When Derby was DERBY (Blog Reboot)

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On January 29, 2012 I published this article. It’s funny that the argument is still going. Not only the old school versus new school skaters but the idea that the rules of new school are broken. The argument that if it “ain’t fast it ain’t derby”. Yes the Puget Sound v Your Mom game was an awesome one at MRDA Champs last weekend. However, the more staccato, stronger-yet-sometimes-slow Southern Discomfort against Bridgetown Menace was no less exciting. Anything italicized, ps, is different from the original article, I didn’t want to re-write this. It was popular for a reason the first time around. The photos have also been updated.

So with that I bring you my next reboot:

Old School vs. New School. Strategy vs. Smash ‘n’ Grab. Jammer Line vs. Pivot Line. Booty Block vs. Big Hits. Rules vs. Free Form. Beer & Camaraderie vs. Cross Training & Team Commitment. Sharp, Strong, Stops vs. Fast, Fluid, Sweeping. 

These are the dichotomies that have bubbled to the surface of the sub-culture of derby. A generation gap has arisen between the vets of “the good ol’ days” and the skaters of the modern culture.

Since the new revolution of roller derby started (back in 2001), the landscape of the sport has shifted considerably. When it was first gaining momentum, skaters and leagues were looking to the tradition of 1970’s over-the-top antics for inspiration. They had to learn how to play the sport from the only people that had played the sport.

The result was a show of big hits, cages as penalty boxes, personas and spectacle. Game play was spotty during the early years. Leagues were figuring out through trial and error what worked, what did not; what was dangerous and what was just fun. The game was unrefined. Those who were drawn to roller derby wanted to together with friends, to hit things and drink beer. It was not about refining strategy and being at your healthiest. The ultimate goal of roller derby was to have fun, skate really fast and hard, and maybe, be a little bit of show.

WFTDA Derby looked a little different in 2010.
WFTDA Derby looked a little different in 2010.

When leagues started (the boom of flat track roller derby really started at the end of 2005), girls who are now legendary did not know how to skate. Everyone was new. Other than the speed, jam or artistic skaters that joined the ranks, few girls were adept at the art and skill of roller skating. Forget putting a sport on top of that! This is what made the game unrefined for a while. Everyone was still learning their balance and stability on eight wheels, so being agile and clean on a grand scale was near impossible.

Times, they are a-changing.

It is common now for leagues to have skaters with six years of experience on wheels. From just that one element, the game has changed. Girls who are now coming into the game must train more seriously in order to compete with the vets who have simply been wheels for years. At a boot camp by the Gotham Girls, Suzy Hotrod stated to skaters: “Yea I can do a lot [on skates]. I’ve been doing it for seven years. If you put up with this sport for that long, you’ll be just as good.”

Suzy Hotrod is a modern legend of derby because of the hard work and dedication she has given to the sport on and off skates. Photo by David Dyte.
Suzy Hotrod is a modern legend of derby because of the hard work and dedication she has given to the sport on and off skates. Photo by David Dyte

Most skaters do not want to wait seven years, and they realize that if they cross-train, improve their diet and treat their body like a professional athlete, they will accelerate exponentially. There has been a health revolution! More leagues are partnering with gyms and personal trainers. More skaters are paying attention to their nutrition and workout routine off the track, because they realize it will have a direct impact on their performance during game play.

Lifting. Yes. It's a thing I do to get better at derby. Deadlifts are awesome for all the things.
Lifting. Yes. It’s a thing I do to get better at derby. Deadlifts are awesome for all the things.

Support groups and workout routines focused on derby have emerged. The Roller Derby Workout Challenge ran for three years. The Derbalife Big 5 Challenge has operated several times; both are challenges designed to teach and motivate. Derbalife is skater-centered nutrition that includes skater-to-skater coaching. Learn about Derbalife.

Winning is fun, and the way to win in 2012 (and even more now in 2014!!) is to be strong of body and of mind.

Speaking of ‘mind’, game play and strategy have changed dramatically in the last three years (five years!). Since the inception of W.F.T.D.A., skaters and refs have taken note about what works on the track and what are health hazards. While the rule set that has evolved over the years can be confusing to the untrained reader, it is so because it has developed organically. If an established rule continually gets challenged, interpreted differently at different bouts, or has shown itself to not protect the skaters, it has been changed. One of the best features of the W.F.T.D.A. set up: voting member leagues have been able to shape the sport itself over the years. Modern Note: And for the M.R.D.A. the ability to look through the rules and make any further clarifications or adjustments as their organization feels is needed.

Now, we get to the crux of it. Because skaters have shaped the sport over the years, skaters have been able to control how they want the game to be played. The best leagues are able to look at the rules and understand the implicit meaning behind the rules. Most leagues look at a rule set and understand what it says. The winning leagues are the ones that understand what the rules DO NOT say. From what the rules do not say, a league can exploit the loopholes and skate circles around leagues that do not understand the implicit meanings.

Definition of stop blocks and direction of game play and all rules are determined by the member leagues. Rolling Stone R may appear to be breaking a rule while blocking Captain Obvious, but not according to rule definition. Photo by Danny Ngan Photography 2014
Definition of stop blocks and direction of game play and all rules are determined by the member leagues. It has shaped the game to be what we see now (Rolling Stone R backwards blocking Captain Obvious during the MRDA Championships, a move we did not see [often if at all] pre-2012). Photo by Danny Ngan Photography 2014
So, this causes a bigger need to pay attention to detail. In order to compete, every league must understand the new loopholes and strategies being used by the leagues around them. It means watching bout reels. It means watching other bouts. It means extra strategy sessions. It means extra hard training at practice. Those skaters who do more outside of practice to understand the game and new skills and tactics will be the ones most successful in scrimmage, and therefore in bouts.

Five years ago, girls could walk into a league and party. They could practice twice a week, play dirty and laugh about it later because they would still make the all star team. They would still win games. They would still be super stars. No more is it the case. Drinking teams with a derby problem do not exist in the modern world of roller derby: it is an ‘adapt or die’ sport.

What does dedication look like? There's a reason these 3 teams have gotten medals at champs in 2013 AND 2014. Photo by Danny Ngan Photography
What does dedication look like? There’s a reason these 3 teams have gotten medals at champs in 2013 AND 2014. Photo by Danny Ngan Photography

Skaters who do not care about their craft simply do not skate on high level all star teams, and even the smallest leagues are becoming highly competitive. Leagues that do not care about their strategy do not win. When you do not win, you do not have fans. You lose skaters to more serious leagues, your sponsors drop off. You perish.

So are “the good ol’ days” of derby gone? Maybe, but the motto of “Skate hard, turn left” endures. There are still bruises to show off, rink rash to brag about and beers to buy after a hard fought bout. Rivalries still happen, and what happens on the track still stays on the track.

Mass Maelstrom and New York Shock Exchange are known for their rivalry on the east coast. As two of the oldest men's teams they have seen the changes of derby - and they still play just as hard and fast as ever. (Bill Coulter dances around Chris Szabo in the first round of the MRDA Championships 2014). Photo by Danny Ngan Photography
Mass Maelstrom and New York Shock Exchange are known for their rivalry on the east coast. As two of the oldest men’s teams they have seen the changes of derby – and they still play just as hard and fast as ever. (Bill Coulter dances around Chris Szabo in the first round of the MRDA Championships 2014). Photo by Danny Ngan Photography

The game may feel different than it did in 2006, and the training may be far more intense, but it does not make any of it less awesome. Whether beers and brawlin’ or hydration and smarts, roller derby is a uniquely intense sport. The vets should be proud of the foundation and history they created. The current generation should be just as proud of how they have cultivated their craft and shaped modern roller derby.

Now … who wants to hit open skate?

Thank you Harrisburg Area Roller Derby, David Dyte and Danny Ngan Photography for use of the photos in this blog!

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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

nyse

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.