Okay, so you’ve been to one or two bouts, you’ve maybe seen a rules demo, and you’ve watched skaters take a lot of left turns… but you don’t quite get what’s going on down there on the track. We’re here to fix that! Here’s some suggestions for how to get more out of watching a derby bout in ten fun and easy steps. Start at the top, and when you’re ready, move on to the next thing. Ready? Tweeeeeeeet…
1) Enjoy the hitting
Let’s admit it, the first time you go to a roller derby bout, you’re looking for big hip-checks and skaters sprawling on the floor. That’s okay! To misquote Yogi Berra, 50% of this sport is half physical, so enjoy the big hits and the big falls.
2) Watch the jammers
The blockers focus on them most of the time; so should you. The jammers are the ones who score the points, and as a bonus they’re the ones who get hit most often. Plus, they’re easy to spot because of that star on their helmets.
3) Watch the pack, even when the jammers aren’t there
This is similar to watching the action “off the ball” in most sports: how a basketball half-court offense sets up a play, or a football defensive scheme. Watch who’s moving to the front and who’s dropping back. Look for blockers that have been isolated by their opponents. Watch how the pack changes speeds depending on where the jammers are. Watch for the refs to signal where the pack is (with arms stretched straight out, pointing to the front and back) when it starts to fall apart, and how it reforms when that happens.
Got this far? Great. You’re now a derby fan! Hopefully at this point you’re hooked, and you’ve already bought tickets to the next game. Ready for more? No worries, we’ve got plenty more…
4) Watch the referees
A good referee is part of the action. Pack refs follow the pack and signal penalties. Jam refs follow the jammers and count points with a raised hand at the end of each scoring pass. Look for a five point “grand slam”, when a jammer passes all opposing blockers as well as lapping the opposing jammer. Read the WFTDA Official Hand Signals document and learn all the penalty signals.
5) Watch the penalty box
When a team has blockers in the box, opposing jammers can score free points on those blockers. When a team’s jammer is in the box, they can’t score at all! Penalties last for thirty seconds; when a skater has 10 seconds left, they stand up to prepare to re-enter the game.
6) Watch the skaters at the edges of the pack
“Pack definition” and the “20 foot rule” are like the Offside rule in soccer: hard to understand at first, but a critical part of game strategy and important to any fan who wants to really know the game. When blockers get too far ahead or behind the pack, listen for an “Out Of Play” warning from the referee. When the ref’s hand goes up (arm bent like an “L”), skaters have to stop what they’re doing and rejoin the pack, or they risk getting a penalty (hand comes down in a chopping motion).
At this point you’re wowing your friends with your knowledge of derby. You’ve already bought season tickets for next year. What do you mean, you still haven’t had enough? Okay, you asked for it…
7) Read the official rules
You won’t get it all on the first time through. Don’t even try. You might actually try reading them backwards—start at the end and work your way forward. But at some point, you just have to read the official wording to understand why the game is called the way it is.
8) Think about the strategy
Why did the lead jammer call off that jam? How much time is left in the period? What’s the score? Which jammers get ahead on speed, and which get ahead by letting their blockers do the heavy lifting? Which blockers rely on hard hits and which use positional blocking to stop opponents or clear a path for their jammer? How do blockers work together in pairs, or in a pack? How does a jammer get help from the blockers on their team? How quickly does a team shift from offense to defense depending on their jammer’s position? How does strategy change when a team has a numerical advantage, or when the opposing jammer is in the box?
9) Count jammer points
See if you can tally how many opposing skaters a jammer has passed. Remember, only legal in-bounds passes count, but a jammer also scores on opponents in the penalty box after earning one point on the track. You might not always get the same number as the jam ref, but the first time you call a grand slam before the jam ref signals it, the look of awe from your friends will make it worthwhile.
Still want more? Are you kidding me? Well…
10) Train as an official for your local league
At this point you’ve got the essentials down pat; the rest is just learning to recognize the finer points and respond to them quickly and accurately. Roller Derby is still a fast-growing sport and officials are in high demand across New England, North America, and the rest of the world. And hey, you’ll get into every bout for free! (No, seriously, you might just love it. Contact us for more information about becoming part of the BDD Officiating Crew.)