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.

 

USA MRDA
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.

Ireland Japan
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.

alien al team england
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.

team england MRDA
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.

Team Chile Men's Roller Derby
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

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2014 MRDA Champs Preview: #3 New York Shock Exchange

Our goal is to win every game we play.  Keep it simple, sexy. – Jonathan R

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And New York Shock Exchange is making a good case that they’re going to do exactly that at Champs this weekend. As one of the oldest leagues in the world, and the first champions of the MRDA, NYSE has a long tradition of work ethic and dominance. Coming into Champs with a full, healthy roster (and a fire in their eyes from dropping to the #3 ranking) means that NYSE is going to battle every team like it’s the final.

Being an East Coast girl, I’m pretty familiar with the men of NYSE. Their friendly rivalry with Mass Maelstrom is the best we have seen in MRDA the Northeast. Getting the opportunity to go to Coney Island and see the evolution of NYSE over the years has been awesome.

At ECDX. Photo by Tyler Shaw - Prints Charming Photography
Buster Cheatin takes away Cilantro’s momentum at ECDX. Photo by Tyler Shaw – Prints Charming Photography

Part of why [I think] Shock Exchange has continued having success while other founding MDC (Men’s Derby Coalition) teams have dropped to the wayside is not just the fact that they have access to an enormous metropolitan area’s worth of skaters or that they have Gotham Girls as their Big Sisters. It’s that the coaching staff has remained open minded about new strategies and training opportunities, while the skaters themselves continually re-dedicate themselves to the goals of the team. NYSE has always been on the forefront of new strategy and pushing the boundaries of what their sheer amount of skill can do. When I asked captain (and Team USA skater) Jonathan R why he thinks Shock has remained at the top, he had a very similar idea:

We have a continuous drive to be better and push beyond barriers.  This is exemplified in our commitment to having regular practices in perpetuity as we seek out new ideas.

That being said, NYSE has had [in the past] the same kind of problem that Puget Sound has. The older teams have a style of gameplay that can only be labeled “SuperStar”. NYSE, in the past, has simply been more talented on their wheels than their opponents. NYSE would rely on their jammers to do all the work, and their blockers would spread out, take swings and make huge hits (with a high rate of success) and it was enough to win.

KenboSlice goes toe to toe with Menace at RollerCon. Photo by Brangwyn Jones.
KenboSlice goes toe to toe with Menace at RollerCon. Photo by Brangwyn Jones.

As other teams have started closing the gap in the last couple years, NYSE’s style has shifted. You still see shadows of the SuperStar play, but now you have power blockers like Buster Cheatin’ and Chris Szabo pulling the team together into walls. Walls which thwarted Mass Maelstrom by a significant amount both times they met this season; Walls that saved them against the Bridgetown Menace at RollerCon.

Shock’s style of teamwork in a pack is a bit unique to other teams (again, more similar to Puget). While they work together, and move as one fluid unit, they don’t have the contact with each other that other teams do. When watching Southern Discomfort (for example), the men link to teammates until engagement begins. While NYSE always clusters near each other, the links are never as prominent (I have noticed). The downside is their partner may be slightly further than desirable, the positive is that it saves them on the multi player blocks, forearms, and high blocks that plague many Top 8 teams. Plus, the skill and awareness of the skaters let them get away with this kind of ‘dropped arms’ linkage to one another.

NYSE sticks close to contain WildStyle of The Replacements at the Mohawk Valley Cup. Photo by Hispanic Attack.
NYSE sticks close to contain WildStyle of The Replacements at the Mohawk Valley Cup. Photo by Hispanic Attack.

We shall see what happens at Champs with this. Mass Maelstrom is coming in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder and are focused on squarely and definitively beating NYSE. Their fluid diamonds and tight packs could be trouble for NYSE. If NYSE wins, they will square off against Southern Discomfort or the GakeKeepers. GK was the only loss of the year for Shock, while Shock was the only top 4 team that So Disco didn’t skate against when they came across the pond in the spring. All teams that face NYSE really have one thing to worry about if they want a shot at winning: NEUTRALIZE THEIR JAMMERS.

Particularly Jonathan R and Carnage Asada. Based on what I saw at RollerCon, they better keep a tight beat on I A M Havoc as well.

Jonathan R does not let physics restrain him at ECDX. Photo by Tyler Shaw - Prints Charming Derby Photography
Jonathan R does not let physics restrain him at ECDX. Photo by Tyler Shaw – Prints Charming Derby Photography

I don’t even know how to explain how good Jonathan R is. It almost makes me mad when I watch him skate because I can’t wrap my head around how his simple, concise moves can translate into COMPLETE OBLITERATION OF THE DEFENSE. The man rarely looks like he’s even working. He is fluid, has complete control over physics (he may be a Time Lord), and even when he’s making RollerCon look like a CSI crime scene – the man is smiling and cheering on his team.

Carnage Asada doesn’t have the same ease to his skating that Jonathan R does. Highly effective with long legs and toe stop action to die for, Carnage’s plan is to make you over commit on your hit. He is patient and quick, breaking down a line one by one. Defenses are constantly having to shift from long fluid blocks and holds to contain Jonathan R, to the staccato speed of Asada. It makes them lose their rhythm. It simply works.

Carnage Asada does his thing at Mohawk Valley Cup. Photo by Hispanic Attack.
Carnage Asada does his thing at Mohawk Valley Cup. Photo by Hispanic Attack.

Havoc is up and coming for sure. A new Shocker, Havoc had been on the Dow Jones average to develop is skills. If Carnage and Jonathan had a jamming love baby – it would be Havoc. No, seriously – don’t make that face at me. Havoc has fluidity in his ducks and jukes, but can stop on a dime and use lateral motion to throw off the opposition. Still adjusting to the speed of the game, Havoc hasn’t always had success against teams, but in the GateKeepers bout at RollerCon the entire crowd got to see him Level Up.

The slippery minx that is I A M Havoc at the Mohawk Valley Cup. Photo by Hispanic Attack.
The slippery minx that is I A M Havoc at the Mohawk Valley Cup. Photo by Hispanic Attack.

In fact, I would say all of the NYSE rolled over experience point to gain a level during that GK bout. I’m going to say the thing that everyone has been thinking and whispering but no one has said in a public forum before: NYSE, in the past, has relied too heavily on jamming skill. Particularly Jonathan R’s magic feet. When he suffered a nose bleed at RC, the GK’s score steadily rose, Shock looked a bit lost without their fearless leader. But then they figured it out. Then, the entire bench of Shock had this moment where every single skater stepped up and made adjustments and did whatever they had to for success.  Every jammer that was a secondary brought their game to the level that Shock needed it to be.

NYSE works as a team against Bridgetown Menace at RollerCon. Photo by Brangwyn Jones.
NYSE works as a team against Bridgetown Menace at RollerCon. Photo by Brangwyn Jones.

If that team shows up for Champs? If Shock Exchange has maintained that level of “We need to do this as a team, we can’t rely on our jammers alone” – there is no question in my mind that they will smash through the first two rounds of their bracket while barely breaking a sweat. If they don’t work as a team, if they allow Maelstrom’s blockers to dominate in offense and defense, NYSE is going to have a hard bout ahead of them.

Teamwork at the GateKeepers at RollerCon. Photo by Brangwyn Jones.
Teamwork at the GateKeepers at RollerCon. Photo by Brangwyn Jones.

Regardless, Shock is coming to play and I have a feeling we all are in for some amazing hard-hitting, strategy-driven, blow-your-mind roller derby.

Make sure you check out Shock Exchange’s Facebook to keep up with all the awesomeness that they have happening. The Dow Jones Average, NYSE’s B-team, is in the middle of an UNDEFEATED season! If you can get to a bout, you need to. Also, NYSE is raising money for SHOCK DOWN UNDER!!! They’re going on a tour of Australia with bouts and clinics on the docket, and they need a little help getting there. The FB has all the details and how you can support the strengthening of Men’s Roller Derby around the globe! Get hooked up with some rad NYSE merch at their online store.

PS Check out the NYSE v Maelstrom match-up on WFTDA.tv at 1p PST on Saturday at the MRDA Championships. Thank you to Brangwyn Jones, Tyler Shaw, and Hispanic Attack for the photos in this blog!

Photo by Brangwyn Jones.
Photo by Brangwyn Jones.