How to Watch Roller Derby

How to enjoy watching roller derby when you know nothing about it

USA vs Finland in the 2018 Roller Derby World Cup. Picture by Marko Niemelä

Roller derby is a team sport played on roller skates—the four-wheeled kind of skate known as “quads.” Most players are women, and so this explanation will use “she” and “her.”

At the start of the game five players from each team get on the track. One player from each team wears a star on her helmet. Her job is to score points by skating past the players on the other team. She is called the “jammer.” The other four players on her team are called “blockers.” They have two jobs: help their jammer score points and stop the other team’s jammer from getting past them. They do this by hitting and obstructing the opposing players with their hips and shoulders.

In most other team sports, there’s a ball, and the easiest way to watch is to follow the ball. In roller derby, the jammer is the ball. The easiest way to watch is to follow her. She is where the points are scored.

If those two teams of five women just skated around in circles for an hour they would get pretty exhausted and the game would be confusing to watch. So the game is divided into tiny sections called “jams.” A jam can be up to two minutes long. At the end of the jam, everything resets, and often a fresh jammer and fresh blockers take the track. A jam is a bit like an over in cricket, or an at bat in baseball, or a down in American Football, or a service in tennis. There’s a brief period of action, then a quick break, then the action begins again. When watching roller derby, you pay close attention during the jams, and relax a bit in between jams.

A jam is a drama of three acts. Once you understand those three acts, you understand how a jam works, and you understand most of roller derby. Everything else is detail.

i. The First Part of the Jam

The jam starts with the jammers behind all the blockers. The first thing a jammer has to do is get in front of the blockers. This is called the jammer’s “initial pass.” She tries to get to the front of the blockers by dodging and sometimes pushing with her shoulders. She is not allowed to use her hands or arms. She has to stay within the lines of the track. Her blockers try to help her by clearing opposing blockers out of the way with their hips and shoulders, while also trying to stop the jammer from the opposing team. The first jammer to get past all the blockers is called the “lead jammer.” (That’s “lead” as in “leadership,” not “lead” as in pencil.) You will know who the lead jammer is because one of the referees in the center of the track will point to her, and will keep pointing to her throughout the jam. The most important thing to watch for at the start of a jam is who gets to be lead jammer. Being lead jammer is a big advantage, because the lead jammer gets a special privilege, which we will come to in a moment.

ii. The Second Part of the Jam

Once the lead jammer gets past all the blockers, she tries to skate around the track and catch up to the opposing blockers so she can start scoring. This is called a “scoring pass.” Meanwhile, the other jammer is still trying to get past the blockers. Sometimes she will get past the blockers a fraction of a second after the other jammer; sometimes she will get stuck behind the blockers for the whole jam. (And sometimes, but not often, neither jammer ever gets past the blockers during the jam and nobody can score.) There are two things to watch for at this stage of a jam: whether the lead jammer is about to pass her opponents and score points, and whether the other jammer has got past the blockers and started her scoring pass. Every time a jammer gets her hips past the hips of an opposing player, she scores a point. And she can keep going round the track and scoring points until the jam ends. Four or five points is a pretty good jam, but sometimes jammers can score as many as twenty or thirty points.

iii.The Third Part of the Jam

If the opposing jammer is stuck behind the blockers on her initial pass, the lead jammer may decide to keep skating laps and trying to score points until the two minutes of the jam are up. But in most jams the opposing jammer gets out of the pack of blockers and starts her own scoring pass. This is where the special privilege of being the lead jammer becomes important. The lead jammer can end the jam at any time by tapping her hips repeatedly with her hands. This is known as “calling off the jam.” She can use this privilege to prevent the other jammer from scoring. The lead jammer must try to score as may points as possible while also being aware of where the other jammer is on the track. Sometimes this decision to call off the jam comes down to inches and fractions of a second, and fans will be screaming at their lead jammer to “call it!” In this third part of the jam, watch to see if the lead jammer calls off the jam at the best possible time.

Like every sport, roller derby has lots of very detailed rules and diehard fans love to talk about them. All rules are equally important but not all rules are broken equally often. There are really only three rules you need to know:

i. The “Star Pass”

One of the blockers on each team wears a stripe on her helmet. She is called the “pivot.” If things get desperate, the jammer can take the star off her helmet and hand it to the pivot. The pivot then takes over as jammer (and the jammer becomes a blocker.) The pivot must put the star on her helmet before she can score any points. If you see a jammer take her star off, watch to see if she makes a successful star pass.

ii. The “Track Cut”

If a skater’s wheel or any other part of her touches the ground beyond the lines of the track she is out of bounds. (She is allowed to put one hand down outside of the track, but that’s all, and it rarely happens.) She cannot skate past any opposing skater while out of bounds. This is called “cutting the track” because it’s like cutting corners. A common defensive strategy in roller derby is to try to knock the jammer out of bounds, then skate back down the track, forcing the jammer to backpedal and lose ground before she reenters. (This is often called “recycling.”) If the jammer does not enter the track behind her opponent, perhaps because she did not realise she had gone out of bounds, she will be given a “track cut” penalty, and have to sit out the next thirty seconds of the jam. If you see a jammer get sent to the penalty box, this is nearly always the reason why.

iii. “Pack Destruction”

All the blockers on the two teams have to stay close together. No blocker can be more than ten feet away from where most of the other blockers are. If a blocker goes beyond this boundary, she must return quickly, or she will get a penalty for “pack destruction.” Jammers will often try to push an opposing blocker or blockers away from the main “pack” of blockers until the blockers are forced to yield and return to the pack. If you see a blocker suddenly disengage from a jammer and let her through, it is almost certainly because she is too far beyond the main “pack” of blockers.

Most of the other rules that are enforced regularly concern illegal hits and blocks. For example, blockers cannot grab each other to form a barrier that prevents an opponent from passing. (This is called a “multiplayer block.”) Players cannot make contact with opponents above the collarbone, (“high block”) or below mid-thigh (“low block”), or in the back or back of the legs (“back block”) or with their hands or forearms. If you see a blocker being sent to the penalty box, an illegal hit or block is often the reason why.

Penalties require players to spend time in the penalty box and their penalty time may not end at the end of the jam. Many jams will have fewer than ten players at times, and some jams will start with one or more players in the penalty box. Watch to see how many points a team can score while the other team is short of players.

Roller derby requires a lot of skill. It’s easy to forget that every athlete is doing everything with wheels on their feet. Skill moves you may see include the “apex jump,” when a jammer leaps between the corners of the track to get past opposing blockers; the “side-surf” when a jammer turns sideways to squeeze past opposing blockers; “hip checks” when a blocker knocks an opponent over or off course with a deft flick of the hips; and “whips” when a jammer get some extra speed by grabbing a blocker’s hand or jersey and “whipping” forward. The higher the level of roller derby you are watching, the more often you may see moves like this completed successfully.

Some roller derby games appear to be big blowouts, with one team beating the other by a hundred points or more. But all may not be as it appears. Many roller derby teams have a global ranking, and many games are played to try to improve this ranking. If a team is playing an opponent with a much higher rank, and is expected to lose by 200 points, but it only loses by 100 points, its rank will improve considerably, and that 100 point loss is in fact an amazing victory. Other people at the game may be able to tell you if rankings are at stake, and, if so what the predicted margin of victory is. For many matches, you can enter the names of the teams and get a prediction from this website. You can then watch to see which team does better than the prediction.

That’s all you need to know. Modern roller derby was invented in the early 2000s and is played by about 100,000 people over the world. Enjoy watching.

A note about different types of roller derby: this description applies mainly to what is known as “Women’s Flat Track Derby,” governed by an association called the “W.F.T.D.A.” About 85% of all roller derby is of this type. The other kinds are very similar even if, for example, they are played by men, or on a banked track.

A note for roller derby experts: you may have read this wanting to say a lot of sentences that begin with “but…” or “technically…” or “actually…” Yes, we have simplified and failed to mention some exceptions and ignored about a hundred fascinating, if rarely needed, rules and their corresponding hand signals. We have also gendered everyone as female, even though many roller derby athletes identify as non-binary or male. We think this is just enough information to help a casual spectator enjoy watching their first game, and, we hope, to help them want to watch their second and third one. Around the time of their fourth game, feel free to tap them on the shoulder and tell them about the other stuff, if they haven’t already asked.

© 2018 Frogmouth, Inc. If you’re a roller derby league, you can totally use this in your bout programs, but you must publish the whole text without edits or changes, and you must include the credit: © 2018 Frogmouth, Inc.

Roller derby uniforms for every body