Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Managing Penalties - Avoiding and Forcing Them (Jammers)

Penalties impact a roller derby bout tremendously. Ask any jammer who has been called off for a major track cut on the last jam of the game when points matter.

The most obvious impact to the game: Jammer penalties. An opposing team can wreck havoc if your jammer is in the box, as they are able to manage multiple scoring passes. Likewise, if you're team is on a power jam, you want to maximize the score.

Whole offense and defense strategies have formed revolving around that sole idea.

Penalties range from as small as a minor (slightly affecting gameplay) to major (a massive gameplay advantage) to Misconduct and Gross Misconduct, which I won't go into but are similar to a super-group of penalties.

A skater can accumulate up to four minor penalties before being directed to the penalty box. (Currently, WFTDA is experimenting with a no-minor system and only time will tell if minors are completely wiped from the game entirely.)

Four minors equals a trip to the box. One major equals a trip to the box. Any skater with three minors, must essentially think of her next minor as being the same as a major, since it has the same effect. Acquiring your fourth minor sends you to the box, just as a major will do the same.

Again, our friends who wear the star covers serve as our example. A really clean-skating jammer with 1 or 2 minors, generally can make it through a jam without picking up her fourth minor, particularly if she has lead (which I'll bring up again later.)

And unless she's a super-clean skater, any jammer with 3 minors shouldn't jam except in the rarest of ocassions (as such if her team has a very explicit game plan, i.e. if she picks up her fourth we do X).

When a skater who usually jams has incurred her third minor, her team will set her up to intentionally acquire her fourth minor as a non-pivot blocker (or sometimes when she is the pivot). This is something you can control, as opposed to send her out there and she unintentionally picks up her fourth. This is sometimes referred to as poodling (a submissive term) or cougaring (intentionally picking up a minor).

Once her minors are wiped away, the skater can again jam again.

Instead of intentionally acquiring the minor, you can put the skater in the pack in the hopes that she'd pick up a minor. The downside being that if she gets called for a major (1 minute of penalty time, and she still has 3 minors), or in the process of picking up her fourth minor she also is awarded a major (2 minutes of penalty time, no minors). Obviously both are horrible situations to put a potential jammer into, so it's more beneficial to set them up to earn the minor intentionally (plus, it's something you have control over versus something you don't).

The most common penalties for jammers are Cutting (passing a skater while out of bounds) and Backblocking (making contact with an illegal target zone - the back). 

Cutting penalties will often occur in and around the turns, and usually on the inside of the track. This is because of a player's momentum and physics pulling her on the track. A player on the inside of the track has a much shorter path than those on the track or toward the outside.

It's very easy for a player to step off the track (to the inside), travel a short distance and accidentally re-enter the track ahead of one skater (generally a minor) or more skaters (a major, which is also called if the player Cuts the foremost, in-play blocker).

On the outside, Cuts generally are incurred because after being hit out of bounds, a skater steps back on the track ahead of a player that was beside her. Color does not have any bearing on the Cut, as the definition is player, not opposing team member. A red skater would incur the same penalty by cutting a another player no matter which team they play for (red or blue). Two players (indifferent to which team) or the foremost, in-play player becomes a major.

In the course of a game, avoiding these types of penalties remains incredibly important. It's important to practice these scenarios before the game. If you are a jammer who incessantly earns Cut penalties in the course of the bout practice the following:
1.) Watch your feet, when you near the track boundaries: If one foot goes out and you are endanger of cutting, get both feet out of bounds. Numerous cut penalties can happen because a skater drags a foot out of bounds, cuts a player and then brings that foot in-bounds. When you get one foot back in legally, bring both feet in as quickly as possible. (You are not considered back in play until both feet come back on the track, however you may incur skating out of bound penalties and you are legal to hit if you have one foot in play).
2.) Practice one-foot glides near the track boundaries: Try to hold the line as close as possible without putting your free foot (the one in the air) out of bounds. Practice moving your free foot around your body to work on your balance. Practice one-foot glides on both feets (sorry, personal joke) on the inside track boundary, and then on the outside track boundary.
3.) Work on your stops: T-stops, Snowplows, Sucide/Tomahawk stops, Hockey stops, One-foot hockey stops. On the inside it's important to work on the fastest stops possible -- Suicide stops and hockey stops. Since you are moving along a faster path than the in-bound skaters, you must utilize a faster stop. Simply trying to T-stop through a cut won't slow you down fast enough to prevent you from re-entering the track illegally. Likewise, if someone knocked you out of bounds on the outside and they're slowing down trying to force a cut penalty on you (you want to slow down or stop faster than they are so that you can re-enter behind them).
4.) Don't sacrifice your momentum if you don't have to: Just in the way that starting from a dead stop from a fall takes more energy than using your momentum to assist you getting up, so to avoiding a cut penalty by utilizing your momentum is easier than coming to a dead stop. I always encourage our girls to keep your feet moving because it takes more energy to start moving them again, than if they're already moving. Suicide and hockey stops are great for avoiding the cut, but you don't want to actually "stop." You are actually looking to change the direction of your momentum, to get back on the track legally. If the stops elude you right away, instead practice stepping out of bounds and then turning sharply in a tight circle to re-enter slightly behind the spot you exited. If you step out on the inside, you'll turn counter clockwise. If you step out on the outside, you'll turn clockwise. BE AWARE of other skaters and referees in the out-of-bounds areas, as making contact with them can create penalty situations. By turning sharply you avoid accidentally stepping back into play illegally; force yourself to come back into play behind your exit point; and you utilize your momentum by keeping your speed up to pass a slowed/stopped opposing skater.

To avoid Backblocking calls, a skater should learn to control her speed. A jammer who enters the pack at full speed must have a sharper focus and more agility to maneuver through a pack at 100 percent. Also objects in motion tend to stay in motion (Thank you, Isaac Newton), so if a fast moving jammer is hit out of bounds, she'll generally continue moving in that direction. By controlling her speed, a jammer can engage the pack without slamming in the back of an opposing player. Likewise, one of her teammates can eat a backblock from their jammer to check her speed, but I haven't seen that used too effectively to date. The above mentioned stops can be practiced, particularly the snowplow. Even if you practice on a slick floor, try and work on your snowplows and hockey stops, and force yourself to stop at shorter and shorter distances. A good jammer can go from 80 percent to nearly a dead stop in minimal distance. But don't try doing so until you are really comfortable with snowplows, as they can put a tremendous stress on groin and thigh muscles, and ankle strength. Working on lateral movement can also help avoid Backblocking calls, but a skater must move more than her upper body. A potential jammer wants to be able to move her hips to and around other skaters without losing balance (as this will also enable a legal pass on opposing skaters).

Most of these skills will help blockers avoid these penalties as well. My focus on the jammer is because of their direct relation to the score, so it makes for an easy example.

Your jammer avoiding penalties will have an impact on the amount of points they are able to score. You can't score points sitting in the penalty box. Same holds true for the opposing team and their jammer

I constantly see WFTDA jammers letting their team know how many minors she has and the other jammer has. If the opposing jammer has three minors, what is the best course of action?
Do you
a) give her a fist bump for being ballsy?
b) intentionally block your own jammer to give opposing jammer lead, because she's just that awesome?
c) want the opposing jammer to pick up a fourth minor?

If you answered "a" or "b" to that question, you obviously have too much fun just playing derby. If you answered "c," you are correct. It's easier to focus on getting your jammer through the pack if you aren't worrying about the opposing jammer. By getting her to pick up that key fourth minor, she's going to the box. In the course of forcing a fourth minor on her, she picks up a major even better. If she manages to make it out of that jam without incurring any penalty, she will likely try an intentionally pick up her fourth minor later (which will be a minute she's not on the floor or jamming).

By forcing a fourth minor on the opposing jammer, she loses the ability to earn lead jammer, calling the jam if she does earn lead or earn points during her penalty time.

If an opposing player has three minors, it does very little good to hope she magically earns that fourth. You have to actively force her to take that minor.

This can happen by convincing her to take an Illegal procedure penalty (the Jedi mind trick), forcing a Cut or forcing a Backblock. Forcing an opposing player to take a minor penalty is easier than a major, but again the same principle works: A fourth minor has the same impact as a major, i.e. a trip to the box. 

To force a major penalty, you will have to get an opponent to commit a pretty big error. If she cuts two or more players, or Backblocks someone hard enough that they completely lose their position or fall down, the opponent will incur a major.

To practice forcing cuts, I usually set players up in pairs in which one player leans/pushes/hits her partner out of bounds, tries to slow down and force the cut. This is good practice for both players in forcing and avoiding the cuts. The next step up is to set players up in trios, in which two skaters pair up to force a cut on the third player -- remember, two skaters is equal to a major.

Practicing Backblocks is a little more dangerous, particularly with newer skaters so it's not something I often condone. You can essentially perform any booty-blocking drills you want, but with the added goal of forcing a Backblocking call. I recommend using your league refs or veteran skaters who know their Backblocking rules. Remember, an opposing skater needs to earn major advantage (position) for the call to warrant a major penalty.

Consider this the first part in what will be a multi-part blog. I'd like to take a blog to focus a little more on managing penalties for blockers, and how important it is to manage penalties from a line coach standpoint.