7 easy tips to improve your jamming

A jammer skates around a roller derby track

So you want to be a better jammer. Here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way that are so easy you can implement them at your next scrimmage:

 

Use your lap time to take a breath … unless there’s no time

A lot of newer skaters think that as a jammer you must fight through the pack, then sprint to do it all over again. And I really like that assumption. For the most part, that’s exactly what jammer should do.

But there’s something to be said about taking a breath. If you’ve fought and fought and fought through a pack and you’re finally out of the engagement zone (without fear that someone will come pull you back), if you need to take the extra [literal] 2 seconds it will take for you to catch your breath, reset and be a strong, penalty-free jammer when you have to fight through that pack again: Do it.

Don’t be lazy. This isn’t an excuse to lallygag, it’s a strategy. If those couple of deep breaths are going to keep you clean and better prepare you for the 2-minute fight, take it.

Sometimes the game clock says you have 8 seconds and it’s a tied game. This tip is not for that moment. It’s for almost every other moment you’re jamming.

Aim for the weakest … or strongest

Maybe it’s obvious to aim for the weakest blocker on the opposing team. She’ll fall out of her wall, you’ll slip through and there will be points and glory and confetti. So do that.

… unless …

Unless you’re a bulldozer of a skater. One of those super strong women who frequently gets back-block calls off the line even though you feel you’ve hit cleanly (but with force). If you’re that skater, try aiming for the gap by their strongest blocker(s) because they’re less likely to fall when you hit them legally, but with force.

Look at their feet

At the jam start, whose feet are in a plow stop, whose feet are in a hockey stop and whose feet are pointing straight ahead? Aim for the people whose feet are pointed straight ahead, whose wheels are ready to roll right out of play.

Be patient with yourself / figure them out

Ever go into your first jam of a bout, get denied lead and think, “this might not be my day.”? If so, this is for you. You got to let that shit go. Give yourself two jams to figure out the other team — and *use* them. Really think, “ok, when I hit X that didn’t work, maybe I need to try my line work.” Address whatever issues came up and try a few approaches early so you can quickly figure out their weaknesses and exploit them all game long. I will accept “losing” the first two jams if it means winning the next 38. Be patient with yourself.

The mental game of struggle v failure

Struggle is a big part of jamming at all levels. We’ve seen Champs games that have 2-minute-no-lead jams. It’s not because those jammers suck. Struggle is part of the job of jamming. In the moments you feel struggle, know it’s *not* failure. When you’re pushing a wall of strong blockers and they’re not moving much, that’s not you failing — it’s you trying and learning and working. This is the work of a jammer. It’s normal. If you can embrace it, you’ll be happier and go farther.

If you’re going to pass, do it kindly and clearly

Desperate times call for desperate star passes … wait, no …

It’s often the exhausted jammer who will get the Star Pass Violation penalty … or just be flat-out not-so-nice to their pivot by offering a poorly positioned pass. Don’t be that person.

If you’d like to execute a pass:

  • Alert your pivot
  • Make sure your pivot has a chance to get to the front of the pack
  • Be upright and in bounds
  • Only pass if your pivot is upright and in bounds
  • If complete, be helpful, either as offense of as a blocker. Your team still needs you.

And on a not-so-PC note: Think about your pivot. If you’re unable to make it through this pack, is s/he the type of skater who could make it through? Hopefully yes. But if it’s a “no” it might be less damage to your team’s score for you to suffer through the two minutes. It also means you should talk to your bench coach when you get back and ask for a pivot whose skill set is different than your own, so that if your skills aren’t working on a wall, maybe hers will.

Practice stupid shit

Play at practice. Play at warmups. Even on your own. Play with your one-footed turns, your 360s, play with your backward duck walks, dance on your toe stops, skate without toe stops — anything that’s challenging, weird and fun. Do it. Even if it seems useless, it’s not. When we practice weird shit, we inherently get better at the normal shit, our balance gets better and we as competitive humans love to play … and love is important. 

A jammer skates around the roller derby track in green shorts
Breath on your laps. Photo by Joshua M Hoover, used with permission.

Other game changers:

  • Cross train like a mother.
  • Watch high-level footage. Having a visual of what “success” looks like is a proven way to reach proficiency. The more footage you watch, the better you will get.
  • Work on your mental game (books, meditation, however you do you).
  • Jam ref. You’ll learn so much more about how to be a great jammer and secret tips only refs know. Seriously.

 

Got tips? I could sure use em 😉 Drop em in the comments:

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How to learn to ref: A derby skater’s guide

A bunch of referees are smiling

*This post is intended for derby skaters. This isn’t a “new to derby; learn to officiate” guide. I’m not addressing NSO’ing in this post.* This is a follow up to You Should Ref More, Skater

So you’re ready to try officiating. Now what. That depends on your league type, then your skill set  …

Some super basics

Before I tell you how to get ready for your first day reffing, you need to know these basics:

  • Any call requires this: You see the initiation (who started it)>You see the illegal action>You see the result of that action had an impact [as measured for that action]
  • Doing all that^ then: blowing a whistle > announcing the color/number/penalty loudly and in that order > making the hand signal > ensuring the skater heard you and reported to the box … is hard. Be kind to yourself as you learn this new side of the sport.
  • A no-call is a call. It is just as important. You don’t get more ref points for the number of calls you make 🙂  Quality>quantity. If you make no calls in your first scrimmage, that’s OK.
  • Different referee positions have different roles. I’ll go over this in more detail below, but as an example: It’s extraordinarily rare to hear a “no-pack” from an Outside Pack Ref just like an Inside Pack Ref never announces lead jammer. You don’t need to worry about everything … just some things. Below, we’ll talk about which ref roles might meet your strengths.
  • Referees are expected to learn “positioning” meaning the place you need to be in order to see penalties in your “zone.” As a new kid, you have a lot of leeway, but it’s just good to know this exists.
A roller derby skater strides, a ref points at her
That’s me jam reffing. It’s my favorite position, in part because I get to see “the other side” of my position, a jammer for Maine Roller Derby. Photo by Randy Hunt (also an official), used with permission.

Your league

Here are four league cultures I’m familiar with:

  • No officials
  • Only new officials
  • Some officials — with severe cultural issues between skaters and officials
  • Many officials in a positive, learning culture

Your approach is going to be a lot different, depending on your league’s capacity and culture. Let’s take them in order:

There are no officials in my league, but I want to learn

You can do this, but it won’t be easy — you will still grow, I promise. You can’t be seven referees, so don’t try. Pick a position (I’ll go over that in detail below) and stick to it for your first time. Try your best to pick a focus and stick to it — like only watching for forearms (more info on that strategy below). Bring a notebook if you can so you can write down rules questions later. It may not seem like it, but a benefit you have here is you get to focus on the game — no need to worry about communicating with fellow officials.

My league has officials, but they’re all too new to teach me

See above. It’s nice to learn together! Your skating career can come in handy helping the other new refs work on their transitions and jumps. If they know more about rules than you, they can help fill you in, or at least teach you how to whistle (which isn’t as simple as it seems). New crews can have a hard time keeping the game moving (which is important) so try to save big questions that would take longer than 30 seconds for the end of the half.

We have officials. They might not like me.

By offering to officiate, they will like you more. I promise. Being on a team with them will increase mutual understanding, and you’re asking for their experience and knowledge, which you respect. Ask to shadow one of them. This usually means following them around and mimicking their position, hand signals and learning about how they’re making their calls. These brain dumps are super helpful.

My league has a robust, experienced ref crew

Lovely! Ask to shadow an experienced ref who is in a position that suites your skills and interests (see below).

A roller derby referee makes resting ref face
Resting ref face. Photo by Randy Hunt (also an official), used with permission

Your skills: picking a position and focus, to start

Here’s a brief breakdown, in case you didn’t realize:

  • IPR – front  (inside pack ref): The front pack ref tends to stay with the front-most pack skater. They often will let the JRs know if lead is open or closed. They watch for forearms, multi-players, blocker cuts, illegal positioning and all other pack penalties. They will help define the pack when it moves forward, but it’s not their primary role. They tend to position themselves on the inside of the track, but a step back so the JRs can skate by with their jammers.
  • IPR – back: This ref is usually most responsible for pack definition, calling the “no pack”s and issuing pack-related penalties. They will watch for out-of-play issues toward the back of the pack and communicate with the front IPR if the pack relocates to the front. They also watch for contact and other penalties in the pack.
  • OPR (outside pack ref)
    • Front: This referee is often a fast skater who is competent at backward skating quickly and good with their skating transitions. This referee needs to skate as fast as the fastest pack skater … but they have even more distance to cover. They watch for jammer track cuts on the outside line and all other blocker penalties that happen toward the front of the pack, often while skating backward.
    • Middle: This referee is in the meat of the pack, often able to see the most blocker-on-blocker action. They must watch for outside-line track cuts.
    • Back: From the back you can often see initiation, but be wary to call anything unless you see the full action.
  • JR (jammer refs): This role is one focus: You watch the jammer and anything that happens to the jammer. In that way, some people find it an easier job. Other people find it overwhelming because you must remember: Is lead open? Did my jammer ever lose eligibility for lead? When hit out, which blocker hit them out, which other blockers were ahead at that moment and did any of the people the jammer came in front of have position (cut)? Which people did my jammer pass and score on? Which points didn’t the jammer earn? Etc. This role is often pretty easy for experienced jammers to move into because they understand the rhythm of the game from this standpoint. It’s important for JRs to stay in line with their jammer (you don’t have to be the fastest, you can just cut the track short on scoring passes) and to communicate with the other JR for things like lap points, if lead is open, if the jammer is still in the penalty box, etc. The JR also must have good communication with their score keeper.

Overwhelmed? Pick a focus

Once you pick a role based on need or your strengths, pick a focus. If it’s your first scrimmage you can bet you won’t catch even half the penalties that happen. That’s OK. If you get overwhelmed I suggest picking one or two penalties to look for, for instance: “I’m only going to look for multi-player blocks this half because I’m a front IPR or front OPR and can see the impact of those.” If you’re a JR, maybe you only focus on calling lead (or not) and calling it off, to start. With time, your eyes will widen and see more, but it’s OK to start if you need to narrow your focus.

Other thoughts and tips

  • Bring a notebook to jot down rules questions you have during the scrimmage. There’s just not enough time between jams, so let’s save our official time outs to help with safety or fairness of the game, not rules questions.
  • Practice your whistling before the scrimmage. Try the sets of four whistles that end a jam. Say “T” into your whistle quickly. Get the rhythm right.
  • If one of your teammates makes you feel bad in your first scrimmage, tell them so gently after. When you ref, you learn a lot about your team — both great and not-great stuff, but awareness is the first step to changing it, if you’re so inclined.
  • If you thought it was interesting to ref, watch footage. See how other refs do things.
  • The WFTDA has some educational materials you can look at — hand signal break downs and officiating standards, for instance.
  • If you didn’t like it, try a new position. Your skill set might be better used elsewhere. I started by OPR’ing a lot because it seemed like less pressure and I liked skating fast on the outside, but found I’m actually happiest as a JR (makes sense because I’m a jammer for my team) or as a front IPR (because I’m a control freak who likes to see the whole game).
  • If reffing is just too much, NSO’ing is a great way to watch the game from a new perspective, but without having to worry about where you are in space. Scorekeeping will make you a better JR, for instance. Penalty box timing could make you a better head ref, one day.

 

Officiating will make you a better, smarter roller derby skater. You can learn new rules, “loop holes” for strategy, cues refs give that you could later use in your game play, how points are really scored (from that inside vantage point), how impact is measured (aka what you can/’t get away with) and how to control the game clock. All important stuff. Make sure to use it for good, not evil, yeah? Go get em.

 

Are you an official and have a tip? Drop it in the comments. We’d love to hear how you got started and what your first scrimmage was like. 

 

You should ref (or NSO) more, skater

A roller derby jammer and the same person is the roller derby referee

Want to learn more rules, skating skills, gain a deeper understanding of why you’re going to the box and see your skating role in a whole new way? Easy peasy: Put on some stripes (or a black/pink/blue shirt — I ❤ you, NSOs).

You’ll become a better derby player … and who knows, maybe it will help shift your league culture (I’ve seen it happen, folks) and develop more long-term league sustainability.

Here are some excuses/valid fears we can debunk right here and now:

“But I don’t know how”

You also didn’t know how to play roller derby a few years ago. By knowing the game and having skating ability, you’re already way ahead of new-to-derby officials.

“But I don’t know the rules”

Perhaps part of the reason you don’t know the rules is because you read the rules … and maybe you’re not a learner who absorbs words from pages into your brain.  Maybe a hands-on, skates-on, whistle-on approach is exactly what you need to gain a better understanding and context of the rules.

“But the skaters will yell at me”

Your teammates will not yell at you in your first few times of trying officiating. If they do, you should take a hard look at your league’s culture. After you get some experience, if they yell at you, you’ll have the confidence to issue that insubordination penalty with a smile.

“But I once kind of yelled at an official and I’m nervous”

That official will likely be happy that you’re now in a position of curiosity (unless you were abusive). Curiosity often leads to empathy. You’re about to learn how much went into someone’s call that you argued. Also don’t yell or kinda-yell at officials.

“OK but I’m not scared of skaters yelling at me or my own capability. I just don’t want to.”

I get it. But you have no idea what you don’t know about your own sport. Doesn’t that make you curious?

“I don’t have time. I must skate in the scrimmages, not officiate them.”

There are few of us in the whole Roller Derby Universe who have skated every scrimmage. There are going to be times your body says, “can we please not tonight?” and when you’re smart enough to listen, remember learning to officiate is an option. It’ll strengthen you as an athlete in new ways.

 

If you’re a member of leadership or training on your league, I’d highly encourage you to integrate officiating into your new-skater training. It’s an easy ask at that stage because everything is new, so why wouldn’t they try being a ref just like they try jumping over cones? It breaks down the fear that a lot of “older” skaters develop; thus it also breaks down the walls between your officiating crew and your skating teams. Please don’t use officiating as a punishment if you can help it. Officiating is a fun sport too.

Ready? Great. Here’s how you can start learning to referee.

 

A roller derby jammer and the same person is the roller derby referee
Skater, ref … some of the same skills. That’s me as both. And, no, refs don’t usually wear arm bands, but hey. Style points. Photos by Joshua M Hoover and Hispanic Attack — both used with permission.

Chill. You’re not wasting your life playing roller derby

A roller derby jammer skated around the track. It's Hard Dash, who writes this blog

Sometimes my friends say/post things like, “I’ve been playing roller derby for XYZ years. If I’d put that time and money into something else — I could be a [insert high-paying job or similar goal here] by now.”

Sometimes I think it too. It’s just math, right? Three-hour practices three times a week for let’s say 5 years might be 2,200+ hours depending on breaks and tournaments. Maybe it’s $2,000* if your league dues are about $30 — not including gear, skates, travel costs, uniforms …

As my derby age ticks up, I have these unwanted thoughts more often.

“What could I have done with my time and money?”

There’s an underlying message there … and it’s pretty cruel: What you’re doing isn’t important. Roller derby is trivial. You dummy, why didn’t you spend all your time and money on something *useful.*

To that, my heart responds to my intrusive brain in Amelia Earhart’s words:

Adventure is worthwhile in itself.

Adventure is worthwhile. Taking time for yourself is worthwhile. Helping other people find joy, sport and adventure is worthwhile. You’re worthwhile.

Heck, I’d pay that $2,000 — in my case at 7.5 years, closer to $3,000 — and 3,300+ hours any day for the friends I’ve gained alone. Never mind the 3,300 other lessons derby have given me.

 

Need another self-care derby post? Check out this oldie-but-goodie: 7 ways to forgive yourself (for the stupid shit you do) in roller derby

 

*A lot cheaper than whatever doctorate you wanted. 

Feature photo by Jim Vernier, used with permission. 

Roller derby finances: Comparing the top nonprofit leagues in WFTDA

How do the top teams in WFTDA stack up financially? After a couple weeks digging through the data, namely 2013 public tax documents that all nonprofits file, I have the answers for you. Make your bets now. Continue reading “Roller derby finances: Comparing the top nonprofit leagues in WFTDA”

Love is the most important part of roller derby — and it can make your team more competitive

It’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson: Love is the most important part of roller derby.

That’s not mushy flib-flab.

You know what makes people the best at what they do? They fucking love it. [More to this story below]

Photo by Judy Beedle Photography (more at https://www.facebook.com/JudyBeedlePhotography?fref=photo )
Photo by Judy Beedle Photography (more at https://www.facebook.com/JudyBeedlePhotography?fref=photo )

From Steve Levitt, economist from MIT and Harvard who now teaches at Chicago:

“Loving what you do is such a completely unfair advantage to anyone you are competing with who does it for a job. People who love it they go to bed at night thinking about the solutions. They wake up in the middle of the night, and they jot down ideas, they work weekends. It turns out that effort is a huge component of success in almost everything. We know that from practice and whatnot. And people who love things work and work and work at it. Because it’s not work — it’s fun.”

I know a league that went into last season with this in mind, starting with a brand new roster of less-experienced skaters, but they moved up 10 ranking spots that season anyway.

People who have fun at practice come to all the practices. Teammates who love each other support each other in their walls and help their struggling jammer friend even faster. Skaters who are friends off-the-track almost are always stronger than other pairs on the track because they know how each other thinks and communicates. Coaches who love their team and the sport think about new strategies, ways to improve and individual feedback while daydreaming at work. Newer skaters will see your team radiating love and want to be part of it and will work hard to get there.

Want to be more competitive? Want to boost league attendance? Cultivate a culture of love.

Hair braiding for a zebra packmate (teammate?) is love.
Hair braiding for a zebra packmate (teammate?) is love.

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