Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Backup Plan

I use the analogy of building a house a lot when talking about strategy with my players. If I give you a hammer and say go build a house, how far will you get constructing the building? Probably, not very far.

So let's give you some more tools.

The same philosophy applies to roller derby (and other sports, I'm sure). Your team is really good at one thing, so well in fact, that thing is the only good tool in your arsenal.

For the sake of argument, your team is good at back walls – You can build a 3- or even 4-wall of impenetrable defense in the back. You let your jammers get through but not the opposing stars. The first two jams your team shuts down their jammer, but yours only scores a point or two.

Opposing team calls a timeout.

You should be worried. Want to know why? In a little more than a minute, your opponents are going to look over at your bench and smile. Maybe even wink at you.

That one thing you're good at is about to get dismantled.

And the house you've been diligently putting together with just a hammer, is going to come tumbling down.

Psychologically speaking, this is heartbreaking. You just spent two jams doing something you all know how to do and take pride in it.

Without a backup plan, you're essentially inviting the Big Bad Wolf over to blow everything down.

The next jam, the opposing team opens up your wall, releasing their jammer while yours is stuck behind everyone.

The opposing star squeaks through everyone. Her jam ref holds up five fingers.

Your jammer panics, which panics the rest of your team.

Opposing star is through again. Five more points.

By the end of the half, you're stuck in a pile of rubble holding a hammer.

You need a backup plan. You want a backup plan.

Halftime is not the occasion to have to solve a major glitch like faulty strategy. It can be, and has effectively been utilized in the past to solve issues, but it's not a guarantee.

You should have that backup plan before you even step on the floor for a bout. You should have been practicing it over and over, so that when something doesn't work, you can quickly switch to plan B.

Having a few tricks in your back pocket is a good way to get yourself out of a jam (pun not intended, but certainly relevant).

But tricks won't win you the game.

You're team's bread and butter is the back wall mentioned above. You're really good at it, but maybe you've been working on something else like a 2-2 formation. 2-2s are common among teams. One pair of blockers manages the front, the other two are in the back. One operates mostly on defense while the other operates mostly on offense.

Practice 2-2 as much as you can. Learn why it works and why it might not. When is it most effective?

Knowing the ins and outs of a particularly strategy will help you recognize certain things on the track. Recognizing a strategy's weak links allows for creativity and development of counter strategies and how to make yours better.

It's hard to create a backup plan on the fly, but good coaches can do it. Such an ability requires experience, flexibility, creativity and control.

Most notably it requires the coach (or captain) to have a high level of communication, and trust from his/her players.

The learning curve at bouts is a giant bell shaped graph. It takes a few bouts to really get the swing of things and absorb what is going on around you.

Once you get past that, be ready to learn a whole lot about derby.

Here's a saw.

Take the time to learn what each "tool" (or strategy) is about. Don't automatically assume the strategy is broken if it doesn't work for you right away.

New strategies take focus and lots of practice. Certain tools will be more effective in certain situations.

Never take a knife to a gun fight.

High level teams have plenty of tools in their arsenal and can switch gears almost mid-jam. Lower level teams can usually do one or two things really well. The gray area between them is filled with experience, learning and practice.

Monday, August 1, 2011

State of Derby Journalism

I started to combine two of my favorite things in life: Roller derby and journalism.

The playing field of derby journalists could be summed up as either derby enthusiasts who knew little about actual journalism and the journalists who happened to find their way into derby.

The first group -- while not limited to them -- primarily focus on bout recaps without telling much of a story. They use little setup, minimal narrative and almost no quotes. Part of journalism is to tell someone else's story, not simply rehash events for your readers.

The second group is guilty of conflict of interest 9 times out of 10. Several journalists-saved-by-derby have written many an article on their league or bouts, and don't disclose that they're on the team.

In a way, these problems are systemic save a few examples. On the local level newspapers continue to struggle between derby's athletic DIY attitudes and its sordid past of flying butt blocks and showmanship of the 1970s. The only way a league might get coverage is if a member writes the article or they might have a friend who works for a local media outlet.

Yes, sadly, this limits one's exposure to the local populace. At least online alternatives exist for the standard roller derby fan.

Personal and team blogs help local fans keep up to date with their local leagues and possible events. The inclusion of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, help get the word out almost instantaneous (given, that your casual fans don't follow the blogs).

On a national level, the Big Two of covering bouts, points and standings would include Derby News Network and Derby Tron. For the numbers based mathlete and stats fan, there really isn't anything much better than Derby Tron, which takes a comprehensive look at 107 teams (currently) and numbers them from the best to the worst based on comprehensive statistics. Their scorebox is usually pretty up to date.

DNN's numbers game boils down to stats and a Top 25 listing of WFTDA participating teams, which is great if you want to see who teams competing on a National (global?) playing field match up against each other. DNN also includes boutcasts of high level bouts, sometimes including audio and video of key matchups. It was one of the most reliable sites to watch live bouts from any place in the world with an Internet connection.

The folks at Derby News Network also write up bout previews and recaps, and Justice Feelgood Marshall's guidelines to writing bout recaps set a good standard to long form write-ups.

Still there's not a lot of diversity in terms of storytelling. Many of the recaps are straightforward and chronological, not inviting the readers in with quick quotes from the coaches, captains or key players.

Some of this is the nature of the sport – we're not used to talking to the media and we tend to be pretty quiet – while some of it is lack of experience getting people to talk.

For the print-quality on the national level, derby enthusiasts are limited to two magazines, Blood & Thunder and Five on Five. I've contributed to Five on Five in the past and I plan on writing for them again, but there's a reason. Blood & Thunder has a few columns from active derby participants and then the rest of the magazine is recaps that happened several months ago. If you weren't lucky enough to see them when they did happen, you've probably already heard the outcome or read the recaps.

This is the main danger with covering sports without an avenue of a daily media outlet – sports recaps become stale, giving urgency to finding new ways to tell the story. What Blood & Thunder does excel at is photography. It's photos are usually big and crisp, getting us directly involved in the action we might have otherwise missed at home watching the bout online or up in the stands in the back row. If B&T would play more to its strengths and learn to find the players with the stories the magazine would quickly become the Sports Illustrated of derby.

Five on Five works on covering the different angles that happen in derby, each quarter covering new and diverse topics. This WFTDA-produced magazine takes key topics and works them into articles to help leagues and skaters become better. Since it avoids the recap-problems of Blood & Thunder, Five on Five is less handcuffed with making things timely and can focus on other points of interest.

The advent of e-readers and tablets I think there's room for derby journalism to grow and prosper, but the DIY attitude is still there. Just like MySpace and that social-networking sites aid helping derby itself grow, the continued evolution of print and web products geared toward derby journalism will continue to strive.

Web stats - July 2011

July was a big month for us here at, as we reached a Web hits record of 424 for the month of July. The previous record was 379, set in November 2010, mostly riding on my post about skaters using their real names in roller derby.

So far the big thing that helps push the Web hits up include the labels/tags, Google searches and quality of posts. I'm hoping to finish up a few key posts this week or next to help boost August's numbers a bit.

Hits     Month
424    July 2011

168    June 2011
317     May 2011
146    April 2011
222    March 2011
182    February 2011
098    January 2011
121    December 2010
379    November 2010
190    October 2010
050    September 2010