Derby Lessons from the Men’s Roller Derby World Cup

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

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Fans during Finland v. England. Photo by John Hesse

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, let me say that again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

WORK ON BALANCE PEOPLE! And back bridges apparently…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Derby was DERBY (Blog Reboot)

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

So with that I bring you my next reboot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times, they are a-changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now … who wants to hit open skate?

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