Buy-In Vitality and What it Means for Your League

What do I mean by ‘buy-in’?

According to the Wiktionary (yea I didn’t know that was a thing until just now):

buyin (plural buy-ins)

  1. Supportagreementblessing (in a secular sense).
    To win, I need to get buy-in from the team to have alignment with our mission.

    Let’s show the idea around and get buy-in from marketing.
    Synonyms: alignmentapproval

You know how there are teams and groups where people are willing to go the extra mile, even without threat of punishment? Have you ever seen a rec sport team or a school group where people are putting out information to the public without being asked? Where members are talking up the team in their local coffee shop or favorite dining spot? Where members get sponsors just because they were at their favorite spot and talked to the owner about how great the team is and the owner asked about sponsorship?

You know that feeling when everyone is in for the same goals, everyone feels valued, and they all believe in the mission of the team?

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That’s buy-in.

Why should we value the buy-in of our members?

The more a person buys into a team, the more likely they are to perform league duties without being begged, they are more likely to train hard, and are more likely to have a positive attitude at practice. I am speaking of skaters, coaches, announcers, officials, EMTs, and every other piece of the derby pie. We all matter, and we all make the derby machine run. When we feel valued, we are motivated to work harder on and off the track. When your membership works off track the result is:

  • Increased membership & volunteers
  • Increased in transfers
  • Increased membership & volunteer RETENTION
  • Increased sponsorship opportunities
  • Increased attendance at games

“I’m happy at practice, and I want to tell everyone, so I do! SQUEE!” When we value our people, and they work harder on the track, the result will be:

  • More effective practice sessions, thus an improvement in game play
  • More effective official training, bringing up the level of all who participate
  • More realistic scrimmage/game situations, with a more complete production element (when you have full officials and announcers show up to a scrimmage night, it is incredible)
  • Volunteers will travel outside of the league and bring back valuable information and experience to increase the quality of home scrimmages and games.
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Buy-in for officials and announcers is critical too. Having people willing to spend money to travel outside of the league can bring valuable experience back home.

 

So how do we increase buy-in of our roller derby league, individual teams, and yearly tournament events?

Integrity

Do you have rules? By-laws? Stick to them. I don’t care who they are. If you want a special exception to be made, take it to a vote. “But that’s too hard!” It shouldn’t be, because you shouldn’t be breaking the rules to begin with. If you’re going to try to as leadership, you should have to do extra work. By-Laws should be reviewed regularly, and as situations come up within a league culture, the league or representatives of them can discuss actions and revisions. Nothing will destroy the buy-in of your membership like breaking the rules for certain people.

Integrity also needs to be in how we treat one another, on and off the track. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If a league is going to do something, do it. That’s everything from donating money to the charity you’ve partnered with to being honest with skaters who are seeking feedback and a path to charter teams to following through on events and appearances with sponsors.

Let me say it a little clearer: Don’t lie to people. It’s not nice. People won’t trust you.

Transparency

Training, rosters, staffing changes, vision of the league, finances, and goals of the team are all things to be transparent about. If your charter team suddenly has new faces on it, while your B-team sits in the wings wondering where that person came from … chances are you have some things to come clean about. This goes for other volunteers too:

Let’s say you’re never staffing that announcer who’s actually pretty ok because you want to give your regulars more opportunities, but you never tell that announcer. You just let them keep signing up on the sheet. Maybe you don’t let the newer refs skate during home team games because you would rather bring in outside officials, but you never tell those home team refs what they need to do to improve. These are cases where you need to re-evaluate your communication and transparency about your goals. (‘You’ as in the grander ‘you’ of leadership).

In this sport, we all control our own destiny, we all get to decide what type of team and culture we give our beloved energy and hours for. We just want to know what’s going on. When skaters feel like secrets are being kept from them, resentment grows. Transparency and communication get easier as we practice it. Just like the sport.

Let me say it a little clearer: Don’t lie to people. It’s not nice. People won’t trust you.

Structure

There are plenty of studies that show that clutter raises anxiety. It should be no surprise that clutter and frazzle in an organization can have the same effect on its membership. Tryouts, charter changes, rosters, and training models all need to be structured. We crave structure. It keeps us informed, it gives us goals and focus. Structure allows us to be the best player and team possible!

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How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re at right now? Photo by Down n Out Photography

Many leagues only have new skater tryouts during prescribed times of the year to keep the program focused and moving forward. Why not for your charter teams? Why not have quarterly skill checks that double as charter tryouts, but also to give feedback to your skaters so they all know what they should be working on? Some teams fear to change the charter because of seniority, having tryouts a few times a year can alleviate that pressure to not disappoint people. Overall, there needs to be some sort of path to the All-Stars, even if your team is not competitive. It gives people something to shoot for, and can up the commitment of skaters during practices and over the year. Remember that integrity thing I just talked about? Charters, feedback, and roads to higher levels of play are what we need the most honesty about.

Moving to the back-end, structure in your business is critical. If your league or team has shoddy leadership practices or business framework, then money is just going to fall through the cracks, and people are going to transfer as soon as they are brave enough. Lack of leadership or behind-the-scenes organization leads to last minute decisions, people getting left out of the loop, events being mishandled, and people being mistreated. We’ve all seen that league that might play derby well for a while, but their infrastructure is a hot mess and they are constantly turning over people.

Keep in mind: Just because you have structure, like by-laws, it doesn’t mean the work is done. Things need to be able to change over the years to accommodate the shifting trends of your league. I have seen many teams get stuck in the circle of “Well this is how we do it”. It’s fine that it’s how you do it, but is it the most efficient way to do it, or is that way to protect certain people/convenience/because you like it better? This means everything from charter team structure to board structure to captain expectations and behaviors.

Believance

Your people are awesome. Seriously. Even that one skater that is always nosing into people’s drama. Or the one that has severe anxiety and ends up doubting themselves by the end of most scrimmage practices. So is that one super bossy one that really is just covering up their insecurity. And the one that is really tiny that you think can’t be a successful jammer but really is. And the one who chatters when they’re nervous. And the one that always looks mad. And the one that is injured.

They’re all awesome.

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No one is perfect, and that’s kind of awesome as it is! Embracing the fun, accepting each other, and believing in our friends is what can make this sport so amazing.

 

Guess what isn’t awesome? Telling people that they’re not good enough because they look mad. Or because talk to themselves. Or because don’t hang out at the pool with the team, but watch the derby instead. Or because they officiate. Or because talk a lot. Or because they’re trans. Or because they don’t fit the social norm. Or because they have a kid and can’t travel to outside tournaments to officiate.

Leadership has to put value and believance in all of their people. If you have a charter of 9 or a charter of 19, you have to value every person and build them up. Not just with words, with actions. Pumping them up at practice is necessary, but when it comes to game day, you need to keep up the high fives and positivity.

If you tell your jammer rotation that you DEFINITELY have faith in them, but then turn around and invite skaters from other teams to jam for you on game day – you are not showing that you have confidence. You have just undermined all your effort to build up the buy-in of your skaters because they were just benched for a ‘ringer’ from another team that didn’t practice with the squad all year. You have been shown that they are replaceable, and that a W on the scoreboard means more to leadership than their development and commitment.

If your team only does charter changes when an old friend comes back, while others continually struggle to get attention by the selection team, what motivation does anyone have to improve?

If leadership always gives feedback as, “Well you’re little so…” or “you’re big for a jammer so…” how is that going to make the skater feel valuable? They have just been told that their body is wrong, and so how can they think that leadership believes in them?

If you tell your announcer that they are great, and experienced and valuable, but then never staff them for home games, how long do you think that announcer will stick around?

Now I ask you:

Would you want to brag to your local coffeeshop about your team after these experiences?

Believe in your people and their abilities and you’ll never force someone to question whether they should pass out those flyers or tell their friends to transfer.

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Flyering groups would go out after Saturday practices in Baltimore to promote. We believed in our league and wanted to tell everyone about it. Even when it was really cold out.

Conflict Resolution

When problems do come up (and they will) having an action plan of addressing it in an adult manner is key. Friends of mine who just moved to us from Albany introduced me to the OUCH / OOPS method that I absolutely love. If you hurt someone with something you say or do, you say OUCH. They are then obligated to take a second, digest what has happened, and say OOPS as the acknowledgement. From there you decide if you want to talk it out now, or deal with it later – either with someone or one on one.

We should also keep in mind to assume the best intentions. We have a lot of people in our sport, and a lot of delivery methods in our voices at different times. I speak way differently on the track then I do in coaching mode, with my team, or even with my pod of blockers. Voices are tricky to navigate, we all have different experiences. One person may hear inflection and be unaffected, and another person is going to hear a voice and subconsciously be triggered remembering the way their father would talk to them before hitting them.

We do not just navigate roller derby when we have interpersonal reactions, and we have to keep it in mind. Getting mad that someone misunderstood you only exacerbates the issue. We have to be understanding that people will hear us differently, since some of us just have inflection and cadences that do not always jive in the ears of others. People need to be open to the fact that they may have one of those voices that is going to be misunderstood and work to be understanding (while the people around them need to assume best intentions).

Trust me.

TRUST ME.

I’m pretty sure over the years that I (and a few of my friends) have been held off of teams, rejected from tournaments, and denied access to the pool because of our voices, cadences, and individuals assuming the worst instead of the best. We have to always strive to do better. I always preach self-assessment. That’s for both sides. Don’t assume the worst. If you have a question, you can always ask. Or OUCH it. That said, think about what you’re saying. How you’re saying it. How you can always say it better or different.

 

So what can we do? What are some action items to make things better?

Changing a league culture and leadership mentality is not something that happens overnight. Having a team of individuals that create a list of league norms and expectations is very helpful. And don’t just make a list. Talk about them. Post them. ENFORSE THEM. Empower everyone in the league to talk about how to make their time better, and how to hold people to the new norms.

League surveys are also a great easy and quick way to get a beat on the way your skaters are feeling. If you’re not doing one at end and halfway point in the year, you should. Ask the hard questions:

  • Do you feel valued? Why/why not?
  • How do you feel the tryout structure could be improved?
  • Describe the league culture in 5 words.
  • How long do you see yourself staying with our league? Are you considering transferring?
  • How would you rate the communication of leadership to skaters?
  • Are you satisfied with the roles everyone has in the league? How do you think they could improve?

Again these are just some example questions, there are a ton you could ask, just depending on where your league is, and how the vibe of the whole place has been recently.

Keep in mind: Officials, announcers, and individual teams can have their own cultures as well. If the overall culture of the league is healthy and happy, but a sub-culture has undercurrents of turmoil, that could spill over into the league culture eventually. Each team is responsible for creating and maintaining cultural norms within their groups.

If everyone is empowered to make it a happy place, and if issues are dealt with as they come up, and if we all assume the best intentions, and feel valued and heard – why wouldn’t you buy into that league?

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ROLLER DERBY IS FUN. We forget that sometimes.

I truly believe that no one wants the experience of roller derby to be miserable for anyone, and if the buy-in of a team is low, it’s usually just because the people in leadership don’t realize there is a problem. In all my years, the most recurrent theme I have seen is this:

Leadership does not see the issues on the ground floor because they are not on the ground floor, and the system works great for them. Why would they actively change something that they don’t see as an issue?

So that means it’s up to the people who see the issues to raise the concerns. Be brave enough to come to your board with ideas and ways to solve the problems you see. Or at least ask if you can have a round table with them and some others to talk out personal issues. It’s not always fun. It’s definitely not comfortable, but to increase buy in of all skaters people have to be unafraid to say something.

Increasing how much you care about the buy-in of your league will have great results (maybe not immediate, but over time): More skaters, more sponsors, more people at games, more people promoting the events, more people coming to events, more opportunities to do events, etc etc

Alright so go out there, talk to your friends. Believe in your team. Encourage your volunteers. Hear what people say. Be fearless in the face of change. And go make the best team you can!

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Harrisburg Area Roller Derby 2011 – we weren’t perfect, but we worked together for our goals.

 

** Cover photo by Keyesboard 2014

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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

 

So you wanna be a jammer….

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

You want to be a jammer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It is in the details

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Walk the [imaginary] line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Bursts and balance

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

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

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

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

ANYWAY!!!

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

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

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

6. Levels and Leverage

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

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

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

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

7. It is not all about you

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

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

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

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

8. See the game, be the game

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

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

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

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

Like I said, ALL THE DERBY.

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

9. It’s not your gear

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

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

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

10. You can’t climb Everest in a day

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

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

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

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

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

Now go do some laps!

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

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

The Reappearance of Khaos

So… my blog has been super quiet for a while. Sorry about that. It hasn’t been for a lack of wanting to write, or for a lack of material. I have about three blogs either outlined, or in the works including “balancing the zebra and the lion”, “creating the plan” (how to schedule your training and why), one about how to overcome the difficulties of transferring, and one about what it means to really be a part of a team.

It’s Why has my blog been quiet? I’ve been back to the life of the “real world”. I’ve lived in three places since I’ve been here in Florida and FINALLY have settled into a little town called Gulfport, and landed me a job at a place called Taco Bus. And quite honestly, when I get home from running around slinging tacos for 6 hours, I have a hard time mustering creativity.

Also, I have been skating 4-6x a week. Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday I train with Tampa Roller Derby. Currently I’m a blocker on the Bruise Crew and the Black Widows, and I hope that one day my team mates will see enough potential in me to make me a Tampa Tantrum, and I’ll get to wear a shiny WFTDA patch on my jersey again.

roller derby tampa
Bruise Crew 2015; Photo by Phantom Photographics

Tuesdays you can find me with the Tampa Bay Men’s Roller Derby. I’m officially recognized by the MRDA as a ref (woot!), and technically am TBMRD’s head ref. This rainbows into the other things I do on the weekend. Most Saturdays you’ll find me either making calls and wearing stripes, or you’ll find me playing on Team Zebra.

You can see me in the background there, all disguised in stripes; Photo by Phantom Photographics
You can see me in the background there, all disguised in stripes; Photo by Phantom Photographics

When I’m not skating for Tampa, I’m usually at a fundraiser for the Bruise Crew, or a league appearance, or I’m straight up at the gym. I train 3-6x a week; 3 days of weight training, 3 days of conditioning (assuming my work schedule and traffic allows).

What else have I been up to? Well there have a few times that I started to write blogs, and then remembered that I have deadlines to attend to. I’m now writing a column for JAMMERLINE MAGAZINE out of Canada called “Below the 45th, which is focused on US derby. I also have been asked by BLOOD AND THUNDER MAGAZINE to do articles and blogs concerning off skates training. I’m also piecing my book together. I had to rewrite a BUNCH of it since my perspective on training has shifted a lot in the last year and a half.

Mashing it up, and jamming through; Photo by Phantom Photographics
Mashing it up, and jamming through; Photo by Phantom Photographics

The last piece is Derbalife. I’ve gotten settled in enough that I have started my business of health coaching back up and I’m getting back to my roots of helping people with their NUTRITION. A bunch of us coaches had gone astray and gotten distracted the last few months, but now we’re locking arms and changing the world!

There is another reason I haven’t written much. And that’s because I had gotten a bit discouraged. Over the years, it has gotten more difficult to find photographs to use in my blog. I am not a photographer. I will not pretend to be one with my iPhone. I have too much respect for the craft. But I am also super wordy. ^^^ As you may have noticed. To have blogs without photos to break up the scheme, it’s really hard to read.

I, by no means, want any photographer to feel undervalued or that their work isn’t worth purchasing. That being said, I have been hand washing my clothing for the last 4 weeks instead of going to the laundromat just to have extra money for food, gas, and bills. This blog makes zero dollars. I write because I love to write, and because sometimes people like to read it.

The whole thing had gotten really depressed and defeated honestly. I didn’t want to write because I knew I wouldn’t feel confident publishing without photos. But … now that defeat has gone away. I’m super stoked that Florida has Phantom Photographics down here documenting all of the awesome that is happening.

Junior roller derby
Photo by Phantom Photographics

Florida derby is expanding SUPER quick, and the competition is getting very high amongst the teams. Phantom is one of the photographers that travels around the state and takes PHENOMENAL photos! MRDA, JRDA, WFTDA; he does it all. He does a lot of portrait work too, which I’ve always been a fan of.

State Wars Roller Derby
At State Wars Roller Derby; Photo by Phantom Photographics

For those of you from the Northeast, he’s like having a Sean Hale, Prints Charming, Sir Clicks-a-Lot, Rick Odell, or Shutterfly. And he’s super nice. So… Go visit his page because he’s awesome. I’m so happy that he’s letting me use his photos in my blogs, and I feel confident in writing again. 😀 You should buy a shirt from him too. (PS if you’re a photog and you want me to feature any of your photos, don’t be shy in letting me know!!)

Phantom Photograhics

If there’s a topic you want to see me cover in an upcoming blog – drop me a line at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com ! Have you gotten your ticket to RC? I’m submitting to teach classes again. I hope to see you there at the WESTGATE!! If you don’t already, follow me on Instagram at KHAOS24FIT