rollerderby

Controlling Your Hits

Hitting the shit out of people is not only essential to playing roller derby, but also one of the funnest aspects of the sport.  To this day one of the most exhilarating moments I’ve had in this sport is the feeling I got when I hit someone so hard that, over the din and chaos of the track, I heard the entire audience go ‘OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHH’.  Because we’re apparently violent sociopaths, when you land a hit right and knock a bitch down like a sack of potatoes it’s a rewarding and wonderful feeling.

Quite often  I see hits that are desperate looking and over committing to the hit.  Skaters who hit like this approach hitting in an all or nothing way, doing everything they can to get a hit in.  As a jammer I love those kinds of hits because they’re easy to see coming, easy to avoid and easy to counter-block.  If I get into a solid position and counter block just a little then the opposing blocker’s weight takes her down for me, and I’m free to go on my point scoring way.  Good hits are not doing whatever you can to hopefully land a hit.  Good hits are practiced and calculated movements that take out specific skaters in neat, penalty free ways.  A good hit compared to an all or nothing hit would be like a surgeon excising a titty tumour with a scalpel versus a fucking food mixer.  The first is precise and calculated, the second is making a mess and just kind of hoping shit will work out (it won’t).

It’s worth noting, also, that hitting with that all or nothing style is fucking dangerous.  Falling in a pack is fucking dangerous to you and everyone around you.  Hitting someone sloppily is extremely dangerous to that person.  We want to win the bout not cripple opposing skaters for life, so be conscientious of how your skating can potentially affect other players and practice good form.

I’ve seen drills aimed towards teaching the proper form of hitting, but I don’t think it’s something that gets the explanation and attention it deserves.  I think that understanding the importance of WHY we need good form is important enough that it should be explained early on before fresh meat are cleared for contact.  Bad habits die hard, so it’s best to stop them before they get started.

If you’re doing any of the following, then odds are you’re blocking like a reckless idiot:

  1. When you hit your outside foot comes off of the ground and you’re balancing on one foot
  2. You’re pawing at the ground like a god damned horse with one of your feet
  3. If you fall after you’ve landed your hit
  4. If you fall when you don’t land your hit
  5. You usually get penalties when you hit
  6. The jammer is in front of you when you hit her out
  7. Your hits kind of annoyingly push her forward instead of hitting her out
  8. She doesn’t fall down because you hit like a weakling who has somehow not died yet despite Darwinian principles.

If those things don’t happen when you hit, good job on hitting effectively.

For me there are multiple aspects of an effective hit, so here are what I consider the most important:

Timing:

Timing is hard to get right.  If you hit too late the jammer just slides past you.  If you hit too early you end up pushing the jammer forward, which is the opposite of what you want.  This is a matter of practice.  For this there are a few drills I like to do to help people practice their timing.  I’m including some drills to help with this and the other basic aspects down below.

Keeping your fucking arms in:

Sometimes during drills I make my players plank every time they commit a penalty, so you better believe there are some washboard abs on my team.  Despite how much planking sucks I still see these bitches push their elbows out like they’re doing the fucking chicken dance on skates.  Elbows. Forearms everywhere.  It’s craziness.  When people hit they instinctively throw their elbows out and get a penalty for it.  When people fall they instinctively reach out and grab other people as they go down.

Here’s a tip: Hold your hands when you hit.  I saw one of the players on my team do it without even realizing it, and it was really effective.  It keeps you from grabbing, and makes it a little harder to throw elbows out.  Another thing you can do is swing your arms the opposite direction of where you’re hitting. It gets your elbow and arm out of the way.  In my head I tend to think of it as a whimsical ‘whooop there it is’ as I swing my arms and hips.  Like I’m busting a sweet dance move that has the ulterior motive of hurting someone.

Keeping your weight centered because you’re not a god damned wrecking ball:

Oh my god you guys.  So often I see people, especially newer people, throw the entirety of their body weight into a hit like they’re cosplaying as a shitty wrecking ball.  Stop doing that.  You fall like a hot mess regardless of whether or not you land the hit.  The area on the floor between your skates is your base.  If your center of gravity goes past your base you will fall.  If you take one foot off the floor then your base is reduced to the space between the wheels on the skate still on the floor.  That means that you’ll fall as soon as you lean to hit someone.  It’s basic physics, guys.  Do not throw your body weight over your skates.  Do not depend on their body being there to keep you from falling over.  Similarly, since you want to have a wide base you want to keep both feet on the floor.  If someone solidly counter-blocks you while you have one foot off the floor you will go down, because you can’t compensate with only one foot.  Even though the majority of your weight will be on the foot closest to the opposing player, you need to keep your other foot flat on the floor to brace for counter-blocks and maintain a wide base.  Don’t paw your foot like you’re an impatient fucking horse.  Keep it on the floor.  If your foot is pawing at the floor then you’re not controlling your foot.  If you’re not controlling your foot you’re more likely to low block someone with your sloppy epileptic looking foot or fall and then low block someone with your awkward giraffe legs.

Hitting with your entire body:

I wish I could count how many times I’ve had my skaters do the dreaded banana because they go in and hit with their shoulder, and only their shoulder.  It seems like newer skaters and even some veteran skaters default to only hitting with shoulders or only with hips.  You should be hitting with your entire body.  Tuck your arm out of the way and make contact with the entire area from your hips to the top of your ribs.  If you only hit with your shoulder or your hips then you leave the rest of their body to adjust and absorb your hit.  You remember how we talked about keeping your center of gravity over your base?  That’s what you’re allowing them to do.  If you hit with your entire body you literally leave no room for them to physically adjust and absorb your hit.

Pop it lock it bitches!

One of my favorite techniques to have people practice with hitting form is popping it.  What I mean by that is getting low and popping up into your hit.  If you do this right then when you make contact you force the opposing skater up a little bit, which means they are less balanced and fall over more easily. I like to think of this in terms of very flamboyantly starting an imaginary lawnmower.  While skating I get low enough to touch the floor on the opposite side of the player they are about to hit.  Then, as if jerking up to start a lawnmower, I pop up with my shoulder, but keeping my hands off to the side.  Starting gas powered lawnmowers is a quick motion, so the desired effect is that I pop up quickly with my arm out of the way, ribs open and making contact with my entire side, pushing the opposing skater up and over.

Here are some drills to help:

Paceline hitting: Basically exactly what it sounds like.  Have skaters skate around in a paceline and hit each player as they weave through.  They can do this backwards or forwards.  If your players are having a hard time grasping whatever concept you’re focusing on (don’t hit with just your shoulder, get low and pop it, keep both feet on the ground, ect) then you can have them plank if they do the focus skill wrong until the next person has made it through the line.  When I added that the number of shoulder-only hits reduced dramatically.

Four square blocking: Credit to allderbydrills.com for this one and Sumo Payne. I’m literally just going to copy and paste it for you guys.

Objective: To learn how to skate forward, to the sides, backwards by moving your feet quickly without turning around
Typical length of drill: 15 mins
Materials needed: 4-8 cones (or more if you have a lot of skaters)
Skill level required: Basic skills (skaters need to be cleared for contact to participate in step 2)
Description: Four cones are set up in a square formation, as shown in the illustration that follows.  Depending on how many skaters you have, you may want to put two or more sets of cones around the track/ floor so that as many skaters as possible can practice at the same time.  The distance between the cones does not have to be too big, the idea is to keep on moving your feet all the time, not to Sunday skate.

There are two steps in this drill:

Step 1
For one minute each skater moves around the set of four cones at a rapid pace.  The purpose is to keep your eyes in one direction, to not look at your feet, and to always go through the middle in order to maximize the agility practice (as shown through the blue line in the illustration).  Skaters are to use their hips to move around but should always keep their torsos and eyes facing forward.  Skaters should use their feet while moving around the cones in a random order (back to front to left to front to right to left to back to front etc.).  They should make sure that they pass the cones from all sides and not always from the same side, and to switch direction and choose randomly which cone they are about to pass next.

Illustration of SumMo Payne’s Quick Feet Drill

Step 2
Another skater stands in the middle of the four cones, in a proper derby stance.  As the first skater is moving around the cones s/he gives a hit to the person standing in the middle every time s/he passes her/him.  Skaters should make sure not to hit this person while skating backwards (that’s a direction of gameplay penalty).  Also, skaters should do their best with the hits in a tight space.  Try to make the person in the middle fall.  If there are many new skaters doing the drill, the hits don’t have to be that hard.  Switch the person standing and the person skating around the cones every 1 minute.

Queen of the rink:  You can do this drill in teams or individually.  Basically everyone hits each other or the opposing team until there is one person or team left on the track, and they win.  Players can hit each other down or out of bounds in order to get each other out. In teams this drill focuses more on communication and team work, while individually it’s more about for and counter-blocking.  If you’re having trouble with penalties you can also add the rule of if you commit a penalty, you’re out.

Those are a few easy ones.  Maybe if I go to Thursday night skate (I probably won’t) I’ll take video of what a solid hit looks like and share it with you all.  Maybe.

Power Jam Offense

So it’s been a while since I’ve written a post, but I have what I fancy to be a pretty solid reason. I’ve been putting off writing posts about derby strategy because, quite frankly, I consider myself relatively new and therefore green in the area of knowing what the hell is happening on the track.  I’m referred to as a vet only because some more people recently assessed and therefore have taken over my title of newbie. However, for the sake of making myself reflect, research and learn, I’m going to forge ahead and give derby strategy my best shot.  So excuse my bumbling around while I lay out my best understanding of kick-ass power jam strategy.

If you know enough about roller derby to know what a power jam is, then you rock my pants right off.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s when one of the point scoring players in roller derby, called a jammer, gets a penalty and is sent to the penalty box (or bench, whatever), leaving the opposing jammer to score points.

Historically penalties have been a minute long, which is long enough that power jams could make or break games.  Recently, though, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association reduced the penalty time amount to thirty seconds in an effort to reduce the impact that power jams have on the game.  Regardless of the reduced penalty time, though, a good team will pee their pants in excitement when they get a power jam, and then take full advantage of it.  Taking advantage of a power jam means understanding power jam strategy both personally and as a team.

The strategy of a power jam is highly contingent on the dynamics of the individual teams.  A good strategy will take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the blockers and jammers.  Weak jammers might need more help from their blockers, strong jammers might prefer no help from  their blockers, a strong blocker might be a pro at distracting the other team and so on.  It’s up to the team and captains to assess and discuss  strengths and weaknesses and formulate an appropriate default strategy based on that.  It’s my goal to discuss and outline different strategies and approaches to power jams, based on different scenarios.

Regardless of the strengths of your team, though, there are some things that are constant.  The team with the jammer on the track in a power jam wants the pack to go as slow as possible.  This minimizes the time it takes for the jammer to get around the track, making it easier for her to score more points in the power jam.  Conversely, the defense wants to go faster, maximizing the amount of time it takes for the jammer to lap them, thus tiring her out and making it harder to accrue more points.

Our roller derby league had a strategy based largely on the strength of the jammer.  When we found ourselves in an offensive power jam, our blockers lined up on the outside of the track, slowing down the pack and leaving the track clear for the jammer to put pressure on the opposing wall. The jammer would push the blockers forward while we were stationary, forcing them to bridge out until eventually they were out of play.

When Kiki Urhaz from Denver came, she taught us a different strategy for power jams.  Instead of lining up on the outside of the track, we lined up in two lines of two behind the defensive wall.  This makes it harder for the defense to see the upcoming jammer.  When the jammer is going to hit the wall, one blocker goes and hits the wall at the same time, to either distract and confuse the wall, or to make a hole for the jammer to get through. She emphasized a ‘hit it and quit it’ approach, which is exactly what it sounds like.  You pick out the girl whose only redeeming quality is her snatch, sex her and run for your life.

Kidding.  That strategy is only applicable to the after party (if vaginas are your thing).  During a derby bout it just means that we make our offensive hit quick and get out of the way quicker, and you get to yell ‘hit it and quit it’ at people like you’re at a frat party.  So hit it, being ever careful of the ref’s penchant for calling back blocks (because god knows it’s never our fault), and get back to formation.

An alternative default strategy that has a heavier focus on the ability of the offensive blockers is getting a goat.  Some derby leagues have different names for it, my personal favorite being ‘getting a heifer’.  In a sport full of big assed women, my self-deprecating humor can only imagine the heavy hits and bitterness caused by calling out ‘I GOT A HEIFER!’.  Getting back to point, though, the concept is to essentially capture an opposing blocker via an L formation in order to have the majority of the players and control pack speed.  This strategy keeps the opposing defensive blockers from going quickly around the track, making it easier for the jammer to lap them quickly.  However, if this is your default strategy, expect one of the better defensive blockers to try and break your formation to get their blocker out.  This strategy also makes it harder to help your jammer through the remaining blockers, and relies heavily on the ability of your blockers to get and keep a heifer.

A further addendum to the fallback of this strategy is ending up going too fast around the track.  If the opposing blockers are fast, and your team is trying to get a heifer, what could end up happening is that you chase the blockers around the track and your jammer tires herself out trying to catch up.  If your teams’s default strategy is to get a heifer, it’s important to recognize this situation when it happens, and to stop it by slowing down.  The opposing blockers will be forced to slow down or get a destruction of pack penalty.

Another strategy that is a more complex version of getting a heifer involves skilled blockers who can whip it harder and more realistically than Ellen Paige.  When the defense is skating quickly and you’re having hard time catching one of them, slow down and line up, the blocker with the best whip in front.  When the referees call no pack and the opposing team has to slow down, have the first blocker whip the second blocker up to try and cordon off a heifer.  With any luck the defensive formation will be broken up enough during pack reformation that getting a goat will be significantly easier.  Then the rest of the offensive blockers come to help form the L-wall to keep that blocker.

These are only some of the basic strategies that are more well known in the world of roller derby.  If you fancy yourself a Van Gogh of roller derby strategy, then talk to your team about taking a day to explore other strategies, maybe on a practice day with lower turnout.  Recently I came to a practice where my team was doing this, and they came up a novel idea for power jams called ‘doing the elevator’.  I thought they were talking about terribly amazing dance moves like the sprinkler at first, but eventually I figured out that what they were talking about was strategy.  It involves two blockers in front of the opposing wall, on the inside and outside, and two blockers behind the opposing wall, in the middle.  It sets up a situation where your jammer pushes the two middle blockers through the pack while the front outside blocker hold the others back, creating a gap for her to jump through.  It runs the huge risk of your blockers being pushed being called on a back block, though, which may not be worth it if the bout is close in points.  But if you’re losing and just can’t keep that other damn jammer back, fuck it.  Might as well try.

The key to all of the previous verbage is that everyone on your team has to know what the default strategy is.  With everything going on in a roller derby bout, there sure as shit isn’t time to stop and have a pow wow about how to handle those pesky blockers and get your jammer through.  Everyone needs to know where they need to be so that as soon as your jammer gets to that halfway point, they’re ready to offensively block it like it’s hawt.

And remember kids, you can always yell at people to remind them what’s going on or if they’re not moving fast enough.  Seriously, yelling at people is better than no communication.

As always, if you have any questions, then message, or comment, or whatever other option of wordpress communication there is.  I’m always here, procrastinating or otherwise.