Saturday, November 20, 2010

Slow Derby Sucks?

Attending the 2010 WFTDA Championships in person was an overwhelming and exciting experience. Some of the best teams from around the country had gathered to battle it out. Teams whose athletes had worked tirelessly on their own time to build endurance, agility, and explosive muscular strength so they could compete, on wheels, for an hour of full contact chaos. I was thrilled to enjoy a whole weekend of derby up close and watched in awe as skaters I aspired to be took each other on, and they were getting… booed?

As the weekend went on, “Slow Derby Sucks” t-shirts started circulating through the UIC Pavillion and people had signs that either stated the same, or demanded skaters to skate fast. Anytime there was stalled, stopped or slow action on the track, the crowd went crazy, heckling and booing the skaters. Crowds can be very fickle depending on where their loyalties lie, and booing is usually reserved for the referees. I couldn’t understand why the crowd had become so antagonistic towards the skaters in general.

My first frustration with this aggressive attack on a style of play is that it is a generalization of action on the track. My assumption then is that perhaps most people booing may not even know the thought process behind some of these strategies. What is “slow derby” anyway? The website behind the crowd's response, states: "Slow derby is when skaters slow down, completely stop on the track, or skate backwards or clockwise (in the opposite direction)."  Queen of the Rink recently posted about the website and a comment to the post had it right in saying there should be “three separate conversations about three discrete tactics:
1. Delaying the Jam Start.
2. Pushing a skater out, then skating clockwise to force her to come in behind you
3. Generally keeping a slow pace for the pack.”
(A thanks goes to “Ryan” for bringing up this great point.)

Delaying the jam start is when the whistle blows, yet all of the defined pack does not cross the pivot line, thus delaying the jammer’s whistle and wasting the clock. A team may do this because they have the lead and want to burn the minutes that the other team could spend scoring points. They could also do this if they have a blocker, or worse yet a jammer, in the box and want to stall so that their teammate can finish her penalty and join them on the track. It could also be a ploy to confuse or disrupt the other team in order to establish position and control the pack.
Gotham tried skating backwards to create no pack but
Philly moved with them to keep stalling the whistle.
A player may not re-enter the track in front of a skater who knocks her out of bounds, so often the initiator may slow down or stop to slow the movement of the out of bounds skater, forcing her to come in play directly behind her. This has been a common sense strategic move for awhile, but the first time I saw someone skate backwards to force the other skater back further had me nearly peeing my pants. It is such a satisfying maneuver to execute and works especially well against the opposing jammer. The whole point of defense in roller derby is to stop the other jammer from scoring points, and this tactic keeps them out of the pack longer, thus scoring no points. A blocker has to exercise precise movements in order to not fall out of bounds herself, while also keeping an eye on the pack because she must stay in play in order to contain the opposing skater.
A Charm City girl knocked the Minnesota jammer
to the inside and slows down.
Keeping a slow pace in the pack throughout a jam is often reserved for power jams. When the opposing jammer is called off the track, you would want to trap one of their blockers (called a goat) and slow them down to force the rest of the pack to slow down as well. If they don’t they will become out of play and if there is no goat and the two teams split, there is no pack. Slowing the pace allows for your own jammer to make as many five point passes as she can (a grandslam), and leaves the other team scrambling to regain control. There is also a flip side to this strategy. If your own jammer gets sent to the box, you would want to immediately speed up the pack so that the jammer can barely make it through the pack, or not at all. In this fast pack situation there may be little to no hitting or action because the opposing team is just working on trying to catch up. 
Philly traps a Kansas City Roller to help their jammer score points.

The main argument puts forth is that “slow derby” is lazy. To me, as a skater, slowed action intensifies the game. The explosive muscles and agility of starting and stopping and avoiding skaters is at its height more than it ever is in a fast pack situation. A jammer has to be decisive in order to not backblock and blockers are straining to hold position or lean another player out. They also have to keep mental notes of where the pack is, what direction they are skating when they engage, where the jammers are, or if they are keeping a solid wall. To slow or stop and confront the opposing players instead of just skating away from them takes a lot of precise skating and judgment. There is definitely a subtly to this kind of action but I would not call it lazy.

Roller derby is still in its infancy and is growing and evolving all the time. Since the first shared rule set in 2005, derby has gone through many growing pains and revisions. In its fifth edition I believe it has finally developed into a concise yet detailed guideline for the game and will only require small tweaks from here on. The lure of roller derby has always been short skirts, fishnets and hard hits, but as these women cultivate the sport, it becomes more and more purely an athletic endeavor with a feminine shell. Those things all still exist in derby, but the boutfits I saw at Championships were more uniform and streamlined. Skaters still have some of their own certain flair, but most teams just looked solid and well put together on the track.
Gotham looks like a well-oiled machine in just their warm ups.
The game itself has even streamlined and become more about how the game is played and not just the show. Dive bomb hits and explosive take outs have been traded in for booty blocks and effective leans. Skaters are realizing that it does their team no good if they take themselves out with the opposing skater. It is becoming about position on the track and a balancing act of offense and defense, not just an all out war. Big hits are becoming equal to the slam dunk in basketball; it’s a crowd pleaser, but not necessary to the game. Are fans going to stand up in outrage because skaters are using more positional blocking then all out hits?

It’s not that I am advocating that roller derby should become all about slow play, but there’s just something that rubs me the wrong way about this aggressive response and being demanded to play derby a certain way. I get that watching girls standing on the track may be boring or frustrating to watch, but I also get the strategy behind it. There are times that it be used excessively but I feel that as teams experiment with these tactics more and more, they will figure out what works and what is worth it to their game. There were many times I saw it used effectively at Championships and the skaters switched so quickly between tactics that no one hardly noticed. There were also times when it ultimately failed and a team wasted thirty seconds for nothing. The skaters will either become more effective with their use of these strategies, or drop them all together.

The Mad Rollin' Dolls all take a knee to keep
Philly from stalling on the line.

The only change I could see happening would be something equivalent to a shot clock on the start lines. A team could potentially stall a jam for a whole two minutes, which would be ridiculous, but the rules wouldn’t stop them. Stalling for ten seconds to gain another player or jammer on the track seems reasonable, but anything much longer seems a bit excessive. Skaters are already figuring out how to counter act this ploy by kneeling on the line before the jam even starts. If they do it before the whistle there is no pack and no penalties issued, and the jam whistles sounds right away. 

The rest of it is just smart derby. Most of the fans who watch derby are new to the sport and don’t understand all the rules or action on the track. There are lots of die-hard derby fans as well who have been following the sport and are frustrated with these trends in the strategy.  I hope as the sport moves forward, the fans will be patient as it evolves, and have a deeper understanding of what they are watching and be just as passionate.

Playing to the crowd is a double edged sword. Yes, their support helps us keep our DIY system going, and bouts scheduled, but when it comes down to it skaters aren’t being paid. They are there because they want to play and they are in love with the sport of derby. If there were no fans that would not necessarily kill the game for us. I would still strap on skates and find a gym and scrimmage with my teammates for as long as my would muscles would allow. Derby still runs a fine line between being seen as a sports endeavor and as mere entertainment. (Check which section your local newspaper puts the story about your team in; was it the sports or the arts & culture? Kudos to Animal for pointing that out.)

I'm glad fans are taking roller derby so seriously, but it just seems like a selfish argument and I don’t like being told how to play the game. I think the best solution would be to start a discussion, not a petition. The whole campaign of just screams propaganda and feels too political by forcing people to “choose sides” or act outrageously. Roller derby today has democratic principles that propel the mantra of “by the skaters for the skaters,” and it will be the skaters who have the final say. I think the more knowledge and discussion the better, get the conversation started.


*Speical thanks to everyone I've chatted with in the last few weeks about this, you helped form these thoughts. Keep on talking.


  1. If a team kneels at the start line, there is actually a minor penalty assessed to the pivot (or the captain if the pivot isn't present) for "destroying the pack"


  2. More than being lazy, the problem is that too much slow-it-down strategy is, quite honestly, boring to watch.

    I think "by the skaters, for the skaters" is a great thing, and I have a ton of respect for everyone in the derby community that makes it happen. But the product on the track does matter to fans, and many fans clearly don't like "slow" derby.

    Dunno... there's gotta be a balance. Does anyone really want to skate (or not) to an empty house?

  3. The destruction of the pack penalty is given only when a pack exists. If players take a knee before the jam whistle blows and 1 team is kneeling, the jammer whistle will be blown to release the jammers. No penalty will go to the kneeling skaters for destruction of the pack.

    However, if the jam starts will all skaters standing and then the skaters from 1 team all take a knee, then destruction of the pack applies.

    The pack does not exist until the jam starts and there are in-play skaters from both teams in proximity to each other.

    When the "no pack" call is given, the kneeling skaters do have a responsibility to attempt to reform the pack. Failure to do so (attempt to reform the pack) will result in a penalty.

  4. I'm not a fan of the take a knee strategy. It's smart and brilliant strategically, but feels like a rules work around that was not intended. The idea of destroying the pack penalties is to constrain that kind of behavior. I don't blame a team for finding the loophole and using it to their advantage, I just wish it would close already.

    I think that saying people must always be moving forward is going too far, whereas having no restraints on slowing or stopping the pack is not far enough. It's hard to officiate correctly, too, as you can't see as well as you'd like to, and everything happens very quickly. Though, I guess that is a challenge for training and maintaining long term ref staffs.

    I'd just like to see a better balance in derby. What the fans are rebelling against is really the writing on the wall-- derby is now about controlling the speed of the pack. Look at how Windy City can keep a fast pack going so long, that it wears down teams in the second half.... That's not strategically different than the slow game if you look at it as pack speed control to maximize points.

  5. Dani, the destroying the pack rule does apply already but it is based on one team running awAy from the pivot line at the start of the jam. To me this is just playing to the spirit of the rules, a jam should not be allowed to run for so long without a jammer involved.

  6. I was surprised to read "laziness" was the site's main complaint. I figured it would be boredom.

    In any sport, speed and thoughtless hits get your heart racing. Likewise, subtle skills and counterintuitive maneuvers are boring ...

    ... until you understand them! Then they're fascinating. (Ever wonder why there are *any* fans of golf or chess?)

    Trouble is, learning this stuff takes time and effort, derby is no exception.

    In derby, people often come for the camp, and stay for the play. When our group saw its first bout, I got excited quickly, solely because the person who brought us took the time to explain things. Derby is confusing to a newbie.

    That one-page rules blurb in the program? Most people *do* look at it, but only for a few seconds -- until it uses a term they don't get, or doesn't explain something they saw happen on the track.

    So part of the solution is figuring out a way to teach the basic rules *simply*, to all those newcomers. And if a team uses an inobvious tactic, make it quick and easy to learn what happened.

    Great post. Love TAM's sports vs. Arts & Culture point.

  7. I can't tell you how much I agree with everything you've said here. It bothers me that everyone is jumping on this "slow derby sucks" bandwagon. Is it frustrating at times, yes. But to me it is just another example of the evolution of the sport. When I talk about strategy to new fans they're amazed at how much thought is put into the sport. When they see strategy put into place it gives the sport legitimacy that it wouldn't have if it was still just only about big hits and speed.

    So, to conclude, thanks for the awesome post and creating a dialogue.

    -Messi Jigler
    Fargo Moorhead Derby Girls

  8. Also, just to be nit picky, but illegally destroying the pack is a major penalty, not a minor (rule 6.10.20). So in the event that a skater or skaters take a knee after the jam start whistle is blown, the skater most responsible for destroying the pack will be sent to the box. This will be either the last skater to kneel, or the skater telling her teammates to kneel (if they all knelt simultaneously).

  9. I agree that tactics can be boring until you understand them. So how do we spectators get a copy of the rules? I would love to have a better understanding of the game.


  11. Critic46; You can download a PDF of the rules on the WFTDA site and/or order a hard copy pocket version.


    You can even read through an online version of them.

  13. I sat in front of two slow derby sucks advocates during the final game. While they recognized that slow derby tactics were being used by both Oly and Rocky they insisted that this was not slow derby because "it doesn't suck" and "it's not boring."

    Like intentionally walking a hitter in baseball or taking a knee to end a football game, there are strategic maneuvers in sports that are only great when used in exactly the right way.thank you for clarifying some of the reasons that both the fans and the players need more time experiencing the impact of these strategies when executed with great skill and precision before we can declare that slow derby sucks or slow derby is elevating our game to a next level.

  14. Dani is exactly right about the importance of controlling pack speed. Dictating pack speed is roller derby's "time of possession" and letting the other team force you to collectively chase them forwards OR backwards is derby's "turnover"

    No balls in derby. No goals or hoops or end zones. the points are in the pack. If you own the pack speed you run the game.

  15. Reading this gave me helpful insight on slow derby strategies and tactics. Many thanks.

    I'm a derby fan, and I remember when I saw slow derby for the first time -- Denver playing Windy at 2009 nationals in Philly. My visceral reaction was to boo (like a good Philly "boo-bird").

    The only conclusion on this issue I've reached thus far is that skating in a clockwise direction shouldn't have a place in the sport -- it violates the spirit of derby (he says haughtily).

  16. ah... there is so much to think at

  17. A few thoughts:

    LD4's comments about the rules being fairly stable is a good one; I agree at this point only "tweaks" are really necessary. I also appreciate Queen of the RInk's distinction that the "slow derby" debate is really about three different conversations:

    1. Delaying the Jam Start.
    2. Pushing a skater out, then skating clockwise to force her to come in behind you
    3. Generally keeping a slow pace for the pack.”

    IMO (1) and (2) could be addressed substantially via minor rule/procedure changes. For (1), don't start the penalty clock until the jammer-start whistle blows, and for (2) allow a skater knocked out-of-bounds to return at the same point on the track without penalty, regardless of the changed position of the other skaters.

    However, I have no idea if these tweaks would improve the situation. And if they are being honest, I don't think the WFTDA or any other derby officials could evaluate the effect of these rule tweaks until they're tested in an actual bout. Which is why I strongly encourage the WFTDA to formally encourage local leagues to try out rule tweaks like this, and evaluate the results. Discussion is all well and good, but in my experience these discussions often end up going in circles.

    For a rough analogy, I recall in the early '80s how NCAA college basketball allowed conferences to experiment with various 3-point line and shot clock rules (to eliminate another stalling strategy nobody but North Carolina liked, the "four corners" offense) before settling on NCAA-wide versions of the rules in 1986.

    Given the DIY spirit of RD, I'd think the WFTDA would be encouraging such innovation, rather than defending the status quo. IMO the various RD "powers that be" have adopted a rather condescending tone--especially when I hear guys like Howie Swerve telling fans that WFTDA "clarifications" addressed the issue (they didn't; they just sanctified the status quo) and equating complaints about slow derby with fans who pout when their team loses.

  18. *If* there were to be a rule change, my opinion is that delaying the jam start should be the only thing addressed. Again, something equivalent to a shot clock, meaning at a determined time the jammers would be released. Changing it so the penalty clock didn't start til the jammer whistle wouldn't change anything. Then people could stall to keep an opposing player, specifically a jammer on the box.
    And testing rule tweaks may work, but trends in strategy like "slow derby" evolve over time. And people have been pulling these tactics for awhile now, it didn't become a big deal until the crowd started making a fuss.
    What exactly do you mean by status quo? The skaters make the rules. This whole game has been made up since the get go, so when things occur that show confusion or inconsistentancies, they tighten the rules and make clarifications. And Howie is not any "power that be", he is a ref.
    I encourage discussion because the aggressive nature of the slow derby sucks campaign doesn't seem helpful. Discussion would help clarify what the issue is, if it needs to be addressed or fixed, and move on from there.

  19. I appreciate your comments Lisa, and tend to agree on the "shot clock" idea (as long as there wasn't an actual shot clock on the floor). In general, I'm guessing the jam start rules could eventually evolve into something quite complicated or arcane, like the balk rule in baseball: A rule that only the refs understand, is hardly ever invoked in a game but which pretty much forces players into a limited set of strategies.

    And while discussion is helpful, I for one have read discussions about slow derby for well over a year. The rule changes made by WFDTA in May and last December--with one remote exception (blocking before the first whistle)--didn't address the slow derby issue at all. The fact that the same type of play occurred in the 2010 Nationals as in 2009 leads me to believe that the rule tightening and clarifications didn't make any significant change. That, IMO, is why it's becoming a big deal now.

    Let me be clear: I don't condone or encourage the aggressive attitude of, but I can understand their frustration with what appears to be a governing body unresponsive to fan concerns. Underline the word "appears" in that sentence--I'm just another dumb fan with no access to the in's and out's of the WFTDA. Nevertheless, I can understand why some fans may be tired of more discussion.

    And for the record, I don't know Howie Swerve, but I've read enough derby chat to know he is more than just a ref in this sport; he is a de facto authority, regardless of whether he holds an official position. I can honestly say I respect his opinion, but I can still disagree...

  20. I guess I took the rule tightening, and clarifying what directional blocking was, as a response to the safety of the players. And if the same "slow derby" strategies were used last year and this year and WFTDA hasn't changed anything... than maybe they don't want to? It seems to work well for many teams who know how to use it wisely.

    From what I've seen, WFTDA doesn't take any action unless they are certain about it, and I trust them to handle this. Yes, they may not be as open as fans or skaters would like, but if you think about it, WFTDA started from a very small group of people. Flat track derby has exploded in the last few years, yet it isn't on the same level as a professional sport either. I assume then, that they are doing the best they can.

  21. From an outsider's perspective, the 3 point rule, the shot clock, and some changes in football come to mind as 'new' rule and scoring changes precisely to pick up the pace, add exitement and scoring opps, or provide better balance. If slow-derby tactics become too prevalent, a rule tweak or two should fix it. Interesting post.
    - Kung Fool Fighter - Jeerleader for Ithaca, NY

  22. Im new to derby but the first time I saw slow derby I was fascinated! For me it really authenticates the athletic and strategic component of the sport. Slow derby shows us the strength and communication of a team as well as their ability to "think" in the game.

    I'm a fan of slow derby :) it helps me figure out what the players are doing and make derby debates so much more interesting LOL

  23. The funny thing is... most of the games with these tactics on display are otherwise incredibly interesting to watch - because they are mostly executed by the strongest, most coordinated teams.

  24. WFTDA is a democratic entity, hence there is always discussion and debate such as the rules, and the whole "slow derby" thing as been discussed, and still is to various degrees probably. For rules that impact the game, there needs to be an agreement between the members. If none, usually due to no real viable alternative, then the proposed rule change does not happen.

    Some may say "slow derby" is killing derby by boring away fans, but history as shown that entirely placating the fans (and in turn attempt to make more money) as killed derby in the past. Part of the athletic vs entertainment debate that has always followed derby from the beginning. Last thing we need is pull a NHL and allow fights to happen regularly simply because it pleases the fans than the sport itself.

  25. My only comment is give WFTDA Rule some teeth.

    "It is illegal to block while at a standstill and while moving in the clockwise direction—this includes positional blocking."

    I have seen many times a stationary wall form to obstruct a jammer and the jammer gets called for a backblock. I think the rules should be amended so that any blocker that can't legally block forfeits their back. If they get backblocked while standing still, the blocker gets the penalty and not the jammer.

    "Getting the Goat" as a strategy to slow the pack in my opinion is brilliant, but you should still be subject to You can set up the wall ane nurse that goat as slowly as you can, but don't stop...unless the goat stops, then kicks in until she gets moving again.

  26. I know this conversation is old, but it's really interesting to read/listen to different views from all over. Gives a wider view of what goes into derby and derby fandom.

    --Block Lobster