Goal-Based Strategies

Strategy (noun): the skill of carrying out plans to achieve a goal.

Okay, so the the title, "Goal-Based Strategies," is a misnomer. All strategies are goal-based. What I really mean is goal-based decision-making: fluid decisions determined by the situation or impending situation, which are meant to reach a shared goal.

When I was a derby baby (back in 2006 through around 2008) the "strategy" was to skate fast and fuck people up. I have no idea how that ever worked. It must've been the dumbest luck in the world. Seriously. Check out this video from 2009 (action starts at 1:50). As dumb as we played, we're still kinda cute, giving whips and ineffective blocks. Awww, look at the babies!

Then we grew up and starting learning how to play roller derby, but we weren't quite there. When I began captaining my team, our only goal was to win everything. Ranking was based on a voting system, so you wanted a significant point-spread win, but having one didn't always impact the vote. We had no long-term goal, no short-term goals, just one simple goal: win. There was no plan for how to win the bout, other than play your best, play good derby. Sometimes that worked out and sometimes it didn't (we were so young and naive). In hindsight, I am painfully confident that if we had determined and articulated concrete goals, our team would have seen far more success. Hashtag-reality-check.

Aside from my team's blundering along in the rankings, we (well, mostly me) were hopped up on creating strategies. Often to our own detriment. For example, when passive offense became a thing (2009? or was it 2010?), we were all about it. The outcome, as many teams realized, was that our jammers got shredded by defense, as we stood by and watch. We decided to ditch passive offense and switch to aggressive offense. Then, we were speeding up the pack so much that our jammers were exhausted before they reached the defense. After years of attempting unsuccessful strategies, I finally realized (gawd, I'm a slow learner sometimes) that good derby isn't about finding complex strategies to outsmart your opponents. Playing good derby (aside from individual fitness and skating skills) involves making quick, informed decisions based on the simple goal in the moment.

Let's examine the power jam.

What is the goal? To take advantage of the opportunity to score as many points as you can before the opposing jammer is on a scoring pass.

Distilled to the simplest plan, how can you accomplish that?

  1. Keep the pack slow, stopped, or moving in the opposite direction to decrease the amount of time your jammer spends skating around and not scoring points.
  2. Create a situation, so the jammer skates through the pack as quickly as possible.

What are some offensive options?

Passive Offense: Let your jammer fend for herself.

passive offense

One Offense: One blocker attacks the defensive wall.

One Offense PJ

Two Offense: Two blockers attack the defensive wall.

Attack the Bridger: Take her down or trap her behind you.

Attack the bridger

All Offense: One-on-One Aggressive Blocking

These are not necessarily the best offensive strategies, but just some common ones. There are many more offensive options that teams use - some incredibly creative and effective. And brilliant minds are constantly inventing new ones.   

So, how can you possibly know what to do? First of all, don't pick one strategy. Every team you play is different, and what might work on one opponent won't work on everyone. Aside from that, a smart team will pick up on your one-trick pony act and exploit the shit out of it. Strive for variety. Not only to keep your opponents guessing, but to be versatile and adaptable for any situation on the track.

Before you decide what to do, you must remember your goals: keep the pack slow/stopped/moving in the opposite direction and get the jammer through quickly. This should always be in the back of your mind. Next, you must consider your situation (this list is not fully inclusive, but it'll get you started):

  • The speed of the pack.
  • The location of the pack.
  • Your opponent's skills (their strengths and weaknesses) vs your team's skills.
  • Your jammer's skills vs the opponent's defense.
  • Your jammer's ability to work with offensive players.
  • The number of defensive blockers on the track. 
  • The length of time left before the opposing jammer is on a scoring pass.
  • The length of time on the jam clock.

All these things impact the success of your decision-making. Let's say your team starts a power jam with passive offense, but on the first pass your jammer is struggling to get through defense. You send one person up to punch a hole and quickly return to passive offense without breaking the pack. You do this, instead of all-offense, so you don't speed up the pack. The next pass you send two blockers up to punch the wall, to make sure your jammer can get through. During that pass two defensive blockers are sent to the box. On the next pass, your jammer has to go up against a two-wall. You know that your jammer is the world's best juker and can easily handle two blockers, so your team stays on passive offense. One more pass to go. There's just seven seconds left in the jam and the opposing jammer is out of the box and on a scoring pass. She is half a lap away. Your jammer approaches her final scoring pass, so your team moves to all-offense to secure every point and speed up the pack to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring before the jam clock ran out.

Congratulations! Your team employed four different offensive plays successfully. They did so because they were vigilantly aware of their surroundings, adaptable, and worked together. If your team had forgotten the power jam goals, they could have easily got caught up in chasing the defense or wasting time on passive offense or something horrible. If you weren't aware that the jam was almost over, you may have given up points to the opposing jammer. All these tiny decisions add up and have significant impact on your ability to succeed.

I say succeed, instead of win, because your goal in a bout may not be to win. If your team is new and you are playing Gotham, we can all agree you probably won't win unless you're the Oly Rollers and it's 2009. Sure, it would amazing to win every bout, but you have to be realistic when it comes to goals. (See my "Setting and Achieving Individual Goals" ebook or google "SMART goals" to learn more about goal setting.) 

Without going into the how of goal-setting, let's just assume you understand how to set goals for the sake of this discussion. Let's focus on how your team goals effect the tiny decisions made in a jam, but first let's look at the goal tree. 

Goal Tree

The long-term goal influences each season's goal. The season goal influences the bout goals, and the bout goal influences the jam goals. The jam goal influences all the decisions you make in the pack. Every single movement and decision you, your teammates, and your coaches make should have a purpose rooted in the goal. 

I'll give you an example of how this could play out. Your team's long-term goal is to continually improve your WFTDA ranking. This season you focus on moving up ten spots in rank (yeah, you're one of those teams on that long climb to Divisionals). Your next bout is against a team ranked eight spots lower than your team (hashtag-higher-ranked-teams-won't-play-us-woop-ever), so in order to improve your ranking you need to win by 200 points and keep their team to almost nothing. Your jam goals are:

  • play each jam for the full two minutes, as to spend more time in point-scoring mode and less time between jams or on non-scoring passes
  • jammers must get lead jammer or ensure the opposing jammer does not
  • defense must be tight as fuck - they must wear down jammers and keep them in the pack forever and ever and ever

How does this effect your decision-making in each jam? Consider the following scenario. Your team is yellow and you have lead jammer. The blue jammer - that horrible skank - is on a scoring pass. What do you do? 

Game Scenario 1

HOLD UP! Don't even think about making a decision without considering this: 

  • The speed/skill of the opposing jammer vs your defense.
  • The speed/skill of your jammer vs the opposing blockers.
  • The skills of your blockers vs the skills of the opposing blockers.
  • The amount of time left on the jam clock.

If the opposing jammer is mega-skilled and was consistently blasting through your defense, it's probably a good idea to end the jam. If your defense is shutting down that jammer, you should keep the jam going and score as many points as possible before the jam ends. Even if the opposing jammer gets out, you know your defense will snatch her up and hold her, while your jammer rails off a few more grand slams. You just need to keep an eye on the jam clock to make sure that the opposing jammer doesn't squeak in a few more points before the jam ends. If the opposing blockers are skilled at defense against your jammer, but your defense is even better against the opposing jammer, your team should consider sending a blocker to offense whenever possible. Either way, the blockers are not so concerned about losing their points (unless the jam is almost over and the opposing jammer is approaching a scoring pass) as they are with keeping the opposing jammer in the pack forever.

Here's another scenario. Your bout goal is to win by at least twenty points. Your plan is to focus on a heavy defense - protecting points over offense - and take advantage of Hit It and Quit It opportunities (you have lead jammer and enough jammer separation to score a few points and call off the jam). You are ahead by three points. Your team is yellow and the blue jammer is lead. You are the yellow blocker who was hit off the track. The other three skated ahead and out-of-play. A "no-pack" is called, and your jammer is approaching. What do you do, yellow-blocker-off-the-track?

Game Scenario 2

Before you answer that, answer these two questions: How many points does the blue jammer get if you stay off the track and she calls it off? How many points does she get if you step back on the track just before she calls it off? If you hop on the track before she calls it, she earns four points. If you stay off the track while she calls it, she only gets one point. Wait, what? Yes. Stepping back on the track before the call-off establishes the pack and your teammates ahead of the engagement become free points for the opposing jammer. Why? WFTDA Rule 7.2.4.1 states "the jammer will also be awarded points for Blockers on the track and ahead of the Engagement Zone if said Blockers were not previously scored on during that scoring pass."

Let's do one more. Same goal as the previous one: you must protect all the points! In this scenario, your team is yellow and you have lead jammer. You are a blocker returning to the pack from the penalty box. Where do you enter? What should you consider?

Game Scenario 3

If you step on the track and the opposing jammer passes you before the jam is called off, she's got your point. You must consider your speed versus the opposing jammer's speed. Can you sprint on to the track and help your blockers with offense without giving away your point? Or is the opposing jammer faster than you, and more likely to collect your point ? If the latter is the case, you should enter behind the opposing jammer and stay behind her, because she doesn't collect your point until she passes one of your teammate's hips. Your point is safe, so long as your jammer calls off the jam in time.

Huh? Yes. WFTDA Rule 7.2.1.1 states "The Jammer earns a point for each opponent who is not on the track immediately upon scoring the first point on any opposing Blocker in each scoring pass..." and that includes "Opponents who have returned from the Penalty Box behind the Jammer" (7.2.1.1.5). Hashtag-read-the-fucking-rules-please!

Awareness is imperative. Awareness is everything!

You can't make informed decisions if you don't know the rules. You can't make informed decisions if you don't know what's happening in the jam. You can't make informed decisions if you don't know or understand the team's goals. You're not a rec league (unless you are a rec league), so take your Act-Right, and start making better decisions when you play roller derby. 

Don't try to outsmart your opponent. Just be smart.