Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Running set plays and executing

Running set plays or sets occur on lots of other sports, but the idea mostly comes from basketball, that Western Hemisphere pastime in which coaches call timeout and draw up the play to win the game.

Derby is slightly different. While our sport does draw on a rich history dating back to the Depression era, most of the sport draws its inspiration from the 70s-style bank track where body slamming and elbows to the face won over strategy.

But, since the sports rebirth in the early-2000s, teams and leagues have been making strong headway to legitimize the sport, and thus the introduction of sets.

When I first started, spectators would ask me if we had plays or not. At the time my answer was "no," but only because we hadn't developed as strong as a team yet and trying to get 25-30 players to follow a "play" was nearly impossible. As we improved we started to incorporating different set plays and it started to improve our game.

We worked as a team and recognized the benefits of having goals. From here we can continue to evolve.

This summer we're working on a specific goal to incorporate a new style largely credited to Pitchit Davis, who with some help is credited with helping several teams break the wall to become great.

With any system of sets, I have a few rules of thumb:
1. Don't introduce more sets than your players have the ability to learn. This generally means more than one. The larger the group of players the less likely everyone is going to understand. Keep it simple. Multiple moving parts makes it harder to learn. Learn it, then move on.
2. Practice, practice, practice. It's incredibly hard to introduce a set in the middle of the game. But it does happen. Use practice time to run sets over and over again. Start out playing against imaginary opponents, then move to using players being dumb or playing stupid (simply skating bodies on the track) and finally graduate to full practice.
3. Don't give up on a set just because people don't understand it. Walk them through it. Explain it. Tell your players why it works and why it doesn't. Players will never develop trust in you if you constantly throw away your ideas.
4. In scrimmage and bout situations, if your team fails executing a set. Try to break it down for them when they're done. You're the coach or captain: You should know exactly what happened. Draw it out for them. This may mean not having an eye on the game for a jam, but it can be crucial for your team to know where they went wrong.
5. Likewise, if they execute a set properly reward/praise them immediately. And once they come off the track from that jam. And again on the bench. AND again at the after-party. (Oh, we're not done.) When you have practice again, praise her again. Positive reward/praise builds confidence and ability than negative or none at all.

(My formula is: Immediate positive praise > positive praise > constructive criticism > nothing  > negative comments.)

Never (ever) criticize a player in front of everyone unless you immediately follow it with a solution, or if you want to make sure everyone understands the whole situation. 

Never be: "WHY DIDN"T YOU CALL THE JAM WHEN I TOLD YOU TO?!" when you can be: "Hey, Why didn't you call the jam?" Then give you're skater time to reply. If she didn't see you, then you need to make sure she's watching for you. If she thought she could score points, then explain to her why it was/wasn't a good idea.

I never get upset if a player chooses to make up her own mind. However, I will ask her the reasoning in her choice and we'll talk about it.

"Well, just execute him!"
Executing a set play in a bout provides one of the best highs a coach can get. Watching it all come together in one moment culminates hours and hours of practice.

In high pressure situations, sets can give your team the edge it needs to accomplish its one goal.

During a bout, don't run a set trying to put your five newest players in the game. If we've learned anything about roller derby it's no matter how many times you practice it when you're in a bout, you're going to forget it.

Make sure everyone on your bench understands the set, but most importantly make sure your next line has it down pat. Get verbal and visual confirmation that they understand. If someone isn't comfortable running the play, get someone it the line that is.

Don't get mad at the players if it simply doesn't work. A coach who takes out self-frustration on their players won't be a coach for long.

On the fly
Just like executing a set play, being able to draw one up on the fly (meaning in-game situations) uplifts you when it happens.

Drawing up plays during a game is one of the few times when everything hinges on your coaching ability. You're at the center of attention and your team is relying on you to formulate a plan.

A situation came up when we were playing a team from Des Moines several months back. Our front wall  was dominating the top of the pack for the first half, and we maintained control and the point spread. In the second half, our opponents got wise and instead of trying to break up the front wall, just established a back wall that allowed them to control from behind us. We had very little ability to get behind them to help our jammers through.

I called a timeout, regrouped my skaters and drew up a plan that would help us break their back wall, while maintaining the integrity of our front wall.

It didn't work. That time. The game ended and we lost by 40 points or so. But I didn't let it discourage me.

We took that play to practice and worked on it and worked on it.

Not long after we played Des Moines, both our A team and B team traveled up to Dubuque, Iowa, to play the Eastern Iowa Outlaws. Our B team had established a solid front wall, and just as Des Moines did, EIO learned to just build a wall behind us.

Our front wall hit turn 3, with our jammer hot behind the pack, getting ready to engage the back (and EIO's back wall). I yelled for our play and on turn 4 we executed perfectly, the outside player turned in toward the inside track catching their mid-wall player squarely in the chest with a shoulder block and taking her out of the play opening up a giant hole for our jammer to slide through.

It was like delivering birth to a roller derby baby. We continue to practice these plays over and over so that in the heat of the battle we can execute them (the plays, not the baby).

Being able to draw up plays on the fly takes one of two things (if not both): Imagination or experience.

Being creative can help a lot in drawing up new plays. Chances are someone has already drawn up similar halfway around the country, but you have to be aware of what you're players are capable. Knowing what will work, what should work and what won't work can give you an edge in drawing up plays.

Experience can play just as big of a role. Seen a situation happen years ago? How did that coach resolve the issue. Having the knowledge that you know the play work doesn't always translate to your skaters knowing how to execute. But having the confidence that the play works, is nice. Many basketball coaches have the benefit of growing up in a system in which coaching and plays are heavily involved.

Ever watch the LA Lakers and the commentators are talking about Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense. Well, Jackson was an assistant coach for Tex Winter, who used it. But Winter got it from Sam Barry, who began to formulate the ground work back in the 1940s (guestimate).

We don't quite have the same equivalent in roller derby, but we do have other teams learning at an alarming rate. It's important to watch as much derby as you can, and to break down other plays so that you can learn from them.