New minimum skills have potential to make derby go ka-boom (in good and bad ways)

Everyone is slowly waking up from their weekend bangovers and hangovers to become lucid enough to read through the updated minimum skill requirements the WFTDA released. There’s no question, if a derby-wanna-be doesn’t strap on skates now and start moving, they may miss their window to play. There are some high expectations in there. But they are necessary expectations that will reduce time in the penalty box and reduce injury when skaters pass and start bouting.

Derby in Canada is in the middle of a major shift and I think these minimum skill requirements are going to be the black powder to trigger a bigger explosion of change. My province has over 20 leagues in existence right now. My guess is five years ago there were half as many, if not less. Many started their recruitment as, “Come out, we’ll teach you how to skate, you get to have fun, meet new people and wear fun outfits.”

With the new minimum requirements, leagues that continue to recruit in this manner are going to have some problems because this is bringing the sport to a new level. We all know fishnets and ass-creeping shorts are on the out while moisture wicking and performance gear are in. Skaters will be taught to skate, but if they can’t turn 360 degrees without breaking stride, they won’t see a bout until they can. Sure, they will be meeting new people and having fun, but don’t do it while the coach is giving instruction or you will be responsible for your team holding a plank for 1 minute.

Now is the time leagues need to be brutally honest when they are recruiting, if they aren’t already. Roller derby is work. Roller derby is commitment. And when your province has skaters moving so they can skate with better leagues, roller derby is turning pro (without the pro salaries).

I anticipate many leagues will be discussing these minimum skills at length over the coming days (and if it’s not on your radar, it should be). Many skaters who started the sport for fun and something different to do, as indicated by the recruitment poster in their local rec centre, will have to seriously evaluate their commitment and whether or not they will be able to continue. Granted, skills like hopping and lateral jumps are like riding a bike; once you get them you often don’t forget. But the new endurance and speed benchmarks require maintenance of your fitness level all year-round. (No more gorging and TV watching during the off-season.)

This is what everyone has been begging for… to be taken seriously as a sport. Here we are folks, this is serious.

But I still see opportunities for everyone to get to play.

I foresee a future of farm team rec leagues skating under the old requirements, where fresh meat will benchmark to skate and play until they want to be drafted onto competitive teams as rookies. These will be the skate-hard-and-have-fun leagues where if you need to leave the track during practice to answer your phone because your babysitter is calling, you won’t be punished. I’m sure this is already happening in the U.S. But I predict a sudden spike in rec leagues within Canada.

I foresee more teams moving to yearly intake to stay competitive and build a team intelligently (as opposed to monthly or quarterly). But expectations will be set high; you’ll have to play with a rec league and know the rules before even attending an intake practice.

I foresee serious athletes gravitating toward derby in great numbers. Athletes such as rugby players and hockey players may have stayed away because a league with constant open recruitment shows an un-established organization. I’m making huge assumptions here, but if you’ve played conventional sports your entire life and then move into a newer roller derby organization, I bet it would be very frustrating due to the constant coaching challenges, venue challenges and money challenges leagues have. Standardizing recruitment and having a venue that supports a full season would be very palatable to an established athlete.

I foresee leagues that have loaner gear programs ending them because the expectations to join will mean a new recruit owning skates and knowing how to use them before attending their first practice.

Finally, I foresee an exodus of existing skaters if leagues do not sit down and talk about these new minimum skills and how they fit in with their existing recruitment and practice policies. Some skaters are going to throw their hands up and say ‘I’m out’ if they feel they can’t keep up. If three or four skaters do that within a smaller league, the league won’t have enough players to roster and will be months away from training their fresh meat to reach the new minimum skills in order to be at the competitive level they want. Larger leagues that already have a high-level recruitment policy will make the shift to the new minimum skills more seamlessly. Smaller leagues playing catch-up will be left behind. I won’t be surprised if we see some leagues fold with these changes.

If your league isn’t talking about this right now, you should be. It’s going to change the sport we love. It’s going to be hard to work. But it’s also going to be awesome.

I’d love to hear from other leagues across the globe. Does your league have a recreational team? Do you use it to train and recruit skaters to the next level or is it strictly for fun? What do you think about the new minimum skills?

Here’s some other blogs on the topic that came out the last few days…

New Minimum Skills Highlights the Darker Side of Derby by Moxie

The new WFTDA minimum skills by Rachael

Minimum skills requirements upgrade – what does it all mean by Elusia

Edited (Apr 18/13) to add:

Mad Skills by Left 4 Deadwards

New WFTDA Minimum Skills – let’s chat by Frisky Sour

New Minimum Skils… and? by Elektra Q-Tion

Things Roller Derby Must Lose by Lightning Slim

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The isolation of ‘no pack’ derby

I played in scrimmages two weekends in a row and both were very different. Granted, the one last weekend was an intermediate scrimmage (Stettler) and this weekend’s was an advanced (Medicine Hat) so there was bound to be some obvious variances.

Teams are resorting to no pack strategy more often in regular play, but happens most when they are on a power jam, really behind in points or if they are having trouble during a (full-strength) jam. (This is old news and is covered extensively here  and here) While splitting the pack (forcing the refs to call ‘no pack’ and all blockers must disengage and reform, allowing jammers to pass through relatively untouched) is kinda-sorta-maybe allowed, it’s really manipulating the rules to make it easy as possible to score points with as little contact as possible. It feels like getting a goat to slow a pack seems like a distant past; old strategy.

No pack derby is driving me crazy. I love it; I hate it. I love it when I’m jamming and my team executes it perfectly and I cruise through the pack untouched. What jammer wouldn’t love that? I hate it as a spectator and I hate it as a player in general because you’re watching two walls of 4 on 1 until the ref calls the no pack. It requires little skating skill. WFTDA skater Juke Boxx even made a plea about it at this year’s Rollercon.  But it’s easy for teams of all levels to resort to, so I understand why it’s so palatable.

The WFTDA is releasing revisions to the rules this fall. While they have confirmed they will be eliminating minor penalties from the WFTDA rule set, there hasn’t been any kind of confirmation if they will be making changes to help eliminate no pack scenerio (that I can find).

This summer I made a promise to myself to play as much derby as possible and take in as many experiences as I can. In fact, I’m planning on playing 3 weekends out of the four in August. However I’m frustrated that my perception of the negative experiences I’m having are outweighing the positive. The ownness is on me to decide whether to cut my losses and stay home or surge ahead and break down the negatives, which is probably something every athlete goes through multiple times regardless of their sport. Equally frustrating is the sense of seclusion I’m feeling right now. Everyone is having a great time filled with awesome-fun-loving-derby-times and I’m just sort of hovering on the edge. I’m not sure what’s needed to make derby fun again.

Pulling myself from jamming has seemed to help, which I did in my game in Medicine Hat this weekend and I jammed less than I normally do in Stettler. No pack derby, while effective in strategy, makes a jammer fend for herself most the time. I’m tired of it. Maybe some will say I have a bad attitude for saying that and I need to put on my big girl panties and suck it up for the sake of the team. But playing as a blocker has been much more enjoyable as the sense of isolation I was feeling as a jammer is non-existent. Lately when I’ve been handed the star, I dread it. Not a good headspace to be in when your team is counting on you to score. My sights are set on a change in direction, I’m just not sure where yet.

Hockey, roller derby and keeping everyone safe

If you’re a fan of the NHL, or even just watching the news this week, you’ve likely heard how player’s safety has been a hot issue of topic. This hit (viewer discretion),  which shows Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins driving Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty into the boards and subsequently into divider glass, resulted in a fractured vertebrae and severe concussion for Pacioretty.

Chara was given major penalty for interference and a game misconduct which suspended him from the rest of the game, but no other suspensions or fines were given due to the fact that malicious intent of Chara’s hit driving Pacioretty’s upper body into the glass could not be proven. It was deemed, by some, as incidental contact or simply the follow-through from the initial check; that the check delivered could not be deemed as dangerous.

The hockey world went ballistic, prompting some fans to cancel NHL subscriptions, a major sponsor threatening to pull out and everyone else jumping on either Pacioretty’s or Chara’s side. Even Pacioretty himself went on the record with his distaste for the decision.

I’m a hockey fan, but not nearly as devout as some of my counterparts, so I feel I just don’t have the background knowledge to unbiasedly decide if the NHL’s decision was correct or incorrect.

However, I’m a Habs fan, and I found it difficult to watch the entire ordeal, from the hit to the aftermath. The fact that a young hockey player, who was (and hopefully still) ridiculously promising, now has a long road of recovery ahead while the offending skater is still gliding on the ice with his teammates seems all sorts of unfair. Emotionally, I’m on Pacioretty’s side. I wish him all the best and a speedy recovery.

But this is a roller derby blog so I’m attempting to find some sort of segue in regards to this issue. Next week general managers of NHL teams are going to be gathering to discuss, among other things, hits to the head, concussions and rules in regards to them.

The roller derby community has had their own discussions about the current state of rules. Not so much in how to keep players safer by adding more rules, but by omitting some rules and officials to keep the sport easier to understand for the fans and allow for potentially more aggressive play. Some feel the sport has too many officials (15 skating refs & non-skating officials combined) to make it a valid sport on a professional level and others feel the minor penalty system is simply a get-out-of-jail-free card to do three wrong things before you actually sit out with a penalty. (And it’s true. For example I’ve executed a minor cut intentionally because I knew I wouldn’t have to sit for it.)

***For you non-derby types who read my blog, here’s some official & penalty background***

OFFICIALS

According to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) rules, it is recommended each bout have:

  • One head referee
  • Two jammer referees
  • Four pack referees
  • (the above all on skates)
  • In addition, you have a head non-skating official, scorekeepers, penalty tracker, penalty timers, scoreboard operator, etc.

PENALTIES

Like in hockey, penalties are broken down in various categories and within that there are infractions based on the severity of the penalty.

  • A minor penalty gets no time served off track, but gets recorded.
  • A major penalty is a either a single serious infraction of the rules or when a skater accumulates 4 minor penalties.
  • A major results in a 1 minute sit in the penalty box.

***

Admittedly, I’m not super-immersed in WFTDA rule talk. I don’t even know if the above two examples in rule changes are even up for consideration within the league. (See below for links to blogs and sites where I’ve researched all my information from.) However, prior to this week, I was somewhat in favour of what the two writers were getting at.

But now, not so much.

I’m sure I’m not the only skater who has used the minor penalty rule to my advantage. But I see now what that minor penalty rule makes me do. It forces me to make a decision as to whether or not that track cut or that minor back block will hinder my team or help it. Perhaps it’s that split-second decision making process that every skater must go through is what is keeping our players safer. If Chara had backed away from that hit a split-second earlier, Pacioretty would be way better off today.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’m way off base. If we get rid of the minor penalty system and just focus on major fouls, will that make the game more entertaining for fans? Will it change into more aggressive play? Will everyone’s conduct within the pack remain unchanged for some time because we are all accustomed to the minor system? Will the lines of when to call a major penalty change for the referees as a result? How will the referees determine that line?

I think if the minor system were to be pitched, it would put a huge pressure on our referees. What one ref would call a major elbow, another may consider it as what was once a minor. There would be many more questionable calls and more opportunity for officials to let things slide because the call is now much more subjective. Because the penalty system is more black & white (penalty or no penalty), a ref may choose to let that borderline elbow slide instead of calling it. Referees get barked at by coaches, players and fans with the existing system as it is. In a time when many smaller leagues are hurting for officials, would that kind of pressure make it difficult to retain our most essential league members? The crews who have officiated bouts I’ve played in are very professional, they love what they do and they do it for free, most often traveling on their own time and dime.

The other thought is safety of the skaters. Would removing the minor system turn away some players from roller derby as they would feel less safe or more prone to injury? A minor back block can still injure a player, as can a stumble from a minor low block. The thought that someone wouldn’t get penalized for repeatedly committing those infractions bothers me.

I don’t know about you, but if I received minor elbows consistently from another player in a jam, I’d probably lose my head and do something overly aggressive to stop it. Or maybe that’s the reaction fan and proponents of removing the minor system want.

I’m not sure if I like that.

The equipment we wear versus the surfaces we skate on seem quite minimal compared to our NHL counterparts. However they have a lot more weight, speed and sharp objects attached to their bodies. But the fact that one professional full-contact league is adding rules to protect the players while there is talk from the others within our full-contact league that we should simplify, it just seems backwards.

And I haven’t even covered head shots or concussions, which happen in our game just as much as in the NHL and many derby friends have been affected by.

Tell me what you think…

  • As a player, do you feel safe under the current rule system?
  • If rules were to change to simplify the penalty system, would you feel less safe as a skater?
  • What about refs? Should we have fewer or keep it the same? Would having fewer refs affect outcomes of bouts?
  • If the rules were to change to simplify the penalty system, would referees find it more challenging to officiate a bout? Or would it remain unchanged? Easier?

Sources

Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Rules

Tank’s Tirades: Minor penalties make me majorly pissed

How referees are killing flat track roller derby

The official rules of the NHL

TSN’s Bob McKenzie: Which way does the NHL go in the headshot debate?

Bettman: Pacioretty hit was horrific but part of the game

Pacioretty tells TSN he is ‘disgusted’ at lack of suspension

Canadiens owner Geoff Molson delivers message to fans

Head-shot controversy threatens to hit NHL’s wallet