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:

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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Roller derby drills are hard … all of them … always

Oh hey. I’ve had a lot of big changes in my life, but thanks for the encouraging comments and emails asking me to blog more/again. I want to. I plan to. As a way to ease back in, here’s what I recently posted to our own fresh meat’s page. I think it’s always, always true:

Roller derby drills are hard. All of them. Even things like stepping side to side, which could seem rudimentary. Plow stopping is also rudimentary, but our travel team (and top-ranked travel teams across the world) practice them every week. It’s important to find goals, fun and fulfillment from even basic drills because that’s a lot of what roller derby is – getting the “easy” stuff down (muscle memory) so we can do it flawlessly in combination with lots of other cool shit when we play the game.

Here’s some things you should consider before ever thinking, “this is boring” — and not just next week or next month, but four years from now :

  • Am I doing it in perfect form?
  • Can I do it faster in perfect form?
  • Could ANY of the veteran skaters do this drill better than I’m doing it right now? If they could, what would they do differently? (then try it).
  • How would (insert skater hero here) do this drill? (then try their unique style)
  • Can I do this backward?
  • Can I do this on one leg?
  • Can I do this backward on one leg?

If you can do the drill backward on one leg in perfect form better than any other skater, then you can be bored 🙂

p.s. stepping side-to-side on one leg in perfect form is flippin hard.

How to bench coach: A clinic from Rose City Rollers’ Mike Chexx

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.

Our changing bodies: How roller derby made me smaller, bigger, bigger and why that was hard

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Roller derby has changed and changed and re-changed my body.

I got skinny, I got bigger in some areas (welcome back, awkward teenage years), I got skinny and worried about myself, I got some nice abs for a minute, my thighs bloated when nothing else did, my calves eventually joined in for the ride, my arms shrunk, my face fat went away sometime, my butt joined my thighs and calves … In roughly that order in the two years and nine months I’ve been playing the sport.

I put a slideshow above with updates for just about every six months.

Sometimes the physical changes have been awesome. Sometimes it’s been hard to deal with. I’ve been socialized as an American female. When your thighs bloat out, it can be hard to be enthusiastic. Even when I felt otherwise “skinny.”

I feel (the very feminine need) to buffer here. Arguably, I’m a skinny bitch whining about gaining muscle. However, I feel my perspective is one that’s felt more widely in the derby community: As a woman, it’s not always easy to accept getting physically larger, even when you’re getting fitter.

I’ve come a long way on this — I had to — and I thought I’d share my story:

I never thought I was fat. I also wasn’t skinny. Being not-fat didn’t make it easy, coming to terms with my changing body (Whoa, hello puberty book). At first, I lost weight, mostly from my stomach and face. After a few months and a couple bouts under my shrinking belt, I kept losing weight.

I knew it was food related. I was eating the same (a bagel for breakfast, maybe some spaghetti for dinner and some days nothing in between), but my activity was dramatically increasing. I wasn’t eating much (if any) meat. My body was starved for protein and calories and it was shrinking. It scared me. But my teenage, anorexically-inclined insecurities kept rising up when I tried to eat more than usual. I had to face that. I had to talk kindly to myself. I had to try to think of food as fuel. It’s difficult. But I wanted to get better at this sport and I knew I couldn’t do that and not eat enough. So, I had a long think, reconciled with myself and made the changes I needed to.

That got harder when my thighs suddenly (add animated plomp plomp plomp noise) — it seemed sudden anyway — bulked up. My pants still fit because I’d been wearing loose pants. My teammates were starting to say that their calves couldn’t fit into their skinny jeans and I was jealous. Calves are cute, I thought, thighs are thunderous*. But in derby — and in life — you don’t get to pick and choose your body parts.

My stomach was staying the same and I was beginning to feel muscle developing under a thin layer of fat. That was encouraging. My calves started developing too.

So then I moved from my small league to Portland, Ore.

This forced a massive attitude change. I attribute this to a few things:
1. Roller derby here sucks up so much of my life that skaters make up about 90% of the people I see in a day. Surrounding myself with beautiful, strong women makes me want to be a strong woman, not a skinny woman***. I don’t compare myself to the thin women in movies, magazines and at the mall — mostly because I don’t have time to read magazines, watch movies and go to the mall. I normalized muscle as beauty by consuming images of that instead.
2. My goals need me to fully dedicate myself to my workouts and that means I can’t have these anxiety hangups about food. I do not have the time and I no longer want to expend the energy on thinking about how much two eggs, a bagel, a fruit, my coffee with too much cream, etc “costs” in calories.
3. I skate so much it doesn’t matter what I eat. With up to 15 hours of derby a week when it’s home and travel team seasons, ain’t nobody got time for that [food worry].

So, changes since the move: I went from the fresh meat pool to home team to travel team in six months. So when I say I ramped up my training, I mean three times (little league>FM>home team>travel team). I ate more meat, more beans, more bread, more fro yo (there is so much of it here.), more vegetables, eggs … I just eat more.

That much ramp-up in activity changed my body all over. My abs, which I felt were cute now bloat my stomach. I feel like that’s a thing the Cosmo magazines, etc don’t tell you: Abs are not flat. Abs don’t make your stomach go in. Real abs, if you have more than 7% body fat, bulk out your tummy and make you look a bit bigger. I had to accept that.

My thighs developed more. Thanks, endurance laps. That muscle on top of my thighs exploded (no, not literally. Gross.) and I have this muscle on top of my knee** now. When I stand straight up and look down at my toes, I can’t see my shins anymore because they’re blocked by my derby thighs. I’m elated. My calves are following suit, especially with off-skates footwork training.

My body has gone through a lot of loss, gain, gain, loss in ways I didn’t expect. I assumed that I wouldn’t change because I was already “average” and so roller derby couldn’t affect me this much physically and psychologically, but it has. It’s a whole process of re-adjusting, changing expectations, changing goals and self acceptance.

Some things that have helped me along the way are:
-I don’t use a scale. Ever. That number doesn’t matter. How fast my laps are, how many points I score, how many points I stop — those numbers matter.
-I now know my body is going to continually change depending on my needs and my training. Whatever my body does is what I need.
-Eating more meat. It’s the easy way to get protein.
-Protein shakes. Same.
-Judging my strengths in non-body metrics. Speed, agility, stopping power.
-Changing my image consumption from main stream to athletic.
-Not reading those “fitness” magazines if they have “10 Ways To Lose That Stubborn Belly Fat” or “Three Ways to Make Him Squirm****” cover stories

It’s been difficult at times. I’m happy with myself and my body now. I don’t focus much on the details of what’s changing month to month. If I see a new muscle, I welcome it. If I continue to grow into a larger human being, all the better to block you with. I expect my struggle now to evolve into keeping this muscle now that travel team season is over. It took a long time to get to this level of acceptance. And some days it’s still hard.

I’d love to open up this conversation in the comments. I’ll watch the conversation and chat with y’all. How has derby changed you, physically? Have you had to readjust your thinking? What has helped/hurt? If you only lost weight, was it a nice experience or was there turmoil too?

*Thighs are wonderous. I know this now.
**What the hell is that about.
***This is where I validate the public and say all bodies are OK and it’s OK to be skinny. Whatever.
****How is that fitness.