. Photo by Phantom Photographics

So what I’m trying to say is this: If your coaches, captains, and All Stars promote the idea of “Our All Stars are stellar because our B Team is stellar” you have a happy bunch of skaters who are all striving to push each other more. If you build a structure of ‘everyone getting better so that everyone gets better’, then each skater will build their personal skills with the goal of the team in mind, instead of the self.

Most B Teams I have come in contact with don’t promote any specific B Team cultures. Skaters are subtly encouraged to keep self preservation in mind – either to boost themselves up to the All Stars, or to maintain their seniority on the B Team. Training is not about making the team better, or about the team’s impact on the All Stars/C Team/Home Teams, but is seen as a way to showcase individual talents in order to impress the decision makers.

The other side effect of B Teamers not understanding their effect on the All Stars is this: a division can be created. It is one thing for a skater to say, “I’m ok with the level of play at this level, I can’t give more commitment or more of myself,” or “I love my team, we work well together, I fit in here.” It is another thing to hear skaters say, “Well I have to be happy at this level because the All Stars will never have me,” or “The All Stars only care about themselves, the coaches care only about the All Stars, they don’t see me and I won’t ever get better.” I have seen the ‘self-preservation’ mentality of individuals manifest into an US VERSUS THEM culture within leagues.

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Jacksonville Rollergirls have been putting concerted effort into creating a positive place for their B and C team skaters. Photo by Phantom Photographics

It is not healthy for the league to have B Team players feeling as if they are their own island. It is not healthy for them to feel as if they are detached from the All Stars, as if they were left behind, or blotched with some derby curse.

And, shocking to say, it’s not helpful when coaches and captains ignore that such feelings have manifested. Keep your eyes open and be diligent when you are in places of higher standing, since it is so easy to shield yourself from negative vibes while going “Lalalalala everything’s great!”. It’s easy to think that everything is going swimmingly, but I implore you to listen to the heartbeat of your league. Keep an ear to the ground and be open to critique and criticism. Your league could be sprinting up in the rankings, while still harboring negative practices that will effect the longevity of those rankings.

Changing the culture of a league is not easy, but it can be done with persistence and positivity (and maybe some stern stuff on the part of leadership). Separating the All Stars from the B Team can cause an elitist attitude to manifest which will be felt by your developing skaters, who are the core of your league.

Practice Spaces

Part of the culture change comes along with the idea that the A and the B teams are not separate. Might there be skill differences? Absolutely. I have written before that the best way to improve as a skater is to practice with those better than you, and if you are curious about combining skills you can also check out this blog: The House that Derby Built: 4 Corners of Training with Mixed Levels.

Combining forces of A and B squads have many advantages to a team. See above for cultural implications.

When skaters practice in the same space, they can inspire each other. They can challenge each other. They can give feedback to each other. They learn the same skills and strategy. B Team skaters can learn from All Stars, All Star skaters can be infected by the enthusiasm of B Team skaters. Also, skaters get more track time.

“But Khaos! There will be more people, that means LESS track time”

Actually no. If you have all your skaters coming to two practices instead of one, you’re already giving them more time on skates. There’s no reason you can’t split the track to work across from each other. Attendance low? Use the same side of the track and just alternate in A team or B team walls/jammers. Most of the skills and drills we do only require part of the track anyway. Managing two to three teams of skaters (who will probably only have 10-15 people showing up to practices anyway) is not too hard if you break it down.

PLUS it has been my experience that when you’re drilling over and over and over and over in a good, quick rotation, skaters get fatigued and then you cannot drill over and over again. By having more bodies, you can run drills longer, more effectively. People can get short rests while their teammates practice, and it also gives the team a chance to OBSERVE what everyone else is doing.

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The Molly Rogers have been practicing with mixed skill levels, to the advantage of A and B skaters alike. Photo by Phantom Photograhics

“But Khaos! We need to practice WITH our teams!”

You can have each team practice with their lines while still encouraging a team environment. It also makes it fun when you can have lines of A and B face off in certain drills, or if you tell the B Team jammers to go play with the All Stars and vice versa. Nothing helped me grow in blocking quicker than learning how to stop jammers like Lauryn Kill and Taz with my Bruise Crew team mates. Could the B Teamers be a hot mess at first? Sure. Persistence, diligence, patience, hard work … it pays off.

What’s the pay off? 30 All Stars to choose from instead of 14. Especially with the opening up of charter changes, as games approach that require different styles of skaters, you can more easily tweak a team to be a powerhouse. Also, life happens.

People move. People retire. People transfer. People get injured. If you have to “move up” a B Team skater, don’t you want them already on track to be successful with the All Stars?  Would you prefer taking a month or two for the process of “training them up”?

You know what I’m talking about: “We’re rebuilding. A bunch of our All Stars left, and we moved up some B Team skaters, so we have to spend a lot of time getting them up to speed.”

Why not have them up to speed? Why not be able to bounce back the way Philly, Rocky Mountain, and Windy City have over the years? Why not have players ready to step into All Star roles easier?

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Not only has Tampa’s Bruise Crew raised the level of play within the league, but friendly rivals Dub City has benefitted from the tough competition. Dub’s A & B team are now solidly placed amongst as the 3rd highest ranked WFTDA league in Florida (#82), and several Dub City members are part of Team Florida

Should A and B be separate sometimes? Sure. Why not? It’s good to have a team only building session now and again to focus down on the specific needs of your team. On a week to week basis, the teams that practice with the travel skaters combined tend to be the more successful leagues.

Language Counts

I have already mentioned this but it should be stated again: Being a B Teamer should not be considered a slur. You’re not “Just on the B team”, you’re a member of a team and are striving to be strong and to improve. You are the reason the A team is successful. You are not “JUST” a B Team skater.

League members and leadership need to be ready to correct the language when it happens. “Eh, it’s only the B Team,” or “No, I won’t pair up with her, she’s only B Team” … just stop. This kind of language is not helpful. It is not positive for anyone (and makes you sound like a bit of a jerk actually).

“No I’m not going to game this weekend, it’s just the B Team.” NO. Bad. One, because you should go and support your B Team, since chances are they are supporting the All Stars (through attendance, bout production, and volunteering) and two, because they are your family. They are the future of the league. They are the next Luz Chaos, they are the up-and-coming Serelson. What potential could you be harboring within your B Team that you don’t see because they “have only been skating a couple months and are not good enough to skate with us.”

Final Thoughts

Being on the All Stars is not always strictly about skill level – it’s about skating styles, how one meshes into the team’s strategy, how coachable one can be, attendance, drive, and sometimes (yes it’s true) social integration.

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Most of the Manchester Roller Derby Furies (I couldn’t get them all in the selfie!). Lots of enthusiasm, lots of coachability, lots of fun to coach.

If you are a B Team skater and you have not made it onto the All Star team (yet), and you’re starting to get salty, don’t immediately jump to the “THEY DON’T LIKE ME AND OUR CULTURE SUCKS” conclusion. If you’ve read my blogs, you know I’m all about self-analysis and honesty. And it is HARD to look at yourself and ask, “Self, what could we improve on?” It’s possible that it’s not your league that is the ‘problem’ but maybe your attitude, your dedication level (as compared to the stated goals of the All Stars), or your style of game play as compared to your team mates.

There are many different structures to travel team practices and schedules that can work, but my observations and opinions are based in my experience across a range of countries, levels, and cultures. The teams that were most successful in achieving strength, consistency, and meeting their league goals were the ones that unified, not divided. The teams that realize that the B/C/D Teamers are the lifeblood of the league and the future of the All Stars, those are the leagues that I have found the most positive team environments over time.

You don’t have to take my word for it though. Do your own research. Talk to leagues with different structures, ask players how they feel about ‘being left behind’ by their league mates, and observe differences you see overtime between those leagues that nurture their travel teams together, and those that create derision through culture and language.

THANK YOU TO MY PHOTOGS: Phantom Photographics, Tyler Shaw, and NSP189

Khaos Theory Blog is run completely off my own funds. Make a donation now to keep the blog going! 
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Kristie Grey (Merry Khaos) has been playing roller derby since 2009 and has coached almost as long. She has worked with over 20 leagues in 11 states, and five countries. She has coached on and off skates at Beat Me Halfway 2014 & RollerCon (2012-2015). She currently skates with Tampa Roller Derby. Active in health and wellness, she is an active Herbalife Health Coach, rock climber, and power lifter. For questions, booking, requests of topic, or help with a nutrition plan, message Khaos at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com

Continue reading “Building more than “just” a B-Team”

Derby Lessons from the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup

I recently got home from my latest gypsy romp in the world of roller derby, starting in Calgary, Alberta and ending in the grand Las Vegas derby mecca of RollerCon. I watched, I studied, I contemplated, I watched again. Not only did I learn a lot through watching the elite athletes from 20 nations, but it hit me in the derby feels. There was more than just tactic and technique I saw, and after a few weeks to let it all settle,  I wanted to share with you all things I realized through the adventure in Calgary. Editing note: Please excuse formatting inconsistency. WordPress continues to be the worst platform in which to write and create. 😀

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Fans during Finland v. England. Photo by John Hesse

Here are my take aways from the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup in Calgary, Alberta:

  1. Bashing the snot out of each other on the track isn’t always the most effective derby strategy – unless you can mix in control… then it’s highly successful

Germany, Argentina, Mexico, Finland, Italy – they are bruisers. They are teams with hard hits and fast feet. Their blockers will leave welts the size of a softball with ease. They play the “let’s kick their ass” game. Teams like USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Belgium are just as brutal and imposing, but there is a game play different: they beat their opponents to a slower speed and then catch them in a net of positional blocking. The successful teams at the World Cup were able to balance brutality and control.

Just trying to beat a jammer senseless alone often has the undesired result of pushing them forward and through the pack like a pinball. I watched many jammers face (what I call) a turnstile of blockers facing backwards. The blockers would, one at a time, take a ding at the jammer, who would rebound off the hit, regain their feet, collect the point and move onto the next. It wasn’t successful at stopping them, merely bounced them about a bit.

 

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Team USA is successful through their use of power to slow a target, and then controlled blocking to maintain power, as demonstrated by Percy Controll and Cory Pain

From a jammer perspective, the skaters who were able to use their shoulders like jack hammers to bully their way through a wall, around an edge, or to level a backwards blocker were the ones who scored a lot of points. AS LONG AS they had the footwork to capitalize on the hole. I would see jammers come in hot to a pack and use their shoulders to drill a hole, or duck to get around a pack, but without the proper burst to get past the blockers, they would end up as a smear on the concrete.

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Noblet comes in hot and uses his shoulders and power to push out the Japanese blocker. Photo by Brangwyn Jones
  1. Offense is a thing

If anyone from Puerto Rico or the Netherlands are reading this they’ll flash back to me LOSING MY MIND during NO-ffense. When blockers watch their jammers get beat to hell on power jams it makes me very protective of those jammers. Yes, sometimes they need to do it for themselves, but sometimes you need to stop the tough love thing and HELP. You have 30ish seconds with which to score as many points as humanly possible. “Blockers make points, jammers collect them.” (Smarty Pants) So go make some goddamn points!!!

Plus, you only have so many jammers. Protect them like they are delicate lilies; whether it’s day 1 of a 4 day tournament or the 7th and last game of the weekend.

 

  1. Americans are super lucky that the rest of the world speaks multiple languages.

So many times I had people come to the Elite booth that were from Europe (and not England) and they spoke fluent English. Actually, most of the teams were made up of people who spoke multiple languages. Every now and again I’d have someone come up who was not English speaker, and I felt dumb and lost. Dammit, Americans: Teach your kids multiple languages! I have made so many friends from the World Cup because they happen to speak my language.

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Myself and my new friends from The Netherlands (from left): YouPiler, Slaapzack, and Lone Star. Thank goodness the Dutch speak so many languages!!
  1. Champ UnKind and I agree: Uptown Funk should be played during every half time

Why? Having to do with #3, dancing breaks borders. There is nothing more phenomenal than a Sunday morning early bout and seeing participants from the Netherlands, Spain, and Puerto Rico grooving together. Hell, maybe if Uptown Funk was played in the streets we’d all love each other more because we’d see that we’re all the same. And we just wanna dance.

Want to see why? Check out the short video I shot. Nice moves, Spain!

  1. After hours, don’t trust the shirts on the backs of MRDA players

I kind of knew this already, but after several “Oops I’m an asshole” moments [that I was able to play off (thank you, white wine)] I learned to ask this question first: “Are you actually Flustercluck or is your jersey lying?”

Honestly, I love the tradition of swapping jerseys! It shows community and camaraderie that stretches across oceans. I kind of wish WFTDA skaters did this. A few of the men I talked to were confused as to why we don’t. Maybe we’re too protective over our kits. It’s a thing of pride and friendship to swap out at the end of a hard tournament with someone you respect. But yea, always ask if the person in the jersey is the one whose name is on the back.

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Disaster Chief (Puerto Rico) and Jamie Gray (Ireland) are lying to you.
  1. THE KEY TO SURVING THE LAVA AS A JAMMER….

Ok, so my big Sherlock mystery from this weekend has been this question: “Why are some jammers so successful taking outside lines, while others get splattered when they try to do [what seems to be] the same technique?”

As I have been re-watching games, I have spent most of my energy looking into this. The jammers of Team England, particularly Sully, Fish, Alien Al, and Giggity all were able to attack the lava (the absolute edge of the track/tape) and come out on the other side often unscathed. Meanwhile, teams like Italy and Japan had jammers that would attack in a similar style and get constantly recycled.

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Alien Al, yet again navigating the edges successfully; without heed to opponents or physics. Photo by John Hesse

The first thing I noticed as a difference is the acceleration going past engaging blockers. Team England jammers are excellent at bursting with speed a split second before passing opponents, which throws off the blocker’s timing. To achieve this, more pressure most be applied into a toe stop or edges as the blocker you’re attempting to pass is ALMOST hitting you. The chance of survival increases significantly when the burst is timed so, while other jammers would get flattened for their hesitation.

The second part that I noticed (and it was Finland that helped me realize), is that many jammers turn their hips to open into a transition a moment too soon. The result is that they are trying to get past a blocker either A) after they have completed their turn, so their hips are a wider target to the incoming blocker or B) After the momentum from the torque of their initial turn has been lost, so the jammer does not have enough energy to counterblock the energy being put into them by the blocker.

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Sully turns his hips to curve around the Finland blocker and (what photos can’t show you), pops off of the planted to stop to snap his hips around the wall before they can push him out. Photo by John Hesse

Ok, let me say that again:

If you turn too early, your hips are going to be square to the track and you’ll be skating in the opposite direction, when you are hit. OR if you turn too early, you will have lost extra energy you gain while spinning. When you are driving, and you make a sudden, sharp turn you feel the inertia playing on your body, right? You feel more force driving you, don’t you? (Protip: It’s not centrifugal that’s a made up word). That’s angular acceleration, and you want more of that happening when Optimus Grime is coming at you full force with dreams of Gold shining in his eyes. Want to know more about the physics I’m talking about? Just go watch this video.

When you watch game play these are minuscule adjustments. I can only guess that the timing change comes through diligence, IMMENSE body control, brevity, and a squad of mercenaries to practice against. Rolling off a hit from Sutton Impact hurts a lot less than taking it square in the ribs, so your body learns and adapts.

^ It may seem to you a basic realization, but finally seeing it with my own eyes made a world of difference. Now to practice it………

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Poupa Test of France hits his toe stops hard before shuffling further. Photo by Orel Kichigai
  1. International superstars don’t mean everything to a team

Who wasn’t dazzled by Sausarge Rolls, Bled Zepplin, Reaper, Pibe, or Tank? These are men known on the international stage. There were plenty of derby celebs dancing around at World Cup, infamous for their strength, smarts, and prowess. However, there were also a lot of teams with names unknown that pulled together when the time was right and stunned us all.

Mexico came out with skates blazing against Canada, causing everyone to rush to track 2 to see what was going on. Chile, after a hard time in their group play, stunned us all by beating Spain by double. Puerto Rico’s final game involved coming back from a 50 point difference, and holding the game to an 8 point differential at the end, even as 4 of their ‘star’ players fouled out from the game. It was awe-inspiring to watch a pack of 5 people who had barely known each other before the weekend, a few of whom had barely played entire derby bouts in their life, come together into strong defense and rally to keep Italy on their toes and out of bounds.

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Team Chile making a diamond against Team England. Don’t underestimate the ‘little guys’. Photo by John Hesse

Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium all played tremendous derby throughout the weekend. Some names rang familiar, but the world now has solid memory of skaters previously unknown to them. These teams came in without huge superstars, and played well together, and did amazing things on the track. They created new derby celebs in the likes of Ashby, Lt Damn, Optimus Grime, Track Vadar, Jones, Skate Plissken, Roche, and Trick or Threat. Ok and please know there are a TON more skaters that I want to recognize, but I don’t want this to become a blog of names ❤

The point is this: yes, having tried and true players on your team is awesome, but don't get hung up on them. I've seen too many teams panic when their star player can't make it to a game, or gets injured. Every single one of us can do amazing things when we pull together with our squad and work as a team. Don't undervalue 'the little guys' in your league. Lift them up and expect the best out of them, and they will give it.

 

  1. “You can either yell about the call or play derby. I suggest you play derby.”

I had to say/yell this at least 12 times during the Cup. Ok we all get peeved on rules stuff. We all see things happen or [not] get called that makes us go “DAFAQ REFS?” however when you’re in the middle of a jam, that is not the right time to stop what you’re doing to throw your hands in the air in disgust. Play the game. Control what you can control. You standing in the middle of the track signaling for a forearm penalty is not going to put the ref in the position to have seen it 5 seconds ago. Move on. Skate hard.

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Really, Disaster Chief? France isn’t going to take it easier on you! 😀 Photo by Orel Kichigai
  1. ONE HAND IS EVERYTHING

Dear folks who have mastered the ‘one hand out of bounds’ thing: TEACH ME YOUR GODDAMN JEDI WAYS. I know that a ton of folks have used this since the clarification came out. I was impressed by how many jammers got knocked backwards, caught themselves with one hand VERY out of bounds, only to regain their skates after the blocker had triumphantly removed themself from the ENTIRE PACK thinking a cut was imminent. The jammer, meanwhile, skates forward to freedom. I think Rollomite had the move patented by the end of the weekend.

WORK ON BALANCE PEOPLE! And back bridges apparently…

  1. Even if you don’t leave with a medal, you still win at the World Cup

The amount of stories of pride I’ve heard during the event and since brings tears to my eyes. The people who have met new friends, taken on derby legends, and scored little victories with a team of their nation is remarkable. The officials, photogs, announcers, vendors, EMTs, volunteers are not left unaffected. To watch Japan get their first win, to watch Argentina who were the little guys of 2014 finish 6th, witnessing Mexico coming out of the gate with something to prove, to see Australia unseat Canada on the podium, to see England give the USA a run for their money, to witness all the apex jumps, tremendous blocks, and incredible timing, to be in the room when so many proposals happened … it leaves a mark on you. Every person who was a part of the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup in Calgary, Alberta will have friends around the world for the rest of their lives. We took care of each other, cheered, danced, had our hearts broken, and triumphed as one.

If there’s anything I regret about the World Cup is that I couldn’t be on both tracks all the time, and there are some teams I didn’t get to watch as much as others. But that’s ok! 2018 isn’t far away. You should go like the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup on Facebook, and maybe host the next one…..

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Anita of the Netherlands. The face says it all. Photo by Brangwyn Jones
Thank you Chinook City Roller Derby. Thank you Roller Derby Elite. Thank you nations of the world. Thank you roller derby for being the best thing that has ever entered my life. It’s hard to believe that my World Cup experience was followed up by as equally of humbling of a RollerCon experience… but I think I’ll save that for another blog.
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Team Belgium during opening ceremonies just one of many teams super stoked to be there! Photo by John Hesse

Thank you to the photogs that let me use their work in this blog! Go visit Brangwyn Jones, Orel Kichigai, and John Hesse!!

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Canada was a fantastic host during the MRDWC, eh? Photo by John Hesse

Khaos Theory Blog is run completely off my own funds. Make a donation now to keep the blog going! 
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Kristie Grey (Merry Khaos) has been playing roller derby since 2009 and has coached almost as long. She has worked with over 20 leagues in 11 states, and five countries. She has coached on and off skates at Beat Me Halfway 2014 & RollerCon (2012-2015). She currently skates with Tampa Roller Derby. Active in health and wellness, she is an active Herbalife Health Coach, rock climber, and power lifter. For questions, booking, requests of topic, or help with a nutrition plan, message Khaos at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com

Continue reading “Derby Lessons from the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup”

Khaos Theory is out there

Maybe you had never heard of me, until someone posted a blog on your wall, or maybe we’ve played in a mash-up scrimmage together in Morristown, NJ. Perhaps we danced at a H.A.R.D. after party, or you were near me and the Wreckingballs as we did push-ups for Maelstrom at ECDX. Maybe you took one of my classes at RollerCon, or Beat Me Halfway. Maybe you’ve been one of my wellness clients.

Or maybe you’re just hearing of me now.

Mr McWheely Spring Roll
Photo by Mr McWheely

I coach, write, ref, announce, and skate (when I’m not off-skates for this ACL injury). I am a health coach, crazy cat lady (currently lacking cats), and super passionate about derby, rock climbing, and lifting. I like writing about derby a lot. And a lot of you have enjoyed my blogs over the years!

 

And now I need some help with keeping Khaos Theory alive. There are two ways that you could help. One is by going to my PATREON campaign! You can support the blog directly by donating every time I post something. The second is by visiting http://www.gofundme.com/khaosACL and picking out a great reward for you or your team, and also sharing the link.

 

But let’s remember why you would want to:

Perspective Shift challenged the way you thought about weight lifting in your off skates programs. The Four Corners of Derby gave your league some ideas on how to deal with different skill levels of training. You learned some training moves for both blockers and jammers. There was that time that you found a piece about alcohol and its effect on athletes it made you think twice about binge drinking on the weekends. And when your league was going through another meltdown, you read about League Rebuilding, and realized you weren’t alone. And remember when I did all those “HIT & QUIT” features of our MRDA athletes? You were so excited to see someone who doesn’t always get attention, get a little bit of love!

Menace TC

 

Remember when you went on my YouTube and found that Tricks for the Tool Box video that helped you with transitions?

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Coaching at Shoreline in CT!

So you wanna be a blocker…

Let’s just admit it: Hitting people is fun.

Blockers have the task of creating unbreakable defense while assisting their jammer through packs of unbreakable defense. Blockers must have their head on a swivel, legs of granite, and the mind of a mathematician. Blocking is more than “Look! A star. I hit them now.” How can you work on your blocking chops? Check it:

  1. Learn how your body works

I’m awkward. No one would ever argue that. My foggy, klutzy way of moving through space developed when I was 10 and just continued through adulthood. One of my favorite jokes is that I’m better on my skates than I am on my sneakers (and it’s funny because it’s true).

I didn’t really start understanding how my body TRULY works until I took two Movement classes for my theatre major in my early 20s. Not only were we challenged to move through space feeling every inch of our body and understanding where the tension and support was coming from, but we were forced to write a weekly movement and action diary. Until you really tune into how your foot placement affects the stretch your triceps, you do not truly understand the mechanics of this wonderful machine we’re all given. We would drop inhibitions in class, with our peers, and just move in the strangest ways we could. And we’d freeze, and we’d FEEL where things were. And we’d move more frantically. And after 45 minutes of this, you start to really understand how it all works on you, because it works a little differently on all of us.

Move. Write it down. Really feel the momentum of the strange dance. Take a couple minutes a day and just move around in strange interpretive dance ways and feel the stretch of your muscles and the support of your soft tissue.

01
Yoga is excellent for body awareness

Yoga will help you drive home control of the muscles once you understand how they all connect. I did not know what it really meant to ‘engage my core’ until I started working on inversions. Yoga will help you hone in on muscle awareness and control, it will strengthen your body and your mind. Yoga is not easy, and practicing yoga daily can be a game changer for your flexibility and mental control in stressful situations. If you’re feeling really adventures, get into the world of acroyoga or aerial dance. You will learn how all the muscles in your body work very quickly!

  1. Practice your fancy feet

The biggest misconception I run into about blocking is the idea that blockers don’t need to practice footwork because “I don’t jam”. OK, first of all you DO jam, you just don’t have a target on your helmet.

Secondly, you have to jam in order to be a successful blocker. You need to understand what a jammer goes through when hit by friendly fire, or when team mates continually reform the pack in front of them when they’re trying to break on their initial pass. It feels like what I imagine drowning feels like. By jamming semi-regularly, blockers learn the internal debate within a jammer’s mind, and thus are better prepared to react to them when playing defense.

London versus Victorian
Footwork in combination with strength is what makes a blocker truly a threat. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Tangent. Sorry. (I hate when people say, “Oh no, I don’t jam”. There is no quicker way in a RollerCon scrimmage line for me to hand you a star. You have been warned.)

I say that all blockers are jammers because we often end up at the back of the pack, with the need to get to the front. If you do not know how to get through a wall of blockers, you will be goated and rendered less effective. Actually, a mantra when I jam is: “JUST GET TO THE FRONT”. I’ll say it myself when I take the line (my team mates can vouch). I get to the front all the time as a blocker, so it should be no different when I’m jamming.

Footwork translates to maneuverability. It can be a clusterf***k in the pack sometimes. If you don’t know how to move your body in a way to keep you with your wall, and in a strong position, you will be defeated. You need to be able to smoothly work in your team’s formation and then move around other obstacles that get in your way. If you do not practice your footwork, you will be clunky and slow. You will be more likely to commit a penalty, or simply take yourself away from the action of being effective.

So practice your footwork and put on the star. I promise you won’t die.

TO PRACTICE: Check out some starter footwork on my YouTube channel.

  1. Positional blocking wins derby

In 2011, Oh Chit came to Harrisburg practice, and while doing scenario work, she popped to the front of the pack and began skating backwards. OUR MINDS WERE BLOWN. Slowly, over the next year, we saw more people engaging backwards hits as last ditch efforts to catch a jammer, to protect their point, or to give direction to their wall. It was widely accepted that only the best skaters should be skating backwards, and only after a lot of practice should you utilize a backwards blocking technique in game play. Why? Because derby is really hard. Derby while skating backwards is ridiculously hard.

Rose City and London
Keeping your hips in front means you control the jammer, you protect your point, and you have more mobility. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Today in derby, it’s not uncommon to have skaters turn around specifically TO block. Why?

“I’m better that way.”

No. You aren’t. I’m not even sorry to break this news to you. There are maybe a handful of skaters in the entire world that are better blocking backwards than they are blocking forwards. Even they are exceptional at blocking forwards.

Think of how your body feels when you skate forwards compared to when your backwards. Here’s an insider tip if you haven’t started jamming yet: JAMMERS LOVE SPACE. The way your body balances when you’re skating backwards tends to create space between your hips and the opponent. If you give a jammer space, they will utilize their footwork and levels and get by you (or at least get your point). You can’t combat this with standing straight up, because that just knocks you down on your butt.

“Well I just hit them to stop their momentum!” Yea, that’s great, but what happens if they juke before you touch them, is your lateral backward movement STRONGER than a full speed jammer facing forward?

You might THINK you’re better when you’re backwards, but if you do some self-analysis, you will find that you are probably just more comfortable that way because you can see everything, or maybe because you’re not good at plowing and backwards blocking gets you out of having to use your plows and hips.

Backwards skating is most effective when you do so as a brace for positional blockers, and when you have the strength to support, the awareness to communicate, the mobility move the wall where it needs to go, and the strength to fill gaps with a positional block when jammers start to break through.

Chef MRDA
Chef offers his two wall support by letting them brace on him. If Mohawk Down starts to break through or hits an edge, Chef has the mobility to fill the gap and stop him from progressing. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Positional blocking also teaches you control. Big swinging hits are fun, but they are a bit of a relic. It is important to know how to make a big hit, and know when a big hit is a necessary technique to engage. Keep in mind that when you swing for the fences on each opportunity, you strike out more often than knock it out of the park.

Positional blocking wins derby.

It keeps your body on their body. When  you are sitting on a jammer, you own them. You know where they’re going because the moment they move, you can feel it and react. Plus, when you’re facing forward, your team mates can EASILY come up and support you in a wall, or sweep the jammer out of bounds. When you’re chest-to-chest with a jammer, it’s VERY difficult for team mates to give you the support necessary for success.

Pittsburgh and Tampa
Lily the Kid positionally blocks Snot Rocket Science, giving Alli Kat Scratch the space she needs to trap, and potentially sweep Snot out of bounds. Photo by Phantom Photographics

So this means: Practice your plows, balance, and control. Stop insisting that you’re better at backwards blocking. You’re not. Practice looking over just one shoulder when you’re positionally blocking: whichever shoulder will open your view to more of the track (so when you’re on the inside line, look over your right shoulder, when you’re on the outside line look over your left shoulder). Being a strong piece of a wall will make you an invaluable piece of any blocking line.

TO PRACTICE: Grab a buddy. One person is the blocker, one is the jammer for a set amount of time. The jammer’s goal is to get around the blocker WHILE MAINTAINING CONTACT. The blocker’s goal is to control the speed of the jammer by keeping them behind, or being able to walk the jammer to the line. Contact must be maintained, and no backwards blocking is allowed. Speed control is a MAJOR focus!

  1. Stop on a dime

Practice your stops until you’re sick of stopping (and then do it more): Two foot plows, one foot plows, 180 toe stops, hockey stops. Not only do you need to be able to stop so that you can control your opponents, but also for pack control.

The second level of derby-brain involves pack strategy. If you cannot stop on a dime, you’re going to make your bridge at 11 feet, not 10. If you can’t stop on a dime, you may end up being a bridge for a crucial few seconds while your team mates are trying to draw the pack to the back. If you can’t stop on a dime, you’re going to be more concerned with stopping in game play, then actually playing the game.

Stopping on a dime allows you to walk a player to the line, but not go out of bounds. Being able to stop on a dime means you can join a wall and not glide past it. Being able to stop on a dime means you’re less likely to get knocked out of bounds, because you aren’t going out of bounds.

If you can’t stop on a dime by yourself, you’ll have a hard time charging into a block and stopping your gained momentum.

blocking gotham girls
Violet Knockout is a joy to watch stop on a dime. Her strength in her plow translates to her strength her positional blocking. Photo by Phantom Photographics

TO PRACTICE: Drill this stuff. Repetition, repetition. If you’re having trouble with a two foot plow, try a one foot plow. A one foot plow does not look like a two foot plow, and you’re simply pressing into one foot more. Rather your weight is primarily on one leg, and the other leg shoots in front to apply pressure to the floor through applying pressure directly down on all four wheels (kind of like a kick stand).

If you keep hearing people say “Get lower”, it means you are not activating your core enough. Often we spread our legs out more and think we’re getting lower when we do that because WE see the world get lower. Have someone video tape your plow stops so you can analyze your stance and practice putting your weight and pressures in different spots. “Play with the floor”.

For your 180 toe stops, check out this video (production quality is low, but people have told me has helped).

Always play with the amount of pressure you’re putting into the floor, and practice on different surfaces! (Especially for hockey stops)

  1. Protect the line

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t let a jammer slip by on the inside line, and it is FRUSTRATING. Covering the line doesn’t just mean that you’re standing with your skate on the line and you never move. Derby is dynamic. You need to be able to support your team mates while still confidently protecting that inside lane. Lateral movement and keeping your head on a swivel are critical components for lane 1 defense.

Knowing where the line exists is crucial as well. You have to understand your space on the track. Every time you do a drill, be aware of the line. Respect the line. Just because you’re not ‘in game play’ doesn’t mean you get to cut track, or ignore your boundary. Being conscious of the existence of the line, in every drill, will help your muscle memory and subconscious be aware of the line when it matters most.

When you’re practicing, you should always be diligently keeping tabs of other skaters on the track. Upping your ability to look around and know where people are on the track while doing scenario work will translate to jammer and opponent awareness during game play. If you don’t know where the blockers are, you won’t know that they’re about to throw an offensive block. If you can’t keep track of the jammer, you won’t know that she’s seen you step off of the line.

dub city gold coast
Sometimes, even when you think you have the line, a jammer can slide through. Timing and body position is critical for stopping a sneaky jammer. Photo by Phantom Photographics

TO PRACTICE: Work on your lateral movement across different widths of the track. Sarah Hipel has a great video of a cross over step into a slide, which will help you learn how to control change of direction. See it here. Edgework (that fancy feet stuff) will assist you in being able to move across the lanes.

You also need to understand how much room you can leave on the inside (or outside) line when you’re blocking. Don’t be afraid to line it up. When warming up, take a spot with your foot on the line, defending to your max. Now, move laterally with one step (whichever kind of step is most comfortable for you), and stop. That is as much space as you should leave at any point. If you come off the line more than that during game play, it is up to you to communicate to your team mates that you no longer have the line.

  1. Lift heavy things

I won’t spend a ton of time here, since we always are harping on cross training. Lifting heavy is becoming more accepted in our community as an important piece of the cross training puzzle. Without too much physics talk, you can think of it this way: If you can apply 250# of pressure into the floor to lift a bar, do you think your legs will be able to apply a lot more pressure into your wheels to push an opponent out of bounds?

I wrote about changing up our ideas about cross training and weight training in my PERSPECTIVE SHIFT blog. Give it a read if you’re willing after this 3000 word adventure!

  1. Leave your comfort zone behind

Do everything you can that you don’t like doing. Use your left leg to plow stop. Put your butt down lower than you think is necessary when you’re doing a pace line. Practice skills that you’re bad at. Jam. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for blockers to know how to jam. Don’t be afraid to fall. Being a good blocker means being willing to get a little uncomfortable – with your body position, with your endurance work, and with how you receive criticism.

Leave your ego at the door. Receiving criticism is outside of the comfort zone for many athletes. We get so caught up in trying to defend what we were trying to do, that we don’t listen to what our coaches and refs tell us. Instead of retorting when someone says, “Next time do _______”, say “Ok.”.

bay area wftda
Bay Area’s flat walls are infamous. Team work and trust  are foundations of their work. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Have you fouled out for forearms usage, or do you always have team mates asking you to watch your direction while initiating a block? Maybe they’re not crazy. Maybe the refs aren’t out to get you. Maybe you actually do these penalties, and you have been too bull headed to admit that MAYBE you have been making a mistake. You need to step into the discomfort of admitting that you are not perfect and have things to improve. Don’t get angry because you were called on a forearm (again), but consider that maybe your metric for the penalty needs to be adjusted.

It is uncomfortable to be wrong. It’s ok. There is no perfection in derby. We all have things to work on, and everyone on your team wants you to succeed. They’re not telling you things to be mean, they’re telling you things so that you improve.

  1. Watch footage

All the footage, all the derby. I will harp on this in every blog ever because you cannot improve your game unless you open your eyes to ways you can improve your game. If you never see other options of blocking or working with your team, you may get stuck in a rut. It’s possible you’ve been practicing a blocking technique that doesn’t translate to your body. By watching other skaters you will pick up pointers in tactic and skills to improve your own game. The more you understand the game of derby from the outside, the more your eyes will be open on the inside of the pack.

Watch all the derby, even the rulesets you don’t understand. Even the kind of derby you may have no desire to play. Watch it anyway. Understand it. Embrace it.

Final thoughts…

Your team is on a journey together. You can only work on blocking so much as an individual. You must rely on and trust your team mates to improve. Love and lift each other up. Have on your Big Kid Panties at practice – everyone is learning. If they back block you, tell them outside of the heat of the moment. Don’t call them out when it’s happening. Support and teach each other, and together the whole community will grow!

Now go forth and practice!

orlando roller derby
Supporting your derby family as they practice is super important. Lift each other up, give helpful suggestions, and grow together. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Khaos Theory Blog is run completely off my own funds. Make a donation now to keep the blog going! 
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Thank you to Phantom Photographics for the photos used in this blog. Please visit and support these photogs and more.

Kristie Grey (Merry Khaos) has been playing roller derby since 2009 and has coached almost as long. She has worked with over 20 leagues in 11 states, and five countries. She has coached on and off skates at Beat Me Halfway 2014 & RollerCon (2012-2015). She currently skates with Tampa Roller Derby. Active in health and wellness, she is an active Herbalife Health Coach, rock climber, and power lifter. For questions, booking, requests of topic, or help with a nutrition plan, message Khaos at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com

Continue reading “So you wanna be a blocker…”

So you wanna be a jammer….

You’ve joined roller derby. You’ve worked your butt off (or up, in the case of some of us) to pass the 27 in 5. You’re not a complete bambi on skates, and you have fallen in love with a star. That star just happens to be on a helmet cap. You don’t know if it’s the challenge of breaking a wall, the thrill of hearing “tweet tweet”, or the praise you receive from your peers when you get back to the bench, but you have decided:

You want to be a jammer.

I am here to help. Here are 10 things to help you begin a successful career of five point passes and high lead jammer percentages. It will not be easy, it will not be quick, but with diligence, you can prevail.

Roller derby california florida
Jamming isn’t easy. It takes hard work, persistence, and dedication. (Lambo R Feeties takes on Chuck Taylor during the State Wars final) Photo by Phantom Photographics
  1. Recognize your weaknesses

Chances are you have many of them, especially if you’re coming into this sport as a true Skater Tot. Don’t be afraid to make a list of the things you’re not good at. Watch the other jammers in your league (and in footage) and watch for things you can’t do that make other people successful. Write it down!

Now also make a list of things you’re good at. For those of us who are our own worst critics (guilty), you may want to ask your captains to help you. I’ve asked, “What are you good at?” To many skaters and gotten the snap back with, “NOTHING.” Remember: There is no perfection in derby. And even if you are good at roller skating, doesn’t mean you’ll be good at jamming right away. Don’t allow the frustration to overtake you.

When making your lists, think about these categories: Physical Fitness, On Skates Skills, Strategy, Mental Game. Knowing that you’re good at analyzing situations or have a background at team sports does give you a leg up. They are just as important to derby as toe stop runs.

Now that you have your list, you can start doing some goal setting.  I’d go into it here, but I talk about goal setting in another blog post (or two). Check out “Building You as a Better Skater”

  1. It is in the details

Jammer awareness is full of little details. If you don’t know where the other jammer is or how many points you’ve scored on this pass, how can you make effective decisions when you’re lead jammer (let’s face it, we can’t always refer to our bench coach) as to whether you should call it off? How can you be successful if you constantly get hyper focus in a pack, causing you to lose track of extra blockers who are out to get you?

This is something you can train at practice and in life. When I’m moving through a crowd, I will make a note of a single person (maybe they’ll have a red hat on). As I move, I work on using my periphery to understand where they are, how quickly they’re moving, and what direction they’re going. This works great in grocery stores and busy streets. When someone new walks into a room, try and notice something about them without looking directly at them. You’ll become better at looking using your periphery.

At practice, always be aware of where people are, how they are moving, and what indications they make before coming in to make a hit. Most blockers have a ‘tell’, and the most aware jammers will learn them quickly so they can move out of the way before contact.

To keep yourself calm, practice breathing during your jamming. Make a conscious effort of breathing in and out when you’re in a pack, and steadying your breaths while making your lap. Sometimes I’ll count my strides to keep me calm. Practice this during endurance drills. Find a place of Zen where it’s just you in the track. If you can do it during endurance practice, it’ll translate into your laps and gameplay.

For all the other little details? Well, refer back to your list of what you’re good at and not good at, and fine tune. You’re not good at getting through walls: Is it because of power, body positioning, or foot work? And go on from there!

mrda mec lrt belgium
Details. A fraction of an inch further to the in, and Sully of Lincolnshire Rolling Thunder would be out of bounds. Manneken Beasts’s R.A.T.T. know it too. Photo by NSP189

3. Walk the [imaginary] line

Jammers need to know how to navigate small spaces and squeeze through spaces on the inside and outside line that mere mortals cannot even detect. When you’re practicing your footwork, you should always be imagining a balance beam next to your opponent, you don’t want your feet straying away (and over the boundary line).

To practice narrow spaces, use a partner whenever possible. If you don’t have a buddy to work with, grab some cones, and make two rows of them to create a narrow lane (I like using short cones for this). Ideally, the cones should be no wider than the length of your hand, but when first practicing it’s ok to make the gap wider.

Footwork you should practice include running on your skates, a step through 180 turn (you have to pick up your feet), a foot to foot transition, a shuffle step (on toe stops), a crossover step (on toe stops), and stepping over the leg of an opponent to keep going. These basic pieces can be used in different combinations to get you through and around anything a pack can throw at you. Check out some things to start with: BEGINNER JAMMER FOOTWORK VIDEO

jammer footwork
BEGINNER JAMMER FOOTWORK YOUTUBE VIDEO
  1. Colors and space

When you look at jamming from a very rudimentary standpoint, it is a navigation of space through packs of various colors. One color is friendly the other is foe. The brains of jammers must be able to react quickly to changes in space as well as recognize friendly colors near the space. Weaknesses in depth perception or color recognition can be the difference between a four point pass and being nailed out of the air on an apex jump.

When recognizing your color for offense, remember that you want to go where that skater is about to NOT be, not where they’re going to be when playing offense. You want to occupy space that they no longer occupy. So ‘following offense’ really means follow their movements – don’t run into them, go where they JUST were.

roller derby junkies
The white blocker is clearing the way for the white jammer (who is just behind). White jammer takes the inside line, seeing what her blocker is doing. This is a screenshot from the AMAZING RDJunkies.tumblr.com SEE THE FULL VIDEO!!

A drill that I love for recognizing space and moving through it quickly involves the whole team (this is great for blockers too). Divide your team into three groups. Denote the active part of the track with cones (it shouldn’t be too big of an area, maybe one corner or half the straightaway). Group 1 will ‘jam’ first, starting from the opposite corner. Groups 2 and 3 are told to pick a spot within the boundary. Set a timer for 2 minutes. Group 1, in a line, begins to sprint towards the group standing still. The jammers must navigate the spaces at a sprint. The goal is to get through the pack without slowing momentum, unless it is to redirect their energy, or toe pick past an opponent. This continues for 2 minutes. Then, Group 1 switches with Group 2, and so on.

The next level is to let the obstacles take one step in either direction from their original spot. THERE IS NO INTENTIONAL BLOCKING ALLOWED. The next level is to allow one of the two groups to move laterally across the track. The final stage is to ‘split’ the groups by handing out colored coins to wear, so that each group has both black and white. Now, the obstacles are allowed to make one move to either side of their original spot, AND are allowed to make contact. Obviously, they are only supposed to hit those of the opposing color.

You can also make this more interesting by spreading out the obstacles, and adding in color cones that the jammers are supposed to make contact with throughout the course. You know, just for more fun and challenge.

On your own, you can practice color and vision challenges to sharpen your senses. I’ve found a good memory game and article about improving vision here. Anything you can do at home to improve your periphery is great. Have a friend grab some small colored balls, and sit in a chair looking forward. Have them toss the balls from behind to in front (along the side of your head). Work on catching the balls of specific colors. You must keep your eyes forward! Use your periphery!

  1. Bursts and balance

I f**king love science, and physics is the reason derby does what it does. The sport is a constant transfer of potential to kinetic energy, of friction coefficients, of balance, and of trajectory. To be a successful jammer there are two things you must master:

BURSTS OF POWER (which will cause both acceleration and deceleration)
BALANCE

While I could not find any articles directly related to roller skating, I did do a fair bit of reading just now about bicycles, and why it’s easier to stay on them when they’re moving rather than standing still. It has to do with torque, center of gravity, angular momentum, and the experience of the rider in controlling all of them. This is why newb skaters look wobbly while balancing on one foot, but vets can coast around ‘shooting the duck’ no problem.

CONFESSION: I can’t shoot ducks. Ever. If there is ever a skill that I will not be able to do – it will be that one.

ANYWAY!!!

To practice balance, not only do you just have to spend time on your roller skates doing goofy things, but you have to train all your stabilizer muscles, strengthen those ligaments and challenge your body to do new and interesting (and sometimes very scary things).

Incorporating heavy lifting, plyometrics, and yoga into your cross training program will help you erase instability and build your bursts of power.

Giles and Bittercup roller derby
Training your muscles and edges so that you can burst past blocks is critical for jammer survival. Giles (Victorian) hustles past Bittercup (Texas) using this technique of running on her skates. Photos by Phantom Photographics

6. Levels and Leverage

Along the lines of speed, balance, and understanding your body is the concept of understanding your levels and leverage. Being able to duck under a block, under stray arms flailing, or past a wall is excellent.

ana cheng tampa roller derby
Ana Cheng dips underneath a block. Her attention to her body allows complete control over her movements and levels. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Knowing how to leverage your weight and body against opponents is super handy. Can you press your chest into a blocker and use that energy they put into you to bring your hips and feet around them? Can you bounce into a blocker and use the energy to move you forward? Can you put the levels and leverage together?

Practice (slowly) leaning onto a buddy who’s blocking you. Now see if you can create movement in your skates to move around them with this energy. Do it again, but this time, when you’re almost around them, press harder into them, duck, and snap your hips to get past them. The pressure and ducking will create momentum. You can use this momentum to steal points, or to get yourself out of a pack. After you get your hips around, practice planting your toe stop to spin out of the contact. If you practice right on the edge of the track, you can work on spinning out of the contact and avoiding the cut track at the same time.

7. It is not all about you

You are one of five players on the track from your team. You cannot play as an individual. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen teams make over the years is to give jammers the idea that they’re by themselves on the track.

As a jammer, it is your job to understand what your pack is planning for their defense, offense, and what formations they prefer to run. You are not just offense, but you are defense. For example: If your pack is blocking a jammer who is pushing them into bridging, it’s YOUR job to get your ass back to the pack as part of defense. You will hit the line of blockers, and either break through and they will chase you up OR you will push the wall up, far enough (hopefully) that team’s bridge will be ‘pack is all’.

If you don’t know how your team skates and strategizes, you will not be as effective at reading holes. How many times have you run into your own blockers? Yea. You should probably skate with them more often and learn how to communicate your own plan. Some teams use hand signals or code words to communicate between jammers and blockers, but the best way to use offense is to observe your team mates and know their tendencies.

As Smarty Pants once said, “Blockers make the points, jammers collect them.” So what this comes down to is LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR. No one wants it, no one appreciates it, and even Bonnie Thunders practices. You are not Derby Jesus so lace up and leave it at the door.

8. See the game, be the game

All the derby will help you. I know that not everyone can dedicate hours each day to watching the sport, but if you want to get better at the mental side of roller derby – you must watch it. You must understand how those better than you move and succeed and fail. You must be able to think critically about aspects of the game that you have not encountered. Watching footage, even one game a week split up into four 15 minute chunks will help you.

And don’t just watch the kind of derby that you play. There is WFTDA (of ALL levels), MRDA, JRDA, USARS, UKRDA, RDCL, MADE, and Renegade. Go to bouts, watch streaming tournaments, participate in open scrimmages – both flat and tilty. See the games, analyze the games, be the games.

When you’re at your home league, don’t be afraid to step out of the jammer box.

Practicing as a blocker will dramatically improve your jamming game, because you’ll understand the blocker psychology. You will have first-hand experience of how a blocker reads incoming movement, and how a good blocker will deal with different styles of jammer – because you will be doing it yourself! Then when you jam, you can use this insider information to your advantage when it comes to jukes, deceleration, and avoidance measures.

Like I said, ALL THE DERBY.

Grim D Mise bank track
Grim D Mise balances on a foot to get around the apex. Many flat trackers join Penn Jersey for their scrimmages & BBQs. I know I always feel stronger after spending time on a banked track. Photo by JPaden Photography

9. It’s not your gear

No matter how long you’ve been in the game, we’ve all fallen into the trap of “Well if I just had ______”. While, yes, having better/different plates, boots, wheels, etc  etc can dramatically change aspects of your game, upgrading gear in the soul hoping of becoming a better skater is silly. Improving your skills will help you pass your 27 in 5, not faster bearings. Working on lateral motion will help you avoid an oncoming block, not different wheels. Strengthening your ankles will help you power through your crossovers, not a more expensive boot.

You must work on your craft and know how to manipulate your tools before gear changes will truly mean anything to you. Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference between a wheel with an overhang and a wheel with a square edge until about a year ago. I didn’t know why I couldn’t control my 45 degree plates until I had switched to my 10 degree plates and understood what my body needed to do to plow and edge appropriately. I didn’t know why I had trouble with my 10 degree plates, until I put on 15 degree plates and could feel the movement and control in the trucks in comparison. It’s more than equipment – it’s about your self-awareness in the equipment.

I know skaters who have certified and bouted in rental skates. Sometimes, it’s not your gear, it is user error. Admitting that to yourself can be one of the harder realizations one can come to in derby.

10. You can’t climb Everest in a day

There is so much to improve at, and it is easy to become impatient in this sport. What goals do you have? All the goals? Well you can’t meet them all at once. That’s just the nature of training and sport. Do not look at the peak of the mountain and think “WHY AREN’T I THERE YET?” Rather, focus on the little steps on the way up the mountain. You can’t reach the summit until you reach 1000ft, right? This is the same with training and learning.

You won’t be a D1 level jammer overnight. Sometimes you won’t over a year, or two years. Do not get frustrated, do not quit. Set goals, work hard, and then drill, drill, drill. Challenge yourself against new opponents, and challenge yourself to think outside your safety zone. We all want to be the greatest, but diligence is the key.

Didn’t do so well at practice today? It’s ok. You have to fail a whole bunch in order to start succeeding. You’re not going to be perfect (or even good) at all the skills you try right off the bat. You’re going to run into things that hang you up. Do not let that frustration eat you alive. Recognize where you’re having trouble, break down the movement into smaller chunks, and then drill, drill, drill.

And enjoy the journey along the way! You’ll meet some of your greatest friends in the sport, and through struggling with a thing together.

Mr McWheely Spring Roll
Keep working and you will see it pay off! Photo by Mr McWheely

Now go do some laps!

Thank you to Phantom Photographics, JPaden Photography, NSP 189, and Mr. McWheely for the photos used in this blog. Please visit and support these photogs and more.

Kristie Grey (Merry Khaos) has been playing roller derby since 2009 and has coached almost as long. She has worked with over 20 leagues in 11 states (and Canada). She has coached on and off skates at Beat Me Halfway 2014 & RollerCon (2012-2015). Active in health and wellness, she is an active Herbalife Health Coach and [when the knees allow] rock climber and power lifter. For questions, booking, requests of topic, or help with a nutrition plan, message Khaos at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com

Mental Prep for Roller Derby

Support Merry Khaos and getting back on skates at GoFundMe.com/KhaosACL

Not a single skater that has stepped on the track has avoided a blow to their confidence. No matter how long we have skated, no matter how long we have played, reffed, or coached, all of us – at some point – feel the pit in our stomach and wonder, “What is happening?”

Roller derby, whether you’re playing or officiating, is a mental game. Your skills sit on a house of cards known as ‘confidence’. When our confidence is shaken, or we get angry on the track, our skills suffer. How you recover is critical to your effectiveness. If you spend the whole 30 seconds in the box being mad at yourself (or someone else) about a penalty, you will likely not be effective when you re-enter the track.

Steeling your confidence takes diligence. You must practice it the way you practice laps, footwork, apex jumps, and offensive skills. Let’s look at some things you can do to work up your walls both in life, in practice, and when you’re under pressure.

phantom no hit sherlock
Being calm, collected, and confident come to some naturally (like Ref No Hit Sherlock), but many of us need to practice. Photo by Phantom Photographics

LIFE PRACTICE

Create a Mantra

Ok, you’ve heard this one before, I’m sure and you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. “A mantra.  Yea. OK.” But hear me out : if you create a mantra, a phrase, a motto for life attached to your goals, then throughout the day you can say it to yourself. When you are calm or just happy, repeat it a few times: you’re setting your mind up to associate those words with good feelings.

Mantra ideas:

Quiet, calm, controlled

I am building my life towards my goals

I am not perfect, and that is perfect

I will fly like the Eagle.

You can make it as goofy or as serious as you want, but find a phrase or group of word that resonates with you, and write it on your mirror. Put it on your water bottle. Say it before bed, and when you get up. Then, when you’re struggling with that lift, or you can’t figure out the footwork on a skill, or you feel a penalty against you that wasn’t called – say it then. Calm yourself down. Move forward.

Work on Recognizing When you Get Angry or Flustered

Understanding your emotions off the track can really help you understand them on the track. Many of us walk through our days with emotional blinders on. It takes some internal searching and vulnerability to admit our faults and our buttons.

When you begin to get upset, angry, frustrated, sad – what got you there? Did you rage because you spilled coffee on your shirt, or was it because you spilled coffee on the only shirt you felt body confident in? In which case, it’s not the coffee that you need to work on, but rather feeling better in your skin. Did you feel sad that you weren’t recognized in the meeting at work because you really want praise, or because you know how much work you did and you feel like no one appreciates you?

When we understand the root of our emotion, we can work out the knots. If you constantly look at issues on the surface, you’re never going to fix the problems. Recognizing our deeper issues, and knowing ourselves better can be useful to thwart future negative emotions. Forgiving yourself for transgressions of the past that fuel current insecurities can be very freeing, and can improve your positive outlook overall.

Snap Happy skate roller derby
Things happen. Mentally strong skaters are able to roll with the punches and keep going with a level head. Snap Happy is dealing with her skate, but after the fact, she was back to business as usual. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Turn off the TV, Crack Open a Book

Strong mental game comes from positive minds. A study done by the University of Maryland conducted over a 30 year period indicates that those who are unhappy watch more television. They compare it to an opiate that creates a short term positive effect, but a longer term feeling of ‘misery and regret’ (1).

A study done by Emory University also indicates that reading fiction stimulates connectivity in the primary sensory motor region of the brain (ie the part of the brain that deals with motor function and activity) (2). When you think about playing roller derby, you actually activate the same neurons as when you are physically PLAYING roller derby. It’s why we tell you to visualize skills. You strongly visualizing the action and you DOING the action are nearly the same according to your neuron connections. The implication that reading novels could increase the strength of the connections within the brain that control motor functions is great news. It means you can build a stronger physical game by switching off the TV and reading a favorite story.

Finding books in the ‘Personal Development’ section can’t hurt you either. While often criticized for being a money-hungry nonsense, there are many ‘self-help’ style books that will help you peel away the layers of your onion. That whole, “you must learn your triggers” thing mentioned earlier? This is what I’m talking about. The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks is one of my favorites. It is a book about pushing past our own top level of happiness to achieve greater satisfaction in life, and happiness in work, relationships, and health. Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, Do Work that Matters by Jon Acuff is another book to look into. Serious self-development laced with humor will challenge how you think about your work ethic and goal setting.

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A recommended read.

Study Roller Derby

The good, the bad, the ugly, the awesome: watch it all. Don’t just see the game, see the individual actions of those who are successful and the missteps of those who are not. Re-watch offense, break the defense apart. Look at situations and how players reacted to them. Don’t look at just the formations, but the actual movements of a skater’s shoulders, what their body does to absorb impact, or how their momentum moves when they shift from rolling to running on their toe stops. Go deeper.

You may think that blocker who is facing backwards was successful in her job (Yay look! She knocked the jammer out of bounds!), but did the jammer pass 2 other blockers (and gain points) just because she was facing backwards? Did someone get a multiplayer block because of her formation? Was the jammer able to immediately stand up and swoop to the outside of your ‘successful’ blocker because the blocker had no lateral agility?

Now do the more dangerous thing: Challenge yourself to analyze your own game and ask yourself if you’ve been making the mistakes you see in others. True self-analysis separates the good from the great, because it is scary. It is frightening to admit that we use our forearms to get around blockers, that we leave our skates to make hits when we’re tired, or that our elbows are critical to our [ineffective] backwards blocking style. It is scary to admit that we might be wrong, and that we might have to rewire ourselves to be more effective.

gotham girls rose city
Want to study roller derby? Want to study strong mental game? Study Bonnie Thunders. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Write it Out

Upset about something? Can’t understand something that happened and it’s frustrating you? Don’t feel productive during the day? Write it out!!

Taking 5-15 minutes at the start of the day to ‘Mind Dump’ is super helpful. Turn off all the noise. Put away the cell phone. Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Set a timer. Now just WRITE. It can be in list form, in prose, or a combination, but just write EVERYTHING in your head! Write what you have to do today. What you wish you had done yesterday. What upset you at practice. What you wish your girlfriend had said when you had argued. Vomit all of the things from your head onto the piece of paper.

Read over it. Create new lists of important things that you can gather from it. And the rest?

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ON SKATES PRACTICE

Get to Practice Early and Develop a Routine

Rushing into your practice space and barely getting on the floor in time for warm-ups is not a habit of mentally-strong skaters. Creating a space bubble where you can refocus from your day into derby mode is very important. You can take the time to breath, think about your last practices, think about your current goals, and create goals for the day. You can take the extra minutes to chat up your captains and get feedback, or simply sit and focus on the upcoming challenges as you nom on some last minute energy.

If you start your practice frenzied, you likely will remain that way. So get there early, do a warm up, get your head straight, and most importantly: LEAVE YOUR BAGGAGE AT THE DOOR. I forget who said it first, but I was told to leave all the shit from my day at the door of work, practice, or rehearsals; “Don’t worry, it’ll still be there when you’re done, because no one wants your shit.” Part of an acting warm up we did in college involved invoking this phrase: “I will be here and present. Anything going on in my life will still be there in three hours. I can do nothing about it while I’m here, so there is no use in worrying about it.”

So yea, leave your baggage behind, the 27 in 5 is hard enough without a pack of stuff weighing you down.

Don’t Engage in Gossip

Ok, honestly this could be applied to the ‘real life’ section too. Gossip brings stress and disquiet. Do not engage in the ‘she said, he said’ BS that sometimes comes along with groups of people being in a hobby together. Talk to your friends, interact with your team mates on a social level –it’s a great bonus to this sport we play! We see our team mates more than our other friends.

However, refrain from the toxicity of gossip. Otherwise your mind will be so busy processing how Johnny Ref kind of almost cheated on Jane Ref with Betty Skater, and she’s such a bitch anyway and then you’ll be thinking “oops there goes the jammer”, or “oops was that a cut?” or the worst: “I’m not going on the floor with her.” Skaters and refs that get hung up on gossip and butthurt only keep the team from progressing to the next level of team work.  It doesn’t matter who has done what outside of practice. When you play on a team, when you ref on a crew:  you are all equals. Don’t let petty BS get in the way of building awesome walls or running a smooth game.

Anyway, what other people choose to do is none of your business. Just skate and let skate! You’ll be happier in the end, I promise.

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Team mates are lovely to laugh with, not be gossips with. PhDiesel and Millie Curie are having a moment here.

When you ‘Mess Up’ Recognize the Error, Forgive, and Correct

You are your own worst enemy. Chances are that when you “mess up” in your own head, no one else is as concerned. We’re back to self-recognition on this one. Look at what you did, think about how you could have done better, forgive yourself for the mistake made, and incorporate the new information into executing the drills better. If a team mate offers you advice, or comes to tell you about something that happened in a drill, do not get defensive. Do not talk. Listen. Absorb what they’re saying, don’t immediately spew out the thing you were trying to accomplish; they know what it was. It’s why they’re talking to you right now.

A team mate saying “Don’t turn around”, “you should come to the line in this situation”, or “You keep skating away from us”, isn’t people being mean. Turn off the butthurt and listen to the feedback. Mentally strong players are not defensive. If you are receiving criticism that you feel is backhanded or incorrect based on a solid logic: than thank the skater for their feedback anyway. You do not need to incorporate everything you are told, but should give serious consideration when given feedback; especially if it is not the first time that you’ve heard it. Admit you might be wrong, forgive yourself, and correct it.

As a ref, know that you’re going to make mistakes. Even level 5 refs call off the jam when their jammer isn’t lead, or get hit by ghost blockers while head reffing. Just like with players, take feedback, question every action, and incorporate feedback with a level head and open mind.

bass invader
Officials need to have rock solid confidence to do their (very complicated) jobs,often without thanks. Bass Invader (a favorite SO & NSO in Florida) is unphased by your shenanigans. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Focus on Your Breath During Every Drill

Our breath and heart rate match each other. When we feel out of breath, we pant. When we pant, it triggers panic in our minds, and our heart rate skyrockets. When we are mad, we breath heavier, our mind becomes dizzy, our heart rate rises. Elevated heart rate may be advantageous to an extent for our muscles, reaction, and blood flow, but only to a point. I don’t think I need to reference any of the material out there that says that elevated heart rate and shortness of breath is linked to anxiety, fear, and anger. These are things we do not want you feeling.

During each drill, think about the air you take in and breathe out. Count your breaths, when you come off the track and are short of breath, force yourself to take longer, slower inhalations. When you get called on a penalty, exit the track immediately and instead of wasting your breath on mean words, use your breath to calm your heart. When a team mate says something you don’t appreciate, do not retort. Just breathe.

When at home, a couple times a day (at least), take the longest breath in that you can, hold for as long as you can, and then let it out for as long as you can. It will force you to tune into your lung capacity and how it feels to really be at the end of your air. It will improve your cardio conditioning, because you will be training your heart to work on air less often. When the time comes, you can use this breath practice to bring your heart rate back under control.

For refs, controlling your breath and increasing your endurance means your brain will remain functioning during fast paced and high stress games. You want to keep a clear mind to see each action clearly. Keeping your breath under control is step 1.

Know Why You Are There

Are you playing derby because you love the sport and want to be the best at it you can be? Are you there because you love competition and athleticism? Are you there because your bestie drug you to tryouts? Are you there because you want people to look at you in a certain way when you say, “Oh yea, I play roller derby”? Do you really love the intricacies of the rules and have an interest in keeping skaters safe?

No reason is wrong, however knowing why you’re really there can play into your mental stability when things get hard. When you cannot complete a skill, but you only practice once or twice a week, because you play derby as a recreational hobby to change up your routine, cut yourself some slack. If you are focusing on a skill you’ve had trouble completing, and you’re in the game to be the best the game has to offer, take a step back and look at what you could improve. Maybe break down the skill into smaller pieces and build.

Regardless of why you’re there, sometimes taking a skill to a smaller level can boost the confidence you need to advance. You can’t do a foot to foot transition at speed? Try stepping through your transitions, so that your 180 turns are clean, smooth, and your feet are “on a balance beam” during the transition. Can’t bring an opposing skater to a stop with a plow? Work those plow stops, and have your buddy push gently on your back as you work on controlling your speed and balance.  Take it to a place you can be successful, and add difficulty and speed from there.

WFTDA Tampa Roller Derby
Tripp McNeely, Despicable D, and Millie Curie share a hug during a Cigar City Mafia game at Tampa Roller Derby. Each skater is strong of mind, solid in their goals, and work with their teams to accomplish greatness. Photo by Phantom Photographics

WHEN YOU’RE UNDER PRESSURE

All of the pieces we’ve talked about come together on game day: forgiving yourself of mistakes, breathing through difficulty, analysis of gameplay, and calming yourself when you want to be frantic. When you study the game, and you think about the game, and you visualize yourself playing the game, your body has an easier time moving through the game. They call it practice for a reason. When the pressure comes on, your body will do what it knows. Your body will default to muscle memory, and emotional memory. If you haven’t practiced 180 toe stops 10000 times, then you won’t execute a 180 toe stop without thinking about it. If you haven’t practiced calming your body down, than you won’t be able to when tension is high on the track and personalities are exploding on the bench.

This is your time to be the rock. This is your time to be the positive force the team needs as an example. You communicate with your walls, which you can do because you haven’t made enemies through gossip. You can last through playing 75% of the jams, because you have worked on your cardio conditioning. You can orchestrate your blockers through complex situations, because you’ve studied the game and asked questions of your coaches. You can celebrate a win, or accept a loss with good graces, because you do not dwell on mistakes, but rather understand that one person does not make a team, and even Gotham loses once in a while.

Read books, watch derby, be nice, breathe more, listen to calming music sometimes, eat food that gives you energy, create a warm up routine, leave your emotional garbage outside the rink, and don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, ask questions, or to challenge your own skills. Don’t be afraid to turn away from a crowd of poisonous people in favor of healthy habits on and off the track. When you are getting frustrated because you can’t do something, bring it back to a level that you will have success and work up from there.

Practice, stay calm, and move forward with an open mind, eager attitude, and love in your heart for yourself, and you will build your mental resistance over time.

Tampa Roller Derby
I may look worried, but I’m just analyzing my options and looking for the best route through the pack. OR I’ve just emerged from the pack and am shell shocked at the muscle memory I’ve built over the years. Photo by Phantom Photographics.

Kristie Grey (Merry Khaos) has been playing roller derby since 2009 and has coached almost as long. She has worked with over 20 leagues in 11 states (and Canada). She has coached on and off skates at Beat Me Halfway 2014 & RollerCon (2012-2015). Active in health and wellness, she is an active Herbalife Health Coach and [when the knees allow] rock climber and power lifter. For questions, booking, requests of topic, or help with a nutrition plan, message Khaos at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com

Phantom Photograhics
Thank you Phantom for the photos used in this blog! Visit http://phantomphotographics.tumblr.com/ to buy prints and support derby

(1)  Phys.Org “Unhappy people watch TV, happy people read/socialize, study says” http://phys.org/news/2008-11-unhappy-people-tv-happy-readsocialize.html

(2) Emory University eScienceCommons “A novel look at how stories may change the brain” http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html

Published 1/22/2016