Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The psychology of losing, or You're down but not out

Losing isn't a goal that we all set out to accomplish. It's hardwired into our nature to win -- survival, last person standing, kill or be killed.

But the laws of nature, even though they govern a large part of our psychological and physiological makeup, aren't the "be all, end all" on the roller derby track.

We all want to win. But in any given sport, there can only be one winner.

That "Highlander"-like thought process has to stand at the forefront when you play any game. 

Whether you were beat by 1 point or 200 points, it's important to congratulate the other person/team with sincerity and professionalism, as you would expect the same from your opponent.

I hate excuses. I hate them on the track, and I hate them after the game.

If a player is making excuses on the track or bench, it creates negative energy, and negative energy -- just as positive energy is -- is infectious. One player behaving poorly will spoil the whole bench if someone doesn't control the situation efficiently and quickly. Let the negative energy go and it will consume you're whole team. It's much easier to control  one bad attitude than 14 bad attitudes.

"Nip it in the bud," as Barney Fife would say.

The problem with negative attitudes is that they're incredibly easy to give into. Staying positive takes work and when an opponent is constantly taking swings at your players it's harder to manage. The negative energy also casts a dense fog over the entire game, making it incredibly difficult to focus on the game at hand, which is what you and your players should be focusing on.

I've instituted a "quiet bench" philosophy, in which in our lineup the only five players "up to bat" -- or set to go into the next jam --  are the players who are talking are talking to each other. No one else should be chit-chatting, complaining or making any other verbal comment. None. They should be focusing on the game at hand. The five players "up to bat" should be communicating with each other on how they should play their position and what they need to do to improve the team's in-game standing.

A quiet bench goes above and beyond great measure to controlling bad attitudes. A player who willingly violates the "quiet bench" philosophy is in danger of voluntarily giving up her spot on the roster. No exceptions. Does it suck to lose a player willingly? Yes, but if you allow them to stay bench side you are essentially condoning their behavior. You will have to manage the attitudes of your bench less and focus on the game more.

The quiet bench extends all the way through game time, up until the end of the last jam. This becomes very difficult if it's a close game, but important if you are to set an example. 

We were at a game in which we were already winning and the announcers encouraged everyone to stand up and get loud for the last jam of the game. As my girls started standing and cheering I asked them to sit down and be quiet. "But they told us to stand up?" one of my players said/asked. "Who's your coach and what does your coach want you to do?" I replied. They politely took their seat and waited anxiously for the end of the jam. Was it a cold response? Yes, but necessary. The quiet bench should be an institution from the time the game starts until it officially ends, win or lose.

(If you are a coach who does not wear the A for the designated captain of your team, seat your captains as close to you as physically possible so that you can talk to them without having to yell across the bench. Yelling even if it's important isn't the best way to communicate as people's personal defenses immediately go up. Plus, you don't want to give away too much information to the other team. Bring your captains closer to you, and use your inside voice.)

After a jam, the heat can come pouring in -- as players complain about calls or a missed hit, etc. Control the issues at hand as quickly as possible and move on. If a player has to vent, let her vent, give her verbal and visual confirmation that you understand and move on. Sometimes all a person needs is an outlet to vent, otherwise it gets bottled up. But you can't get carried away and listen to five girls coming off the track all wanting to vent or you will never be able to focus on the next jam, so make it an exception for only a short few.

After the game is over, it's easy to start making excuses for a loss. Instead of negative reinforcement I try to cultivate positive, critical thinking. Instead of the things we did wrong, or what the other team did illegally, or missed calls -- I try to focus on the things we need to work on, how we can improve and what we can do to control future outcomes a little better.

It's incredibly hard to play a game when there are various events in which you have no control, i.e. bad calls, missed calls, what the other team does. As a coach/captain/player you have to focus on the things you can control and minimize the things you can't control. Things you can control in a game: Game clock (via timeouts, official reviews, injury stoppage), Intentional fourth minors (so you don't inadvertently jam a player with three minors), getting the right pack lineup at the right time, etc.

(As a rule I try not to use our official review on made calls or missed calls. A made call will stand nine times out of tend. A referee makes a call based on what he or she sees and it's pretty hard to argue the logic. Besides the referee may have seen something you didn't -- and you've successfully wasted a review. Likewise a missed call is hard to argue for because if three referees are watching the play and they all miss a call -- you aren't going to get the call made after the fact. Only ask for a official review on a made or missed call if you are absolutely, positively you can get the outcome changed and it drastically affects the game.)

There are plenty of things that one can control in a derby game, and maybe one day I'll actually make a list. But it's important to factor in as much as you do have control over, so that you get most advantages when playing a derby bout.

Are you a player that gets called on elbows a lot? There's not much you can do during a game, but at practice you can certainly work on giving hits without following through with the elbow. After a game, you can certainly ask a ref who called you on an elbow what he/she saw. Don't argue. Zebras often are the best source of information when it comes to changing our mental and physical gameplan for future games. They will usually tell you that you "followed through" or that you "swung your elbow" warranting the call.

As a coach, I try to take notes if I see something happen that I know we can fix. In the first intermission this can be crucial. Jot down two or three things at the most -- more than that and you will confuse everyone. I will usually give my few pieces of advice and then let every player know where they stand with minors and majors. And then we set up the first line for the second half.

(I try to take notes for the second half to address at the next practice if possible, but if the game is incredibly tight, it can be more difficult to remember to write things down.)

I'm hoping with a few improvements I can continue to hone how I coach in crucial games. I know that by managing my bench and focusing on the positive, we, as a team, have a better chance to improve on prepare for the next game even if we lost the last game.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Coach's corner: Post-bout day

That was the definition of a nail-biter.

The Quad-City Rollers Rock Island Line handed the Rockford Rag Dolls a decent loss on their home floor back in December. So this game, the Dolls were looking for some revenge.

It wouldn't come easy tonight in what seemed like back-and-forth action the teams traded the point lead as quickly as they exchanged crowd-pleasing, sometimes gruesome-looking, hits.

At the half the score was tied 63-63 and we were starting to rotate players into the box. Luckily our veteran skaters were able to avoid lots of minutes in penalties. That needed to continue, something that has plagued us in the past.

One of our primary jammers, the Taco, had already amassed four trips to the box (the maximum allotment is seven before fouling out), which cut our ability to effectively score points in half.

We've always been lucky to have a few good jammers to rely on, but I would recommend to any team to have multiple people ready to jam at any given moment. We have some utility jammers, players we can often count on to don the star if we need them. But that's about it.

With Taco on the penalty-watch list, we would be relying on Lady Gotcha and some of our other players to try and score points.

Our primary headaches was star Rockford jammer, Meeso Thorny, and the heavy-duty hitters of the Rag Dolls. The Rockford skaters did a lot of things right and one of those was hitting. They were able to connect on a higher percentage of hits and had a great impact on our scoring.

 We started to pull a little ahead in the second half thanks to Meeso sitting in the box, but the Dolls would answer right back.

Once Rockford used up their last timeout and we still had two left I knew we would have a considerable edge in controlling the clock. We only had about six minutes left in the game and we were starting to rely on our veteran skaters to hold onto the game.

What came next, I won't know just how important it was until i get the stat sheets back and maybe watch the video if we shot any. Gotcha had lead and I had her call the jam before her opponent could score any more points.

I wasn't watching the clock however and only after I told her to call it, I realized that there were still 40 seconds on the clock.

If we had any point advantage and we had waited until after 29 seconds were remaining in the game, we would have sealed it.

If we didn't have the advantage, we needed time to get one more jam in and score some points.

Trouble is that I couldn't tell you what the point totals were at that time. 

I don't get nervous the night before a bout any more. I haven't for quite sometime. However, not knowing the certainties of tonight, the decision I made in that split second could have cost us the game or it could have provided us one more opportunity to earn more points.

I probably won't get to sleep very well. Replaying those decisions over and over in my mind.

It came down to one more jam, and unfortunately we didn't get lead. Thankfully the Dolls jammer sat in the bench, but she would be released before the jam ended without us being able to call it.

Then the point totals came in 119-119 with no more time on the clock.

We were going into overtime -- a first for our league and most of the refs at the bout.

The rules state that if a game ends in a tie, a new jam will be started. Jammers start scoring on the first pass and no lead jammer is designated, so the jam goes to a full two minutes, with the winner being the team with the most points at the end.

Gotcha was spent. She was tired and she didn't want to skate anymore. We tried to calm her down as the refs sorted out the point totals and we looked for someone to replace her, but no one wanted to step up. We finally coaxed her out there and we set up a team of blockers to help her.

Gotcha and Meeso would make a couple of scoring passes around before Gotcha would take a nasty hit, slamming her head on the floor and shaking her up pretty badly. She would tap out -- tapping her helmet repeatedly -- and thus ending the jam. Meeso scored three more points than Gotcha had before the jam ended. Unless we had gotten three miracle points the game would be concluded in one of the hardest fought games I've seen in awhile.

Roller derby is a game of seconds, every second is a valuable commodity. The decisions we coaches make can make or break a game and have a tremendous influence on the game. We have to make split decisions and we have to live with the consequences. It can be pretty hard, but you have to take each game as a learning experience. Next time I'll know to keep a better eye on the clock and know what the point totals are.

The Rag Dolls won 125-128 in overtime. As I told Gotcha and some of our other girls, I'll take a loss like that any day.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Bout day

(Editor's note: In addition to running and writing for fivepointgrandslam.com, I also referee and/or coach for the Quad-City Rollers roller derby team based in Davenport, Iowa.)

This season has been pretty amazing with its series of ups and downs. The Quad-City Rollers as a league is coming off its third road win of the season (a season and all-time record for us) thanks in large part to the River Bend Bombers (A-team) win over the Eastern Iowa Outlaws and the Rock Island Line's wins in Rockford against their Rag Dolls and in Peoria against the Polka Bots (which came down to the last jam and only a one-point difference).

Tonight the Line gets a rematch with Rockford at our home venue the RiverCenter in Davenport, Iowa.

The lineups have been modified as both teams have had to deal with some losses. Rockford has added Jen Detta and Miso Thorny, two veteran skaters for Rockford. Needless to say, after looking at their roster, Rockford is coming to avenge the loss we handed them on their floor.

Tonight's game is a bit of a departure for us, as it's the first Friday night game we've played in awhile (if ever). And it should be a fun bout as Rockford is always a pleasure to play with. We've learned so much thanks to the continued relationship with their league and various skaters (Busty Assfault and Detta are former teammates of ours, and we've borrowed skaters from their team before).

While we're looking for a win tonight, we're also looking to build on our relationship with them and take something away from the bout to build onto ourselves.

In the pocket - Part Two

The thunderous whir of wheels and bearings spinning at maximum speed hum in your ear. Shouts from in the pack, "Fill that hole!" or "Get to the front!" echo throughout the venue.

You've managed to step into the spot in close proximity to Bat R Up, a woman from Iowa City, Iowa, who lumbers over her competitors with a hitting technique that will knock you into next week with a money-back guarantee. What do you do now?


Pee yourself a little?

Well, you can, but neither will get you very far.

You've managed to get yourself "in the pocket" of a veteran hitter who dwarfs you in size.

You have plenty of options but let's limit the field to just the two of you for now. *Everyone else on the track freeze-frames and fades out with a bass-drop sound effect* ;)

By getting within the sweet spot of "in the pocket" you've limited your opponent's options and her effectiveness to hit. You've taken away much of her ability to gain acceleration and increasing the force of her striking.

My first piece of advice is not to get into a major hitting battle with someone who is easily twice your size. Hitting is about half as effective as booty blocking or leaning, while the former takes more energy it also has a bigger likelihood of taking you out of position to effectively recover. And if there's a size disadvantage, that's a dogfight a smaller player will lose 60 percent of the time.

My second piece of advice is keep your feet moving. This principle shares a fundamental with tons of other sports including boxing and fighting.

In derby, getting caught flat-footed (all eight wheels on the floor without some sort of motion) is an invite to get knocked off your feet. It's harder to control your center of gravity and it's also much harder to react if you need to throw a quick block, get out of the way of a hit or recover if you do take a hit.

Don't get caught flat footed.

A good way to break this habit is to constantly remind yourself to move your feet. Even if you're in warmups or between drills and you catch a quick second to take a breather, make a conscious effort to get your feet in some sort of drill (mankillers, watermelons, scissors, etc.) Essentially what your training your brain and feet to do is make this an instinctual action (just like breathing) so that you never really stop skating on the track.

Remember: Keep your feet moving.

This becomes incredibly important when you start leaning.

The skater on the inside of the turn  has a bit of an advantage because she has the shorter distance to travel. A skater who keeps her feet moving in a lean against a skater who is flat-footed will almost always have the advantage. And obviously the larger skater has a bit of advantage because she has more power in the lean.

I've seen tiny skaters effectively move a larger skater by utilizing her lower center of gravity in a lean, while keeping her feet moving. Sometimes, the surprise factor helps -- a larger skater often cannot counter-lean without making contact with her opponent above the shoulders (illegal in roller derby) -- in a WTF does this girl think she's doing.

A smaller skater can also effectively booty block while in the pocket of a larger skater. Because of the size difference, it's difficult for the larger skater to make much contact on the skater in front of her without changing the smaller player's position (a minor back block) or knocking her down (major back block). Being in front is the superior position against a larger skater because it's much harder for her to make contact with you without committing a penalty.

It's also easier for a smaller skater to control the larger skater because of the proximity to the opponent's hips. A good booty block is one that can take away all of the opponents speed, trap her and control her all by controlling her hips. Humans have a pretty standard anatomy, which doesn't really change from skater to skater. When we want to move somewhere our legs begin in motion starting from our hips and our waist is the pivot point if we want to turn in another direction.

Imagine a giant mixing bowl (one that has a rounded bottom, not necessarily a flattened bottom). Once you set it on the counter or table, simply bumping it will only move it slightly. Maybe it'll wobble a little, but it won't tip and it certainly won't flip over. In order to really move it around you have to pick it up from the sides (on top of the bowl) or move it by reaching inside and pushing it. Think about your booty blocks like that. Your opponent is a mixing bowl and her back is the bottom of the dish, and the top-open part is in between her hips.

With a solid booty block, your butt should be literally seated in your opponents crotch, her legs pretty much hugging your hips. As long as you maintain that contact it's very difficult for her to move without you being aware of it. It's also very easy for you to move her where you need to go.

Having established the booty block, i.e. burying your butt in her crotch, and maintaining her speed by moving laterally-to-diagonally you can also move your opponent. Moving in a direction will gently guide her momentum in that same direction by pushing on her inside thigh muscle. Since our hips are connected via the pelvis, this action will pull the other leg along for the ride.

This maneuver is one that requires a lot of skill and experience, and typically most derby newcomers haven't mastered a really solid booty block until halfway through their first season. Mastering the technique is highly recommended as it will make you a more effective blocker and improve your chances of avoiding or evading any such trap.

By maximizing your potential in the pack while minimizing your opponents, you decrease most advantages your larger opponent may have.

* Bat R is one of the sweetest, most genuine people I've met. But I'm sure many a skater has peed herself a little in her presence.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"In the pocket" - Getting there and why

"In the pocket" is a phrase you'll hear a lot of fighting/boxing announcers use referring to a fighter who stands within the range of his/her opponent to slip strikes and counter in close combat. It's strategic -- and dangerous -- for several reasons.

Hold your hands in front of you like you're blocking phantom punches. Now extend one hand out in a slow motion punch and freeze when you're hand reaches maximum distance.

Being "in the pocket" would be one voluntarily positioning hisself/herself between these two points, which prevents the opponent from creating maximum velocity on strikes while being in the position to create short-velocity strikes. A good fighter can maneuver "into the pocket," release rapid fire punches and duck back out without suffering much damage.

The dangerous part occurs when an unskilled fighter continuously tries to slip into the pocket against a more skilled opponent, taking a lot of abuse and never getting within optimum range -- quite possibly looking like a wind-up toy that keeps bashing into the wall because it's essentially programmed to do one thing.

Roller derby definitely has an equivalent to "in the pocket" -- and can often be seen when players enter the pack.

Good hitters need a lot of room to maneuver. Force equals Mass times Acceleration. The bigger the skater times (speed and room) creates optimum velocity when meeting an opposing object. Getting "in the pocket" of an opposing blocker can remove a great deal of her advantage, but the disadvantage comes when smaller skaters try to get "into the pocket" of a bigger player.

Much like the inexperienced boxer in the example above, a smaller skater will take massive amounts of abuse to get into the area where she can be most effective. All too often we see the smaller players get obliterated by well-timed hits.

The beauty is when a smaller skater gets position and controls the bigger, stronger player.

This happens for two reasons: The main is that the smaller skater has now removed a large part of her opponent's effectiveness by limiting her acceleration (F = M x A) -- by limiting the acceleration she has limited the amount of force. The second reason a smaller skater can control a larger player when "in the pocket" is center of gravity. A taller, bigger skater has a higher center of gravity than a smaller, shorter player.

By that right, it's easier for a smaller skater to get under the center of gravity of a larger player sometimes, but not always, resulting in moving the larger skater. (Sometimes this results in the larger skater falling on the smaller one with some hilarity and concern for the player on the bottom.)

To get "in the pocket" of an opposing player, it's advised to get beside to a little in front of the player.

It's not advised to do a song-and-dance with trumpets trumpeting all while wearing a clown costume.

You're best weapon is surprise and stealth. Slinking in an out until you can manuever yourself into position without taking the brutal, crowd pleasing hits, is your optimum goal.

If you're a short player, use your size to your advantage. Skaters have blind spots, just like cars do. By positioning oneself behind a larger skater, you can essentially disappear off their radar and when they least expect it, you pop back into view already in position.

A smaller skater can also use other players as screens, maneuvering around a friendly to position yourself in front of an opponent. The major downside to this is getting caught in a domino-like 2-for-1 hit: Your opponent hits the friendly, who inadvertently hits you -- thusly eliminating two players with one hit.