Two regional tournaments down, two to go. Aside from the usual attention to amazing talent and unexpected upsets, the question of strategy has come into the spotlight more this year than in the past. Nightmare on 95 in Baltimore featured games of knee down starts and standstill packs that were duplicated especially when Rat City took on Rocky Mountain during the Bridgetown Brawl. So the questions become: do you have to play a slow game to beat the top teams? How slow is TOO slow?
Roller derby is a continually evolving sport. Skaters who have been around since before 2009 will sometimes refer to different rule sets, old strategies, and re-learning how to play the game. We have seen the game move from a “Smash-n-Grab” style of play (that Philly Roller Girls were known and feared for) into a more methodical style. Teams have learned that if they were not as strong or fast as Mo Pain, they could use the rules to manipulate pack play, jammer starts, and initiation zones.
“Slow derby” started as just that: slow. When Team A had a power jam, they would trap a blocker behind a wall, thus controlling the pace and placement of the pack. Team A may also try to establish a wall at the front of the pack throughout game play, as to always control the speed of the pack. Also, many leagues figured out that a great way to eat up a penalty clock is to not release the jammers. So for a period time, they stand still to eat up the clock. However, this past weekend we saw teams standing still for a full two minutes, just to get through the game clock. The team had determined they could not possibly win (even if the point spread was only 17 points), so they wanted to keep the differential low.
This whole issue of slow and stop derby has caused a lot of debate in the community. In an after bout interview, Teflon Donna mentioned that teams will continue to play the standstill game until the rules change, simply because it helps them to win. The fans of derby may not agree with it, but for now, it seems the top teams will play this game. If it works for them, they remain the top teams.
So the teams below them in rank must “adapt or die”, right? That’s the question for many leagues around the world. As the top five in each region begin playing this ‘non-derby’ strategy, the teams trying to break the top five will adjust their game play to it. Slowly, then the teams trying to break into the top ten will adjust. And on it goes…
Many lower ranked teams are having a conflict between rankings and ratings however. In order to break into the top ten, they will have to play “this game”; however by playing “this game”, they may lose crowds because no one wants to watch a bunch of girls stand around for 60 minutes. For as much as the derby world would love to think the crowds come out to support their team and are happy as long as they win or play a good game by the rules… it just isn’t so.
If the crowd is not entertained, they do not come back. If they do not come back, there is no revenue. No revenue, no league. However, if you do not play the slow game, it is possible that you will not beat the better teams. Beating better teams and advancing is rank is the purpose for having the league. So how does a league keep the numbers, but still advance in rankings?
Putting that conundrum to the side for a second, there is another hurdle in this debate: referees. The Zebras in roller derby, like all sports, are human. Training in leagues differ, and thus different refs judge things differently. The top five leagues tend to have refs that have been around longer and have grown with the league into these new styles of play. They have seen the technique evolve, and they know how to judge and handle it. Quite simply, what a ref from Rose City sees as a minor impact is going to be different than what a ref from Black Rose sees as a minor impact. A ref from a newly sanctioned team may not even have seen a technique (like a knee down start) before it is used during a bout. So they will react differently.
The slow and stop game lends itself to a lot of jammers on toe stops and with quick, bursting speed and motion. Watch Gotham Girls for some great examples of the “up and down, pop through” jammer play. From the less experienced eye, this kind of skating looks like a series of forearms and back blocks. However, these jammers do not impact the blockers they are up against (therefore, no penalty). When a ref from a younger league watches two less experienced teams going at it with the same intent as Gotham, they are going to call the penalties they see (regardless as to whether that jammer has caused a true impact on the other skaters or not). This is not to say that all referees from “young” leagues are poor at their job, or do not know how to gauge impact or intent; they just have seen it differently during their training.
How are young or small leagues then supposed to practice a game that the big teams play when they are landing in the penalty box for doing so? It is unclear for now. Leagues across the world are looking at how the first two regional tournaments have been played and are focusing on the techniques utilized by the upper tiered teams. Though playing at a standstill may not be ideal, teams need to know how to adjust to and react when an opponent pulls that skill out of their toolbox.
The idea of slow derby is going to be hotly contested for a long time. As long as the rules allow it, it will happen (whether or not the teams use it correctly to their advantage). Forfeiting is allowable in the rules, so is standing still. What the next evolution in derby is to be, time and future rule clarifications will only tell.
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