Welcome, or fuck you, depending.
I'm not here to tell you how many calories you can burn roller skating, I'm here to incite and entertain.
Take me or leave me.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rollercon made me think…Banked or Flat Track?

There’s a lot of other shit to write about or say regarding Rollercon 2011 but the most pertinent topic and the one I felt most compelled to write about first, was the main differences between banked and flat track roller derby. I have wanted to discuss this topic at length before, but watching derby in Vegas really re-energized my desire to write about it.

First of all, I’m sorry, but banked track roller derby is just way more fun to watch. Of COURSE flat track roller derby is still awesome. Especially when you’re watching the caliber of talent that you see at Rollercon. But there is just something about a banked track that has a more “event” style feel. And gosh, I suppose I take for granted just how awesome a venue the Spruce Goose Dome in Long Beach really is. With the banked track, bleachers, and stage lighting, it creates a professional arena atmosphere. 

But here I must interject that the beautiful thing about flat track roller derby is you can play it anywhere. Flat track roller derby has made the sport accessible to literally millions of people, so I will not deny its positive attributes. It has brought the sport I love to women all over the world, and that’s an amazing thing. But banked track roller derby is the future.

Okay, so- Long Beach sort of has its own rule set so I cannot speak for all banked track derby, just what I know. But the biggest difference about our style roller derby is:

• The jammer in front is ALWAYS lead jammer, period. Regardless of whoever made it through the pack first, if that second jammer can pass that jammer in front, she earns lead jammer. This dynamic completely changes the strategy of the game.

• When a player commits a major penalty, they do not have to leave the track. Rather, they continue skating for the entire length of the jam. When the jam is called off as normal the offending skater is sent to the penalty box. Her team then skates down a player for the next jam. This rule change also affects the strategy of the game.

These are my FAVORITE TWO RULE CHANGES, because they really change the way the sport is played and in my opinion, make it far easier for the audience to understand. The skater in front always being lead jammer just makes sense. And pulling skaters off the track in mid-jam is confusing for the audience AND the skaters. I think these rule changes just work all around, and frankly, they make sense regardless of whether you are playing banked or flat.

A few other subtle differences:

• There is no official pivot, therefor you cannot pass the star.
• You better hurry cause we skate 1 minute jams! (not 2)
• You must maintain a distance of no more than 10 feet in front of the pack, (not 20).

There were a couple things that stood out to me about game play at Rollercon. Of course, when a sport is still in its evolutionary stages, the best athletes have the power to tweak the sport by either finding loopholes or simply raising the bar by competing at a higher level. Every so often an athlete, or a team, will come along with a new strategy or technique that revolutionizes the sport. And when that happens, the entire rule set gets changed.

The second whistle! So I’m watching the challenge bouts, and I hear the first whistle blow. Then I’m watching, and I’m watching, and I’m like…"Jen, the jammers aren’t going. Where the hell’s the second whistle?" And then I realize, that the refs are not blowing the second whistle until the blockers reach a certain point on the track, and the blockers are engaging each other and slowing down the pack so it is taking them forever to get to that point.

Since I don’t play WFTDA rules set, I guess I am unaware of this change…(?) But rather than there being an allotted amount of time between when the blocker whistle blows and the jammer whistle, now- the blockers must reach a certain point on the track. Why? Because there’s nothing in the rule set stating the blockers have to take off fast. Those tricky strategy nerds figured out that if you just keep your feet moving, ever so slowly, that by the time the second whistle blows the jammers really have nothing to skate into other than a big wall. Clever. And that is how the rules get changed.

Knee Down Starts! Okay Rollercon, you got me to finally read that article in Five on Five I had bookmarked and set aside. Awhile back when I got the 11th issue of Five on Five, (also the issue Pigeon is featured on the back of) I flipped past an article about knee down starts, with a picture of a pack of blockers, all down on one knee, poised for the whistle to blow. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and I was so curious about it I book marked it and put it aside to read, and somehow never got around to it. But when I got to Rollercon I actually SAW A TEAM DO THIS, and I kicked myself for not having read it; because I really had no idea what the hell was going on or why they were doing it.

When I got back from Rollercon I read it, and it blew my mind. I admit it’s sort of beyond my ability to summarize. Essentially, my taking note of the second whistle just barely scratched the surface. Knee down starts can be used in many different ways, but my favorite is that is really confuses the shit out of the other players. Coach T.’s article, of the Black-N-Bluegrass Rollergirls, was pretty fascinating once I sat down to read it. If you employ the knee down start, you can’t get penalized for breaking the pack when the whistle blows, because there is no pack to begin with. If you are kneeling, the opposing player cannot engage you. There were also pointers on how to defend against a power jam and other mind blowing tips. I recommend reading the article, (several times).

This level of play certainly raises the bar, and makes you think. As the article says, “the team with the game strategies tend to win over teams that just play”. I learned this lesson several times reading the book Mastery- but I also know that it requires a much higher level of athleticism and skating- to have coordinated ‘plays’ that the girls have practiced. While I believe banked track skating is the future, I was blown away by the concepts and rule changes that I was unaware of. If banked track is the future it will probably be these types of flat track leagues, developing amazing strategies and competing in the WFTDA circuits, that will evolve the sport, and eventually turn into banked track leagues, rather than the existing banked track leagues leading the way. Maybe I am wrong, of course I would like to see a marriage of the two. But it would require existing banked track leagues to adopt rules of existing flat track leagues in order to make that possible. Personally, I want to start employing some of these techniques, or at least telling all my friends about them, right away. And that’s what’s great about Rollercon, right? Getting people excited about the sport and making them think.


  1. If your ever on the east coast, you should come visit Penn Jersey Roller Derby,we skate OSDA on our Banked and flat track, and we love it hard, the group of girls and guys here employ the greatest aspects of what the game was back in the day. I have skated WFTDA and it just did not agree with me, and now with slow derby and the "knee down" I'm even more lost. Any way I agree banked is totally the future, the game is faster and truly more professional, and it feels totally amazing to play up there.
    <3 Vidal BooM BooM!!

  2. Thank you for the reference of my article. I am glad the rules have evolved. But with every rule change comes new and exciting strategies. I am looking forward to reading your thoughts of derby in the future, Coach T.