Expand your mind & your game: WATCHING DERBY FOOTAGE

What if I told you that, in just an hour or two a week, you could be a better roller derby player, coach or referee? That you could understand the game better, learn the strategies and tactics that the best teams are using, and discover the skills it takes to win games? Even better, what if you could do all of those things just by watching Youtube?

Surprise! Everything you just read is true. You CAN be a better derby player, coach or referee in an hour or two a week.  So — you may ask — what is this magic pill? What is this amazing thing I should be doing?


If there is one thing that training experts agree on, it's the importance of regularly watching high-level game footage. That means seeking out the newest bout videos from our sport's top-tier teams, and making a habit of watching those videos — and paying extra attention to the tactics and skills that win games.

For this week's Hellcats Homework, we'll be exploring the importance of watching footage — and learning more about game strategy, and the history of roller derby, along the way.

Derby's Winning Strategies: A Timeline in Footage

What might be called the "fundamentals" of derby — things like minimum skating skills, good physical fitness, and knowledge of the basic rules — is a constant, and can be mastered by most roller derby players through regular practice attendance.

That said, many current skaters are not aware of just how young modern roller derby is as a sport. The game of derby, as we play it today, began in 2001 — less than 15 years ago! The WFTDA championship tournament has only existed since 2006. 

Because it is so new, the strategies that define roller derby are always growing and developing. Thanks to constant rule changes and the nature of the game, roller derby often looks like a completely different sport from season to season. Tactics that win bouts today might be obsolete within the next year. There is no "how-to guide" for how to succeed as a team.

Let's take a look at some footage from the last six years of top-level roller derby, and examine how winning strategies have evolved from year to year.

You don't need to watch every minute of the following videos while reading this blog, but you should watch at least 5 minutes of each one. When you have more time, you should watch the entirety of the 2013, 2014 and 2015 videos.

in the year 2010 ...

If you're familiar with the way roller derby has been played in the last 2 or 3 years, you may be surprised and amused by this footage from the last 7 minutes of the 2010 WFTDA Championship Final.

In 2010, blockers did not work together or skate in a "wall," as we do today. There was very little pack strategy; blockers simply spread out around the pack and attempted to hit the jammer by themselves. Skaters always faced forward. At the beginning of a jam, blockers lined up closer to the pivot line than the jammer line, and did not line up in formation with the other blockers from their team. The pack moved fast — often at the "racing" pace that we discourage today.


in the year 2011 ...

In the final bout from the 2011 Roller Derby World Cup, we see skaters lining up right in front of the jam line and using strategies like lateral* 4-walls, lateral 3-1 walls, and lateral 2-2 walls to contain the jammer and hit her out. (*Lateral means "straight across the track," or side-to-side.) More blockers were using the "hammer and nail" techinique to hit jammers out, and the "bring her back" strategy to bring them behind the pack. Pack speed was still much faster than what were are used to now. Jams were longer, scores were higher, and blockers did not skate as "tightly" in packs as they do today.

You will also notice that, upon lining up before the jam, many blockers started on their knees. This was a strategy based on a previous WFTDA ruleset, and is obsolete today.


In the year 2012 ...

Welcome to slower derby, backwards skating, bracing, and goating. The year 2012, as demonstrated by the 2012 WFTDA Championship Final between Gotham and Oly, was the year that top-tier teams really began developing the "dimensional" or "geometric" wall strategy — using backwards-facing (a.k.a. "inverted") skaters to brace a 2- or 3-wall and slow down the jammer. ("Dimensional" or "geometric" walls, as opposed to "lateral" walls, put blockers in triangles, squares or diamonds instead of lines.) This was also the year that teams began the focus on using "goating" to slow down the pack speed, by holding a team member from the opposing team behind them. 

By the way, this was back when the concept of "minor" penalties still existed — and blockers were still using the now-obsolete "knees-down" jam start. This was also the beginning of Gotham Girls Roller Derby's reign of dominance — their second straight WFTDA Championship win and their second season going undefeated. That undefeated streak continues to this day; Gotham has won every WFTDA Championship since 2011.


In the year 2013 ...

This is the year that we really see how defensive strategy has evolved in modern roller derby, as we can see in the 2013 WFTDA Championship Final between Texas and Gotham. In 2013, we saw the introduction of more advanced, but static, dimensional walls — like the Square 4-Wall and the Diamond Formation — which brought pack speed to a crawl. This was also when we began to see dramatically shorter jams, in which the lead jammer takes advantage of her defensive ability to call off the jam and prevent the other team from scoring points. More players were using backwards skating to brace teammates and block jammers chest-to-chest. Blockers were still starting right in front of the jammer line at the jam start.

This was also the year in which major changes were made in the WFTDA ruleset — eliminating "scrum starts" from the knee, "minor" penalties, and the two-part start, in which blockers were released before jammers. However, penalties were still 60 seconds, instead of 30 seconds as they are today.


In the year 2014 ...

This was the year of rotating (not static) dimensional walls — the Diamond Formation and the Rotating 3-Wall or "Whirlwhip" — as is evidenced in the WFTDA Championship Final between Rose City and Gotham. Because of rule changes and evolving strategy, we began to see packs speeding up again — and slowing down to a crawl when necessary. This was also the year when you began to see really L...O...N...G takebacks of the jammer, utilizing bridging to extend the pack out 30-40 feet. Penalties were now only 30 seconds, as they are today.


In the year 2015 ...

2015 isn't over yet, but this seems to be the year that Square 4-Walls and the Diamond Formation will abandoned in favor of Rotating 3-Walls, with the fourth blocker free to play offense, add extra defense, or bridge while her teammates contain the jammer. Packs are beginning to move a little faster than in previous years, and teams are experimenting with starting further away from the jammer line. More competitive bouts are seeing lower scores than in previous years.


To Be Reviewed In Practice

By practice on Sunday, August 23, you should have read the entirety of this blog post, watched at least 5-10 minutes of each of the videos above, and be prepared to discuss the answers the following questions:

  • Why is watching roller derby footage important? What can we learn?
  • Why, and how, have successful defensive and offensive strategies changed so much from year to year?
  • What is the difference between Lateral and Dimensional/Geometric Walls? Between Static and Rotating walls? Why might it be strategically advantageous to build Dimensional walls instead of Lateral walls? Rotating walls instead of Static walls?
  • Why, after the 2012 season, did many teams begin utilizing backwards blocking and bracing instead of Lateral Walls?
  • Why, after the 2013 season, did many teams move to Rotating Walls (and formations) instead of Static Walls?
  • What are some strategies that jammers have used to defeat the different types of blocker walls and formations?
Sage MerrittComment