Archive for the ‘Strategy’ Category

You’re Doing it Wrong: 3 Common USARS Strategy Mistakes

The second full USA Roller Sports roller derby season has wrapped up, with Washington state pulling off a sweep and Oly taking home two national titles, the men’s (Oly Warriors) and the women’s (Oly Rollers). Thoughts of the event and a complete snapshot of USARS derby, Year Two, will come later in the off-season.

But ahead of that, let’s put on our strategy hats.

All the teams and virtually all the players playing under the USARS banner have very little experience in the faster, more tactical style of roller derby it is trying to develop. Knowing the rules is one thing—at only 10 pages of significance (for now) there is not much to need to know—but applying that knowledge on the track is another thing entirely.

This has been evident during the 2013 USARS tournaments, where teams have been making a lot of strategic mistakes. These mistakes were the major culprit behind some of the more boring sequences of play, including runaway pack situations or instant jam call-offs. These sequences often ended in a 0-0 jam with little action or excitement to show for them.

As with any learning process, these mistakes will pass with practice and game experience. But before one can learn from mistakes, one must know exactly what those mistakes are.

Here are the three most common tactical errors in USARS play over the last two years, from least common to the most.

Mistake #3: Runaway Pivots

In USARS, pivots are granted their traditional ability to break away from the front of the pack and become a jammer, but only after the opposing team has already gotten their jammer out for lead. This ability is most useful when a pivot is controlling the front of the pack, which lets them immediately spring into action should their jammer fail to clear the pack first.

A big chunk of USARS tactics is how the pivots do battle with each other, both at the start of the jam and during the rest of the initial pass sequence. In most circumstances, a pivot will want to be in front of the opposing pivot at all times, to help suck them back into the pack or delay them should they need to break away after the jammer.

Most circumstances. But not all circumstances.

Pivots hell-bent on getting to or staying at the front of the pack during the initial pass hurt a team’s chances of scoring points more than it helps it. This is a mistake made by pivot players new to USARS, and the traditional pivot position in general.

The logic behind this is simple: The scoring player with the best chance to score points on a jam is (generally) the first one reaching the back of the pack on a scoring pass. The first jammer to reach the back of the pack is (usually) the one that gets out of the pack first on the initial pass. The first jammer to get out of the pack is the one that (always) get the most blocking help and assistance from his or her teammates in the pack.

Therefore, that works together to make sure their jammer gets out first is well on their way to scoring points. However, a pivot trying too hard to stay ahead of everyone else will wreck this calculus by effectively taking themselves out of play, reducing the blocking power that their jammer might need to do that. A pivot race at the front of the pack can also ramp up the speed of the pack to hopelessly high levels, making it much harder for blockers to stay together or be effective.

Here is a video that shows an example of this happening during a jam. Focus on the white blockers and the white jammer and see how quickly they fall behind due to the white pivot racing the pack forward:

The white pivot ultimately got the position she wanted, the front of the pack. This put her in good position to chase the black jammer out without resistance on the part of the black team.

However, in doing this she left the white jammer in the dust and left the other white blockers vulnerable at the rear of a fast pack. She also put herself out of play ahead of the pack, forcing her to drop back into pack before she could legally activate her jamming abilities. This gave the black jammer a pretty easy scoring pass, picking up two free points.

But more importantly, in playing the jam this way the white pivot was basically guaranteeing her team would not score any points before the initial pass was even completed.

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Battle on the Bank VI Diary: The Most Interesting Jam in the World

Heading into Battle on the Bank this year, there was little doubt that the L.A. Derby Dolls and their Ri-Ettes all-star team were the runaway favorites to repeat as banked track champs. Having destroyed both their closest rivals earlier in the year, the San Diego Derby Dolls Wildfires and the Arizona Derby Dames Hot Shots, Los Angeles did not have have much in the way of resistance to claim the title for the second straight year.

And so they did.

The L.A. Derby Dolls, winners of three out of six Battle on the Bank tournaments and two in a row. But this isn't about them.

The L.A. Derby Dolls, winners of three out of six Battle on the Bank tournaments and two in a row. That’s great and all, but this story isn’t about them.

Despite the winner being a foregone conclusion, there was still a lot to look forward to a few steps lower on the bracket.

At the bottom, the Sugartown Rollergirls and Penn-Jersey Roller Derby got their first taste of the RDCL national tournament. In the middle, Tilted Thunder and the OC Rollergirls showed that they are not too far off from competing for the podium, putting in a good showing against the top teams after putting on a great show against each other. And off to the side, the juniors of the RDCL demonstrated that it won’t be long until they replace the players occupying their eventual spots on the senior rosters.

But back to the top steps. Though San Diego was seeded ahead of Arizona, it wasn’t an easy pick to say who would overcome the other on the way to the finals. But it was all but certain that which ever one did would lose to L.A. in the finals, making the battle between them a race for second place.

The double-elimination format of the tournament virtually ensured both teams would face each other twice: Once in a 30-minute game in the winners’ bracket on Saturday, and again in a full tilt the next day for a place in the grand final.

Thank goodness they did. The two AZ/SD games, by a fair margin, featured the most engaging, most fascinating, most exciting roller derby I have seen at Battle on the Bank out of the four editions I have attended. Dare I say, it was the most compelling action I have seen in the Doll Factory in two or three years—a period which includes all-star appearances by Gotham, Rocky Mountain, Team Legit, and Team Bionic, among many other top-tier teams that have rolled through in that time.

A bold statement, that, but there are numbers to back it up. In ninety total minutes of gameplay between the two teams, leads larger than 20 points were a short-lived luxury. Sustaining a low double-digit lead was about as good as either team could manage throughout. In the 60-minute semifinal game, teams were averaging less than 2 points each per jam. Two! Factor out power jams, and it was even closer.

Close scores are one thing, but with the 2013 RDCL rules having almost eliminated “cheap” points gifted to teams during goating and power jam situations, it was literally back to the case of every point mattering and every point needing to be fought for tooth-and-nail.

The sausage non-engagement tactic has, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated in the new rules. Front-loaded defenses were at a formidable advantage, forcing both teams to engage and assist offensively to break through. Packs were moving at a reasonable speed, allowing a defense trapped ahead of a goat time to lock on to, match speed with, and slow down an opposing jammer wanting to complete a pass, making goating itself less effective and no longer an easy play to complete a full pass.

This restored competitive balance to gameplay, but it also created a most exciting side-effect. If two equal teams both have an equal chance to play defense, are equally proficient at playing offense in the pack, and have jammers of equal speed and skill levels, odds are that both jammers are going to frequently complete their initial pass equally—or simultaneously, as it were.

That is exactly what happened in the Arizona/San Diego games. I don’t have an exact number, but I can almost guarantee that their games saw the highest number of close double-jammer breakouts all weekend, by a fair margin. In fact, a good percentage of jams had jammers within a quarter-track of each other or closer after completing the initial pass, leading to a hard and fast jammer race back to the rear of the pack. This often led to low-score, and even no-score jams, but not for a lack of action.

As both teams began to realize that uncontested scoring passes were rare, the only thing they could do was gain every millisecond of advantage they possibly could with the jammer race on the track and against each other in the pack to secure a favorable position for the scoring pass. The AZ/SD games at Battle on the Bank were brilliant examples this kind of hold-your-breath gameplay.

However, they also showed clear signs that the strategy behind jammer-race contested scoring passes is yet-to-be discovered by many teams in roller derby, not just those in the RDCL.

There was one jam in particular that demonstrated this.

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Active Pivot Rules and Delayed Breakouts

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That’s no ordinary pivot back there: It’s an active pivot that is eligible to score. There is a lot of strategy behind that stripe. (Photo Credit: Joe Rollerfan)

The three roller derby rule sets that use the active pivot—a pivot that is eligible to break and score only once the opposing jammer has become lead—results in quick-hitting play.

This addition—better said, restoration—to MADE, OSDA, and USARS rules changes how teams must approach strategy on a jam-by-jam and game-long basis. The tactics that teams have at their disposal on offense with an active pivot, and the corresponding considerations they must deal with on defense, makes these versions of roller derby very dynamic.

It also tends to make them quite fast. Teams need to press forward to protect or envelop the pivots at the front of the pack, as well as cover the incoming jammer at the rear. Because such a defense naturally spreads a team out, it must speed up to help keep opposing blockers behind them more easily.

Of course, players will have to slow down at some point to get their jammer out, blocking opponents to score. Still, the quicker an individual player or team is, the more strategy options they would have available to them when playing in a faster game. They would be capable of doing things at speed that a lesser-skilled team could.

However, this doesn’t automatically mean that the faster team will always win in the active pivot game. Speed is only one component of the roller derby equation. A good team should also be proficient at using their brains to come up with counter-tactics against a fast team, then using their brawn to execute those tactics better than their opponents.

Which is why when I see a team with lead jammer do this, especially when it happens over and over, I have to wonder where their brains are:

Once an inexperienced, slow, or otherwise outmatched jammer breaks from the pack to pick up lead status, a pivot with a speed and positional advantage will activate and chase. If the speed differential between these two players is significant, it will almost always result in an instant jam call-off.

Jammers that find themselves in this situation are entering a speed race that they are certain to lose. Teams that do this frequently—as seen above—may appear to have no chance to score points on most jams, as it looks to be impossible to stop a fast pivot consistently laying claim to or otherwise sandbagging at the front of the pack.

But even if a team isn’t fast enough, they can still be smart enough and good enough to score in an apparently disadvantageous situation.

The way to go about turning the tables sounds counter-intuitive: Have the jammer not go out on a scoring pass. At least, not immediately.

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The Best Time to Pass the Star

Let’s talk strategy.

The name of the game in WFTDA roller derby is for a team to get their jammer out of the pack first (and legally) to earn the all-important lead jammer status, and with it the chance to get first crack at scoring points and the privilege to end the jam at any time.

However, only one team is able to get lead status during a jam. It’s inevitable that there will be many, many times when that team is not going to be yours.

As WFTDA play has become slower, walls tougher, and the rear blocker advantage made even greater, it’s downright shocking to me that the most powerful option available  to not-lead-jammer teams within the rules is rarely used in its most efficient and beneficial form.

I have to ask: Why?

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Get your panties back in the strategy game.

Passing the star is an odd implementation of the active pivot rule that roller derby has traditionally had for decades. Despite this, the WFTDA form of the “active” pivot is functional enough to help get a team’s jammer—or rather, one of the team’s jammers—out on a scoring pass behind the lead jammer faster and easier than they could without it.

There could be a reason for it being a relatively rare sight in derby. Once a jammer removes her helmet cover to attempt a star pass to the pivot, her team becomes ineligible to earn lead status for the jam. Then again, if the other team has already picked up lead status, this becomes irrelevant.

Such is the perfect environment in which passing the star can be used to great effect. Continue reading

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