Every time I mention Roller Derby to someone who doesn’t know what it is, they have strange ideas about it. Is it like ice hockey? Do you just race? Is the track a circle? Is it like in that movie with Ellen Page? Is there a ball (no, nobody actually asked me that one yet). So I always end up telling them about the rules, occasionally while showing them a game from my team on YouTube (see: Easter 2016 with my parents in law). And although I always think it’s gonna be a simple explanation, it always ends up getting very messy – especially when I start eating the cashew nuts representing the skaters.
I thus decided to write this article for my curious friends, who were frustrated with my complicated explanations! These are the very basic rules, and do not mention exceptions or special cases. If you really want to know all the details, I put a link to the 80 pages official rule book at the end of this article 😀
What are you wearing?
So, we are wearing quad skates (not inline ones). We also wear mandatory protective gear (wrist guards, elbow and knee pads, helmet, mouthguard) – roller deby is a contact sport, after all.
Even though roller derby has a history of fishnets, mini shirts, glitter and cleavage, most teams nowadays wear a regular top uniform, and comfortable sport leggings.
Although the occasional fishnet and glitter make up is not unheard of… 😉
Gear is a very important part of roller derby, but not the one interesting us right now so let’s continue to…
Is the track a circle?
Not really, no.
The track looks like this 🙂
And yes, it is totally and absolutely flat!
The path is ~4.5m wide, and the length from the two opposing corners is 27 meters. Players skate in counter-clockwise direction.
Jammers, Blockers, Pivots: 5 people on wheels!
Now that we’ve established the basics, get ready for the second step: who and what 😀
On the above representation of the track, you can see dots representing the skaters, so keep an eye on that while I introduce them.
There are two teams competing, and each team has 5 players, who have different roles (I even color-coded them in an attempt to make it easier to understand, let’s see how this works):
- Jammers: 1 per team, are recognizable by the stars on their helmets. They are the only ones who can score points, and their goal is just to do as many laps as possible.
- Blockers: 3 per team, they are recognizable because they are the ones with no helmet covers. Their goal is to prevent the opponent Jammer to pass them, thus slowing them down and preventing them from scoring. Sometimes they can also get the opponent Blockers out of the way, to help their own Jammer go through easily.
- Pivots: 1 per team, are recognizable by the stripe on their helmets. They are basically Blockers, with the exception that… they can become Jammers! Indeed, if the Jammer from their team is too blocked, they can give their star helmet cover to the Pivot, who becomes Jammer instead of them – this is called a ‘Star Pass’.
Ok, let’s give it a try! Identify the black (KRR) Jammer and Pivot, and the Red (Tampere) Jammer and Pivot in the picture underneath.
If you got them right, you can also notice that two red Blockers and one red Pivot are trying to block the black Jammer. On the right side of the picture, we also have a black Blocker trying to block the red Jammer. I hope you’re starting to get it 😀
Final note: the group of people formed by all the blockers and pivots on the track is called ‘the Pack‘. There are certains rules about it, for instance people in the pack cannot be too far from each other. For this reason, you will never see blockers dispersed all over the track, or skate after a Jammer for a long time 🙂
Bouts and Jams
A bout is what we call a game. A game is comprised of 2 x 30 minutes periods.
In total, a game last something closer to one hour and a half, with the half time break and the Timeouts.
A bout is divided in a lot of Jams. Jams last up to 2 minutes, but are usually shorter than that. Indeed, if someone gets the ‘Lead Jammer’ status (see later) they can just call off the Jam whenever they want.
There are 30 seconds between every Jams, to give time to the players to form the starting line up again.
Rosters can change between the Jams, but new players cannot enter the game during a Jam. So the Jam is played with only the people who lined up in the beginning of it (and the people in the penalty box).
If there’s an injury, the Jam is called off, and another roster (without the injured player) starts lining up.
How do you get points?
Jammers score 1 point by opponent they pass. That’s pretty simple, right? Don’t be so sure…
The first pass doesn’t count – it’s called the initial pass and you just don’t get any point from it. What you can get from it though, is the status of ‘Lead Jammer‘if you’re the first one of the two Jammers to pass everybody (legally). You can call off the Jam whenever you want once you get this status, but you will lose it if you get a penalty.
Because there are 4 Blockers (if we count the Pivot in) per teams, a Jammer passing the Pack will usually earn 4 points. If Jammer A has been stuck in the pack while their opponent Jammer B did a lap, Jammer B wil also earn a point for passing Jammer A. So when a Jammer is out of the pack, they usually get 4 or 5 points.
Can you hit people?
Roller derby is a contact sport. You will not get past people by asking politely, and sometimes (often) people get hit. That doesn’t mean we can hit wherever we want, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to start fights on the track. There are strict rules, and penalties made to enforce them.
There are a LOT of penalties, so I’m not gonna go over all of them. You can get penalties for hitting somebody in the wrong place, or for passing an opponent while you were outside the track (‘Cutting!’), for instance.
If you get a penalty, you have to go to the Box for 30 seconds before being allowed to return to the track.
If you’re still in the box at the end of the Jam, your timer will pause and start again at the beginning of the next Jam.
When a Jammer is in the box, it’s called a ‘Power Jam‘, meaning that the Blockers who currently have nobody to block are going to try and disrupt the opponent Blockers to try and help their own Jammer. Yeah I know, it’s getting complicated.
Is it like in the movie with Ellen Page?
Huuuum not really. This movie (‘Whip It’, by the way) is about banked track roller derby – which means that the track is not flat but tilted so that the inside is lower than the outside.
What I am playing, on the other hand, is flat track roller derby!
There are a few difference other than the track appearance: in banked track, Jams are shorter (one minute instead of two) and penalties are served differently. It’s also known for its real fights between players, which almost ever happens in flat track roller derby (the fights would be stopped immediately and heavily punished if they ever happened).
I guess banked track derby has a reputation to be more theatrical, ‘for the show’, whereas flat track has a reputation of being a more serious and competitive sport. But I don’t know much about banked roller derby, so I can’t really talk about it…
So it’s not exactly the same, but the movie still gives a nice impression of what roller derby can be, and I love it for it 😀
It also gives me great gifs to use in this blog!
Am I gonna understand (and enjoy) the first game I watch?
If you read this whole article, sure 😀
Ok, more precisely:
- If you have some friends or family skating, you’re probably gonna enjoy it, even if it’s just because you’re impressed by their awesome skating moves!
- If you concentrate on spotting the Jammer, watching them fight to pass the blockers, and understanding who’s Lead Jammer, the game will probably become fascinating quite quickly – it worked for me.
- Choose a team! Whether it’s the one with the most points, the other one for its underdog qualities, the team of someone you know, or just because you love their name or colors, I think it’s always easier to get into the game when you root for someone. Especially as, this way, you don’t need to concentrate on everything at once.
- I wrote an article here about the first game I ever saw, when I didn’t know anything about the rules, and it was still awesome 😀
- Get up and go watch a game already! You’re gonna love it!! ❤
- The full WFTDA (Woman’s Flat Track Roller Derby) rules
- Go watch the Suomi Cup final from last year on Youtube (starts at 2:50)
- The rules “explained” by Marvel in the cartoon Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.