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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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.

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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Take the star — why you’re going to try jamming next practice

Play all the positions. Photo by Masonite Burn
Play all the positions.
Photo by Masonite Burn

It happens in leagues all over the world. A jammer comes out of a drill, sweaty and breathing hard, pulls the panty off her head, smiles and waves it in the air.

“Who wants to jam?”

Happy, huffing jammers approaching the bench with their sweaty panties reminds me of my cat, arriving victoriously at my feet with a bird head. So proud. So happy to share their victory. And frequently, their enthusiasm is met with disgust and resistance.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” is something I hear a lot.
“Oh hell no. I’m a blocker,” is something I hear a lot that pisses me off.

Here’s something I heard once that is entirely true: A jammer is just a blocker in a fucked up situation.

This is a list of things blockers are supposed to do: roller skate, stop, move laterally, hit with power and in good form, control their speed, control the opposing jammer’s speed, communicate, play clean, be strategic and know the rules, otherwise crush the opposing jammer’s soul.

Here is a list of things jammers are supposed to do:  roller skate, stop, move laterally, hit with power and in good form, control their speed, communicate, play clean, be strategic and know the rules, evaluate a pack upon approach, otherwise crush the opposing jammer’s and all opposing blocker’s souls.

Not so different.

Photo by Masonite Burn.
Photo by Masonite Burn.

It’s rare, if ever, that I see a relief jammer goated. When there is a goat on the track, it’s almost always the “oh hell no. I’m a blocker”-skater. Why? She didn’t practice being a blocker in a fucked up situation. She didn’t practice hulk-smashing walls, juking, pushing walls and other totally-necessary derby skills that jammers practice all the time. Her footwork is probably slower. If she hits the jammer out, she probably can’t run backward as fast as the jammer can. Being a jammer is (often) about urgency. It’s a good thing to always practice. Further, I’ve never met a great jammer who can’t block.

Don’t be scared. Realize it’s important at practice to try new things and that putting on a star once in a while translates directly into being a more effective blocker.

The “mercy rule” breaks my soul

I have only one thought on the 2014 World Cup rules announced today, really:

It takes incredible hurdles to create magnificent victories. Our heroes don’t come because they face everyday circumstances — they come out of harrowing times.

Therefore, I loathe the mercy rule that Blood and Thunder announced today. According to DNN, it states: “If a team is leading by 100 points with 20 minutes remaining, the leading team will be awarded a ‘technical knock-out.'”

I think the mercy rule crushes the soul of roller derby fans. Part of the fun is rooting for an underdog and vicariously living through their victories (even if it’s just “SHE GOT LEAD JAMMER!). As a derby fan I love the second half. I know teams come back. I know they re-think, re-energize and re-evaluate their play and adapt. Part of the satisfaction I get is seeing the smarts of the sport — OK, Team B, you’re losing. Now what?

Because isn’t that what real victory looks like? — Figuring out that who you are isn’t good enough and that to rise to the task you must be better than you thought you could be. I think so.

And from a practical standpoint: Blood and Thunder also reduced penalties to 30 seconds (or, if the other jammer it out and scoring, the penalized jammer only serves one scoring pass in the box) — OK. I can live with that. Hypothetically, someone great could score 40 points in a powerjam minute. 20 points in a half-minute — assuming you could goat the jammer that long under this rule set. 100 points is still only five (magically awesome) power jams away.

Come on, Blood and Thunder, don’t take away the chance of a great story with amazing heroes conquering the seemingly unconquerable. It’s not who we are.