This summer I helped coach Rose City’s Derby Daze — an intense weekend of skate clinics — and Rose’s travel team coaches, Rob Lobster and Mike Chexx led a lunchtime talk on coaching. What Mike Chexx said blew my mind.
Specifically, he told me that he categorizes his players into certain groups. When he mentioned the groups I immediately knew I was a positional communicator. My best friend and another skater I work extremely well with are hitters (who don’t communicate as much). Blam. Puzzle pieces. You can put me with another communicative positional blocker, but we’ll just yell and never hit the jammer out. Everything about how I work with other skaters suddenly clicked. So, I asked him for an interview. Aside from being an amazingly calm, smart bench coach Mike Chexx is a derby announcer.
Here’s Mike Chexx:
Can you tell me more about how you think about skaters in positions? What are the positions? (Are there more than communicator, hitter, positional?)
Rob and I finally committed to changing our approach to how to work with our bout rosters late this past season. As part of that, we did develop some classifications (or positions) for skaters: communicator, hitter, positional, clean and offense are the big ones.
We found it extremely important to know which two blockers (if we were in a situation that allowed us only two blockers on the track) were the least penalty prone, but that could also work together and communicate well with one another to help stop a penalty parade*. Nothing takes away momentum in a bout faster than a penalty parade that isn’t ending.
How many of each position would you have in a line-up, in your ideal world? (I know you said you like to have two communicators)
We didn’t really have hard and fast requirements as to how many of each skater-type we wanted in a given line-up. I was always looking for pairings or groupings of skaters that could communicate well with each other, that shared some traits, while being opposite in others (think Belle Starr and Scylla Devourer, or Mercy and Penny Dreadful). In short, I was looking for ways to maximize efficacy on the track at a higher level than the sum of the individual parts.
We prefered to have two communicators in each lineup when possible, but that wasn’t always available. When we started running the two-line-up system, we tried to keep one line-up as a more physical, faster paced, hitting style of lineup; while the other was a slower, more containment focused, positional blocking type of lineup. What we learned in Fort Wayne – and in retrospect, what should have been more obvious to us – were the impacts of moving skaters in and out of those line-ups from bout to bout. Not so much from a skill based on-the-track output, but more from a cohesive mental game standpoint.
What’s the most important thing a bench coach does?
I don’t even know how to begin answering this.
In game time, the way Rob and I worked together, my most important job was to keep the bench (and sometimes Rob) calm and focused. Though I am not foolish enough to believe that by only keeping a bench calm and focused we would be guaranteed victory, I do think the mindset of the team greatly influences the outcome of the bout.
The best example of this I can think of was during the WoJ v Gotham bout from ECDX in 2012. Losing a key jammer early in the bout, and losing another key jammer for a number of jams in the middle of the bout would have severely shaken most other teams in the WFTDA – especially when bouting Gotham. But the bench stayed calm, JK and Acid stepped up huge, and we gave Gotham their closest bout in years. In fact, thinking back, the bench was so calm that KicKassedy (a skater) actually calmed me down at one point, and got me refocused on keeping the bench calm and focused.
When not in game time, studying game footage and statistics were my main focus. The combination of stats and footage were instrumental in constructing lineups and assessing how to work with a roster during game time. Whether or not this would be the most important thing I did when we weren’t bouting could be debated, but I feel like it was.
How do you influence the culture/attitude of your bench?
I try my best to lead by example. I feel that has the most impact on a bench and a team. I try to keep calm, try not to lose my shit when multiple things go sideways at once, and I try to treat everyone with respect. When I coached AoA (B travel team) with Firecrotch, we required that the team thank the officials after a bout, as we had done all season. I also try and hear everyone out, whether I agree with them or not. The key to learning is listening. It is amazing what you can learn when you intently listen and think about what is being said, and the context of the conversation’s content.
What common things do you see skaters do/say that you’d like to see less of? More of?
I will try and keep my answer to this as short as possible. I look forward to the time when derby is truly treated like a sport — both by the public, as well as its players. Speaking specifically in regards to the players, I wish there was more of a team-first mentality. I understand you want to be rostered, but there are only 14 spots for 20 chartered skaters in any given bout. I know you want to play more when you are rostered, but there are only five skaters allowed to participate in each jam. I know it is cliche, but the “W” is the most important thing, an individuals play time and stat line are secondary.
What I have seen more of that I like is the dedication to training during the off-season. We have an incredibly athletic, fit and talented team. And it gets better every season. I also appreciate the level of attention being paid to stats and standings. Not that it wasn’t a focus in seasons past, but again, it gets better every season.
I also appreciated that more skaters supported Rob when he was coaching strategy, as opposed to questioning him. As a team, it was important that we had a cohesive approach and strategy when different things would happen on the track. Most often, when things started to go awry on the track, it was because skaters had different ideas about what should be done in those situations, and wouldn’t back down from their opinions. That has been a weakness in Rose City for years, sadly.
How do skaters earn game time, in your mind?
First and foremost, be at practice. Especially endurance practice. I could give you half a dozen examples of how our endurance training won bouts for us the past two or three seasons.
Second, clean up your game play. Penalty prone = less playing time, or less rostering.
Third, keep it positive. Toward your teammates, your league mates, your coaches, your officials, fans, volunteers, etc. Toxic attitudes on a bench/team are worse than smelly gear trapped in a closed up car on a ninety degree day, and are equally hard to remedy.
*Someone make the man a .gif. Put a link in the comments.