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

*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. 


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