RC19 – New Skater Survival feat. Disaster Chief

Objectives

To help new and intermediate skaters get acclimated to gameplay and learn new tricks and strategies to be effective on the track.

Focus

  • Don’t look at your feet
  • Bend your knees
  • Your arms are unnecessary for roller skating
  • Get natural at transitions
  • Get comfortable changing levels
  • Effective derby playing is about space: creating space, clearing space, holding space
  • Do less than you think you need to
  • Don’t say you can’t do it.  You can do it, you just haven’t yet

 

Building a base

  • Proper Form
    • Updated derby stance (tailbone tucked under, hips low but not too low)
    • Changing levels to complete hits and leans. Opening ribs/sides to maintain contact

 

Fixing Form

  • Derby stance
  • Targeting and Blocking Form: By targeting certain parts on an opponent’s body you can effectively control their body with very little effort. It’s best to maintain contact with your opponent until you’ve moved them where you want them to go.
    • Chest/sternum: targeting an opponent’s chest or sternum with a solid, sustained push will allow you to move them in the direction you’re pushing. By aiming your hit low and finishing high you can lift them off their base and make them easier to move.
    • Shoulder sockets: aiming for an opponent’s shoulder near where the arm connects to the torso will cause the opponent’s upper body to twist. By following through with the hit you can force the opponent to open their hips and give up their space. This target works both from the front and back, but when attempting this hit from the rear be careful to make legal contact. 
    • Ribs to armpit: When attacking an opponent from the side start by aiming for their ribs with your shoulder and moving the point of contact up towards their armpit. This will lift your opponent off their base and allow you to move them or knock them over.

 

Edging

  • Crazy Legs and lateral T push
    • Push from line to line, ending on your edges
  • Lunch Money
    • Buddy pushes on your back, you must use your edges and plows to stop them
  • Picking up the opponent’s leg
    • From a stopped position, put the top of your thigh under the bottom of their thigh. Position your torso around their waist line. Use your tricep as a brace against their ribs. No pinning of arms or legs. Dip a little, use a small step and stand up to move them out of the way

 

Toe Stops

This is to teach you how to be confident getting from your wheels to your toe stops and back again. To start, break it down into small stages:

  • Stand still, drop your toe stops
  • Roll forward slowly, drop your toe stops. Use the momentum to take a step if necessary. This is currently about STOPPING, not moving.
  • Roll forward slowly, drop your toe stops. Use the momentum to hop straight up. Practice landing on your toe stops or your wheels.
  • Roll backwards, reach a foot backwards and grab the ground with your toe stop. Use this momentum to move you a couple steps.

To Practice: Start at the jammer line, push twice, transition onto toe stops for multiple steps, transition back to your wheels. You can practice doing this straight forward, backwards, and also so your body is angled when you’re stepping – transition to your toe stops and turn your chest to the inside of the track to run.

 

Building up the Tripod

  • Effective butts: lateral movement, getting hips in front
    • In a tripod formation, the skaters in the two wall need to focus on lateral movement, seaming, and keeping their hips perpendicular to the track. The two wall is the first line of defense when absorbing the jammer’s impact and should attempt to maintain contact with the jammer for as long as possible. Skaters in the two wall should look for offense coming from the front.
  • Effective bracing: arms on outside, spreading wings, leaning back, one toe stop, avoiding offense
    • Being an effective brace is about communication, supporting your teammates, and being prepared to make adjustments. The brace should allow their teammates to push into them instead of pushing back into the two wall. This limits the two wall’s mobility and leads to a higher likelihood of direction of gameplay penalties. When bleeding off speed the brace should attempt to use only one toe stop so then can maintain their lateral mobility. The brace should not only communicate where the jammer is moving, but also relay if offense is coming from the rear or sides. If it seems like the jammer will break through or clear the two wall, the brace must be prepared to rotate or break off to catch the jammer and prepare to reform the tripod.

 

Message me at Derbyamerica at gmail.com or Chief at Anxiety83 at gmail.com if you have questions or need further information!

So You Wanna Be a BETTER Jammer Pt 2: On Track

Read Part 1: Off the Track

Here we are, continuing our journey through the world of jamming. I know talking about things to do at home, or without wheels on your feet is boring (but it’s important so do it anyway). So let’s talk about practice and game time and what you can do to increase your jammer prowess.

Practice on different surfaces

Sounds basic, but hear me out.

Our mental game is a huge part of our successes and failures as jammers, and one thing I have seen more skaters freak out about is the floor. If floor surfaces were not so scary to people, we would not have people buying multiple sets of various durometer wheels and frantically researching flooring before each game. I’m one of them!

It’s a bit of a dig, but when someone mentions that they do not ever change their wheels I respond with “I’m not good enough at roller skating for that”. This is both true and false. I’m pretty good at roller skating at this point, but I know that my biggest weakness is my inability to release pressure from my wheels. I’ve been working on it for nine years. I understand that I am better at asserting more pressure into my edge than I am at letting off the pressure.

This means I am better on a slicker floor when I can press into my wheels and dig than I am on a sticky floor where I must RELEASE pressure to slide. Having ‘grown up’ at Olympic Skating Center in Enola, PA, you would think it would be opposite. It has one of the most beautiful polished maple floors in the country, and it will rip through tights like nothing, and leave scars of road rash that we bear 5 years later. I never achieved a hockey stop on this floor. Hell I could barely plow stop. Some people can play on Poisons regardless of surface, regardless of game. I am not one of them. I have accepted and embraced my need to adjust my gear the last two years and the results show.

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Not everyone can be Sausarge Rolls, infamous for his varieties of his vintage Poisons. Who needs to change wheels when you’re this good? Photo by Orel Kichigai Photgraphy

How I adjust my gear is based on the surface, and I know what to do because I have sought out every kind of floor I can, and travel games have put me on everything from polished concrete, to sport court laid on springy astroturf, to what looks like a basketball court, but is actually a foam mat. While team mates panic, I have it handled.

If we can take out the scary part of floor surfaces changing, we can bolster our confidence. When we feel confident, we perform better. The easiest way to take the scary out of floor surfaces is simply by skating on all of them. Not just once, but whenever you can. I miss having an outdoor hockey rink within reach. The polished concrete was so vastly from the maple floor that I practiced on in Harrisburg, that I felt like I could practice my skills in a new way and it taught me how to control my body weight differently.

Not everyone can spend time on their own to go to other rinks, so even putting your skates on at home or encouraging your team to go scrimmage or practice somewhere else from time to time can help you break away from the barriers of “Oh s***, I can’t slide/grip/jump on this floor!” Sometimes we encounter the mental hang up, but we do not even realize it. Learning how to deal with things (whether it means changing your gear or your style) will improve your ratios pretty quick.

Speed DOESN’T kill

If there is one lesson I have learned this season is that speed is your only true ally as a jammer. If you are faster than the blockers (in physicality, awareness, and prediction of game flow) you will win [mostly] all the jams.

When I was a baby jammer, I thought speed meant “How fast can I get around the track?” But even when I hit a 6 second lap, I was not getting as many point passes as desired. Going to the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup in Calgary I started to pick up on what true QUICKNESS really is: It’s micro movements. It’s the stuff you do not see until your eyes adjust to a higher frame rate. It’s the slightly stronger push in your duck run at the last second.

It’s the difference between a juke that gets you through and one that gets you put out of bounds.

It’s the difference between cruising into a pack to get picked off and sailing through on the outside line easily.

It’s the difference between blockers keeping you locked, and you popping them open through the middle.

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Winters uses her speed and quickness to split open opponents and find gaps you wouldn’t see otherwise. She does not fear hitting a seam with aggression. Photo by Phantom Photographics

But it’s more than just having speed on your wheels. It’s about how fast you can transition from skating to duck run, or duck run to hockey stop, or wheels to toe stops. Transitioning from wheels to stoppers gives you an added edge over your opponent, because of the change in acceleration it causes and your ability to maneuver in different ways. Being able to drop, at speed, onto your toe stops can let you hop, spin, jump, and high step. It can also give you a chance to run an angle to outpace blockers when they’re not expecting it.

If you are not comfortable skating fast and transitioning to your toe stops: Get going. Start practicing it.

Do speed work. On skates, off skates. Do it in your office. Do it before dinner. Do it when you wake up in the morning. Integrate it into your life. That might sound extreme, but it’s not as hard (or as ridiculous) as it sounds.

Training your muscles to twitch is the greatest tool a jammer can have. You have heard people yell “Pick up your feet”. If you can’t twitch, you won’t be able to fake out your opponents, juke, or change direction suddenly. Picking up your feet means you can generate speed and mobility. Picking up your feet means you are generating momentum, not losing it. It means you are faster than you were when you were planted and coasting into a pack. Picking up your feet while approaching a stopped tripod is absolutely terrifying, but it lets you hit with momentum. It gives you a chance to explode a wall. It gives you more options: Do you hit with speed or do you redirect at the last second. Maybe you aim for the middle and drop the toe stops to run the inside line. Maybe you hit a seam and slide through the blockers.

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A new strength for me is hitting my toe stop run while at full speed. It lets me take advantage of angles, throw off the timing of blockers, and access more tools. Photo by Derby Pics by Phil

Side note: You may have to spend time practicing what to do after you hit a seam and burst through it. Moving your feet will keep your momentum moving forward. It has happened where a jammer (hi) was so surprised that they did the thing and it WORKED, that they stopped moving their feet and immediately fell. So don’t be surprised if that happens.

Talk to your blockers

Some people think that being a jammer means floating out in the ether by yourself, getting to control your own destiny. The best jammers will never think of themselves as an autonomous unit, but rather a part of the pack they are matched with. Success of the team depends on the ability for jammers and blockers to communicate, adapt, and work together.

As a jammer you need to understand how your team fields blockers and the strategies preferred by each. Many teams will do packs one on, one off. Some teams set up blocking pairs and rotate through pairs. Some teams use blocking lines that seem random, but [hopefully] have an underlying method. Every pack is going to prefer different tactics and be good at different things.

For example, we have two packs that primarily play for my team. One pack is very good at stopped derby, the other team is very good at rotation and movement. If my team is playing a ‘long game’ strategy and I am going out with my pack that prefers a stopped pack, I need to understand that I have a different responsibility as a jammer. Not only am I playing for points, but I am part of the defense.

Hold up, I don’t mean that I’m responsible for blocking the jammer, I mean that I am responsible for 1) doing as many laps as possible while the jammer is being held by the blockers, 2) not breaking up the defense for selfish point gain, and 3) whenever I enter the back of the pack, I need to create forward movement so that my own blockers are not forced to bridge or get drawn out of play. By me forcing the other pod forward, I help my own blockers maintain a pack.

Before I go out for a jam, I check in with my blockers. If it’s scrimmage, I’ll ask “What are you working on?”, if it’s a game I ask “What are we doing?” In practice, you get a chance to learn your habits, what works for you, and more importantly what DOESN’T work well for you. I like using practice time to work on different goals. Often that includes my improv ability, which is why I like letting my blockers work on their goals, and then I can adjust my plan accordingly.

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Talking enough should help your blockers recognize your voice in the mayhem of a moment. Rat Pack may have her stuck, but she’s calling for reinforcements. Photo by Phantom Photographics

When we go into a game situation, I work with the blockers to analyze what has or has not been working against our opponent and how to incorporate that into our own game strategy while also helping me to get the f*ck through for lead jammer. It’s all about getting lead.

Mid-jam, my favorite things to say to the blockers include “Keep them moving!” “Sweep” “POINTS” and “I need the pivot!” Talking to your blockers when you can, and them talking back (I like when they call for me before offense or when they remind me to drive a pack forward), makes a huge difference in game play. We all have to trust each other on the track, and the key to trust in any relationship is communication.

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Blaque Jac knows the importance of communication on the track. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Consider shapes and angles

Roller derby is math and science. You always hear your coaches say move your feet and get lower. Hopefully, as you improve, you start hearing them say “run the angles” and “turn your shoulder”. Why? Geometry and physics.

Moving your feet (the basic advice to make any starter jammer better as stated above) simply takes advantage of Newton’s 1st law: An object in motion tends to stay in motion. With inertia on your side, it is easier to get past more stationary objects. I just talked about this but I feel it bears mentioning again! Get lower? The lower your center of mass and gravity, the harder it is for you to fall (this also gives you more leg to gather up potential energy from the floor to transfer to kinetic energy and inertia).

Running the angles means that you are not picking straight lines on the floor, so can take advantage of vectors easier. You are a moving object, with magnitude, and can put that force into something else if necessary. Think of it this way: If you run in a straight line to go between a flat two wall, you have to time your hit, speed, and body movement very precisely to avoid getting sandwiched or stuffed completely. If you come at that same wall at an angle, your timing does not have to be as precise. The angle assists your momentum, and you can take the space of a blocker in a wall to either bounce off of them and through the wall, or to move them completely and keep on your path of momentum.

When I talk about angles, I’m also talking about BODY angles. Think of the shapes bodies take when we play derby. We can be squares, rectangles, triangles, stars, lines, strange quadrilaterals… If we look at what the blockers are doing with their bodies we can be proactive with our own. While warming practice the different ways you can contort. One on one and hurricane blocking (where you can spin around each other) is a handy way to learn how your body can move and contort. The more time you can spend getting out of your comfort zone with body positioning, the better. Why think about shapes?

When coming up against a square, you probably don’t want to be a square. Squares have a harder time getting through because they have generally have more target area for blockers to hit. Dropping a shoulder to make yourself a triangle will allow you the mobility of being square, while letting yourself either duck underneath OR into the blocker coming at you.

“WHAT? INTO THE BLOCKER? I THOUGHT THE IDEA WAS TO NOT BE HIT.”

Something I learned long ago is the Bazooka Method: If someone is pointing a bazooka at you, do you run away? No. You run towards them. Often, this works very well for derby. If you run at a blocker, you take away the angle and momentum they were just planning on having to hit you effectively. I don’t want to give blockers wind up space. I tend to run right at solo blockers and use their bodies to get around safely. They can’t hit me as well, and their team mates often back off a bit because if they don’t time their own hit right, they’ll take out their team mate instead of me.

Back to the shape thing: I have always thought about moving my body differently but never could words as to why things worked. I was chatting at the jammers I coach, and I had the epiphany that our jammers were coming in as rectangles to the pack (we usually say square, but that implies that they are compact). I explained that sometimes we need to make ourselves triangles, lines, or half-moons. Looking at how blockers are set, and how we can shape our bodies to slide through seams at angles or move past blockers while not taking too hard of a blow.

Next time you’re on the jam line, look at the blockers and look at how they are shaped, and how you can counter the shape with your own. Triangles to lean against triangles, half-moons help against parallelograms, lines are effective between to squares, circles can go under triangles.

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Making a triangle to leverage against a rectangle. Photo by Phantom Photographics
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Circle to get under the triangle. Photo by NSP 189
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Half moon to get around a triangle. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Move your body in different ways and practice with intent to do something different than normal.

Look at the world around you

Look at the scoreboard, the penalty box, the other jammer before and throughout the jam. Do a quick rundown of your ideal jam in your head. Keep tabs the whole time.

Where you are in the game, the score, how many timeouts you have left, and who is in the penalty box should all factor into your call off strategy. Make sure you talk to your coaches before the game to know whether you are playing a long game or a hit & quit strategy. There are going to be times that you don’t immediately call it off if the other jammer escapes and you will not always be to see your bench coach (or have a bench coach to look at). You should also know what the plan is as far as springing people from the box.

Note: Your blockers should be aware of goals too (go back to the whole “talk to the blockers” thing).

When you are in a jam it is easy to get tunnel vision, it is easy to forget that the rest of the world exists. I joke that I am best when my FoF (Fight or Flight) kicks in, which usually happens around the end of the first period from cardio exhaustion. When FoF hits, our bodies no longer think about the tools, we just utilize them to get the hell out of a stressful situation (the pack). Without practice, this can mean our field of vision narrows instead of widens, and we may go into ‘default’ mode which often means your oldest tricks and not always your best moves.

“Head up” is said almost as often as “get lower” in roller derby, and for good reason. If you’re in the Sad Place and looking at your feet as you grind away, you’re not going to see your offense coming in to disrupt the tripod. If you’re so focused on that gap that currently exists in lane three as you approach the pack, you won’t notice that your friends are holding a SWEET pick on the inside line to let you jump the apex. If we default to our old habits, we become predictable.

How do we practice widening our view? Do it in your every day life. When you’re walking through the grocery store, use your periphery vision to calculate the rate of speed of other shoppers, and how to maneuver safely through the little old ladies navigating the spice aisle. Take note of shoes people are wearing without looking at their feet, or how many kids are running past you without looking directly to count. When you are at practice doing drills, be mentally active throughout. If you’re waiting for your next turn to go, watch the movement of your blockers to understand their speeds and accelerations. If you are in a paceline, do check ins with everyone’s pace, how everyone is standing, and how players move when their endurance is lower.

Always be looking around you. Always be making note. Always be calculating. At first it will be a conscious decision, but after a while it will become second nature. Then when you’re on the track, you won’t have to pull your head out of a tripod, you’ll already know that your offense is coming on the outside line, so you can disengage and dart to safety.

How do practice incorporating more tools? Repetition repetition. Do the footwork drills. Do them again. Do them faster. Do them slower. Do them on shoes. Do them whenever you can. Eventually your body will just incorporate the footwork into your regular movements and you’ll find yourself popping out of packs in ways you didn’t know possible.

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Dziubinski just can’t help smiling sometimes. Photo by Ken LeBleu

Jamming is hard. If you’re a week into playing or 10 years, it never really gets easier. We are in a constant state of flux. Jammers improve so blockers change tactics. Jammers learn how to deal with the tactics, and new shapes and strategies emerge. The biggest lesson I learned this year is that I will always have to work to be stronger, faster, and braver. I also learned that the only constant in derby: is change. Go with it, don’t resist it. Always be learning, always be listening, always be adapting, but mostly: always be loving it.

Did you like this blog? How about the others? Consider buying me a coffee from afar so I can keep writing! 

 

And don’t forget to visit the wonderful photographers featured:
Phantom Photographics
Derby Pics by Phil
Ken LeBleu
Orel Kichigai
NSP189

 

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?

wftda ranking tampa
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.

wftda manchester
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”

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…”