Front/Back/Back/Front: Positioning in a Jam Start

Starting each jam in a place of confidence – where you can play your strongest defense and most effective offense – is the way to control the first pass, and therefore lead jammer status, and win roller derby bouts. But how do you find that place of confidence? How do you choose your strongest jam start?

Let’s start (ha!) by figuring out, first of all, what all the starting possibilities are.

A Few Handy Definitions

Real estate is real important to this conversation – it’s all about location, location, location. In the case of track location, both teams have to line up somewhere in the thirty feet between the jam and pivot lines. Everyone but the jammer has to be completely in front of the jam line and everyone but the pivot has to be completely behind the pivot line. The jammer and the pivot are allowed to be touching the lines named after their positions. If the pivot has her toestop on the pivot line, everyone else – on both teams – has to be behind her hips. This is pretty basic rules stuff, but I want to make sure we’re all starting off on the right foot in our starts-talk. Okay, that’s done, now for the actual skating part.

Generally, we talk about jam starts in relation to two things: the jam/pivot line and the other team. When I hear “get a front-front” on the bench, I know my team has decided to line up in front of the other team near the pivot line. Likewise, a “back in the back” is a back wall on the jam line. Similarly, you can take a front wall in the back, or set up behind the other team near the pivot line.

And that’s pretty much it, really. Every jam start in roller derby, no matter what sort of shape they might take—flat, braced, wheel, or even those crazy split walls we saw at WFTDA Champs this year—they all fall into one of those four basic categories. Front-front, front-back, back-front, back-back.

So, with those options in mind – which do you choose and why? Which one’s best?

Well… it depends. (Ugh, I know, I hate that answer, too. But it’s true.) It depends on the strengths in your team that you want to exploit, and any weaknesses you might want to minimize – and vice versa for the other team. There are a million permutations of this, but here are the broad strokes.

Reasons to wall up at the pivot line

  • You’ve got a fast, jukey jammer who benefits from a running start to get her speed up
  • You’re down one or more blockers, and you want to be able to protect your points by running away/making the other jammer’s lap as long as possible
  • Their jammer isn’t a speed demon or is more of a pusher-style and you want to make her play to her disadvantage
  • The other team hates pivot line starts for whatever reason
  • Someone dropped some spare change up there

As a side note, pivot-line starts have undergone a bit of a transformation in the few years since I’ve started playing. Back in the bad old days, all blockers started at the pivot line. Rules changed, strategies changed, and jam-line starts were the way to go. When folks started to bring pivot-line starts back, it was called “old school.” Now they’re quite common again—my team used them a ton last season, in fact. What’s old is new again.

Reasons to wall up at the jam line, many of which are sort of the inverse of the above:

  • You’ve got a strong jammer who loves to push, so the sooner she meets the other team, the sooner she can start working them out of play
  • Your jammer and blockers feel more confident when they’re closer together
  • You want to prevent the other jammer from having that run-up space to work with
  • The angle makes your butt look better in photos

Dealing with a power/less jam start

As a rule, if your jammer is the one on the track, you want the pack to be as slow as possible. That means her laps are as short as possible, so in theory she can make more of them in the same amount of time, and your team will score more points. That pack-pace control, and as a last resort, the out-of-play call, are easiest to accomplish while your team is in the back. (Not that that precludes offense in any way, but that’s another article.) That’s why, on a power start, you’ll want to set up in the back. Naturally, that’s the other way ‘round for a powerless jam start.

End of Side A: Which Line Should I Start On?
Over for Side B: What About the Other Team, Though?

This area is a bit fuzzier—I say that knowing that the other bit was itself a little blurry around the edges. It boils down to where your blockers are more comfortable, and what your jammer feels strongest with.

Starting in front of the other team will guarantee that your blockers will have enough space to engage their edges and really own their stops, and a front wall gives your team the opportunity to deny that same maneuverability to the other team. On the other hand, many players feel more adept at playing offense from behind, and a front wall leaves your team open to that – not that offense from the front can’t be equally as effective. A front wall will also allow more space for a backwards-facing bracer, if y’all swing that way. Wink.

On the other hand, being in a back wall is great, too. Particularly if your team is really good at absorbing a jammer’s initial impact—if you’re nice and strong in a low position off the line—then the back can be a really strong position for you. And there’s nothing quite so satisfying, at least from a blocker’s perspective, than owning the other jammer’s position from the first whistle to the final four.


With that, I think I’m going to call the jam on this article. I hope I’ve been able to clarify which starts are possible and why you might choose one or another. Find where you feel strong and own it, but don’t forget to practice your weaker starts, too. Happy trails!

Sui Jennaris is about to begin her second season as a member of the Heartless Heathers, one of the Rose City Rollers’ home teams. In a past life, she was a figure skater. Her most favorite things include reading on rainy days, trivia games, and mashup Twitter accounts. Her least favorite things are hyphenated flavors, talking on the phone, and writing pithy ‘about me’ statements. She attends Reed College.

Mind Over Matter: On Learning Crossovers

The first time I did a speed trial was about a week after I started skating last winter, back in Chicago. It was at a skate clinic with the Windy City Rollers and while a coach urged me on, I made 20 laps in five minutes. Disappointed, I watched much more skilled skaters around me lap me again and again. Afterward a kind, more seasoned skater told me not to worry.

“You held your own,” she said. “Once you master crossovers, you’ll be faster than me.”

Once I master what now? I thought to myself. While I smiled and thanked her, back then I didn’t know what she was talking about. But later, when our coach first showed our team of newbies what crossovers could do, my mind was blown. I wanted to pull off this killer move that looked awesome and gave your wheels some wings, but it looked impossible.

I was able to wrap my brain around putting one skate in front of the other, but I was still unable to convince myself to pick up that opposite foot and plant it next to the crossing one and push. It just really takes a lot to trick yourself into believing crossing your feet while moving in roller skates is a good thing to do. I practiced other moves with my new teammates but crossovers were still a big hang-up for me.

Lucky for me, there was Steve.

Steve taught a speed skating class several times a week at Orbit Skate Center, a rink then near my old office. I’d known about this class for a long time, and on one fateful Monday last winter I packed my skates and my gear and took them with me to work.

I showed up to the rink a little early. I carted my rolling suitcase containing my skates and parked myself at a cafeteria table. As a birthday party full of kids cleared out, a guy came up to me and asked if I was there for the speed class. I said I was, and we introduced ourselves. Steve was 32 and said he’d been skating since he was 9 — not speed skating the whole time, but he’s been coaching people in it for more than 10 years.

When I walked onto the rink in gym shoes, I was one of four adults: Me, Steve, a woman maybe a few years older than me, and a man older than Steve. The rest were a handful of children. I felt a little disappointed, because the last time I’d skated at Orbit, I’d struggled to dodge kids and felt anxious about knocking into them. I shrugged it off. We ran some laps, did some stretches, and then laced up.

Immediately it became clear to me that those kids all skated much faster than me, by far. And they were all doing crossovers, without a second thought to how terrifying each one was to me as an observer.

We did some drills as a group, and Steve simultaneously took it easy on me while also improving my form and giving me instruction with each attempt. He was a good teacher and could see that I was starting out in roller derby and that I didn’t quite have the hang of crossovers yet.

After class, he offered to stay to help me and one of the kids, one-on-one. He had me skate on one foot for as long as I could while he did a drill with the boy, and after the boy left, he asked me if I wanted to give crossovers a try. It was past 10 p.m. by then and I had a 30-minute drive home, but the answer was still yes, of course.

We made a lap, and when I still faltered, he took a new approach. He had me stand mid-rink, on a foot-tall green, painted line that stretched from end to end of the floor. He had me walk sideways along the line, putting my right foot across the left, over and over. My feet got used to the motion after a sideways pass across the rink like that, and then we skated another lap.

I crossed my right foot over my left and stepped into it all the way, just like I had on the line — only I was moving in a circle, fast. The move made me go faster. I lifted my arms in celebration, and nearly fell over. I crossed over again and again, skating faster than I could quite handle and feeling invincible. I high-fived Steve.

They told us at practice that crossovers are basically mind over matter. Once you get over the mental hurdle of how insane it is, you can reap the physical rewards and go hella fast.

Sure, they seem scary at first, but dang, are they worth it.

Meryl Williams is a Chicago journalist who now lives in Portland. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter, where you can learn more about her upcoming memoir on skating.


Finding Your Happy Place In Your Walls

Lining up for a jam in walls with your teammates always gives you a little extra security—these are the people you practice with all the time and hopefully enjoy being around, after all—but sometimes, you’ll get the feeling that things seem to work just a little bit better when you line up in a particular way.

Different parts of a wall have different strengths, and when game time comes around, you can choose the position that plays to your strengths.

Or, if you don’t have teammates yet, maybe your fellow blockers in scrimmage have asked you where you like to line up—the inside? the outside?—and you weren’t quite sure what to say. Read on to learn more about where to line up in a wall, and why.

Where Can You Be In a Wall?

A very long-standing and common way to break it down is to assign blockers to lanes. Assuming you have a four-wall, Lane 1 is holding the inside line, Lane 2 is middle-inside, Lane 3 is middle-outside, and Lane 4 guards the outside line.

With the advent of braced walls and more dynamic formations, assigning yourself to a lane might seem less clear. So, we’ll touch upon that, and talk about wall positions in a way that (hopefully) still translates and makes sense.

Lane 1, or Nearest to the Inside Line

Guarding the inside line is of perhaps the gravest importance—
it’s the shortest path around the track, and nobody likes making it that easy for an opposing jammer to get through. So, if you’re in this position, you should have Lane 1 on lockdown.

Do you have a good sense of where you are in relation to the inside line? If you’re the person who always knows exactly how close the inside line is, even in the turns, you should be holding that line! On the other hand, if you tend to drift off the line without realizing it, you might let someone else handle that job.

Are you awesome at finishing your hits? We’ve all felt the frustration of hitting a jammer, thinking they’ve gone out, only to see them just barely squeak past in-bounds. If you’re working in a narrower wall, like a three-wall or a braced wall, finishing your hits all the way to the line will make sure that nobody squeaks past your wall.

Are you comfortable with transitions and bracing? If your team likes to start in a flat wall and then transition to a brace, you could be a great candidate for Lane 1. Players who start on the lines are usually the first to transition into a brace position, whether it’s as a lone bracer, or part of a wheel or diamond formation. (Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is. It’s kinda advanced stuff.) Being quick with transitions and comfortable with facing backwards could be an asset to a Lane 1 player.

Do you pivot often? If your team relies heavily on passing the cap, the inside lane is a nice place to be, if you’re the pivot receiving that cap pass.

Lanes 2 and 3, or the Middle Lane(s)

The middle lanes are the solid core of the wall. If you’re in a middle lane, you’ll need to be strong and also adaptable, so you can support your blocker friends in covering the lines.

Do you have really great forward-facing stops? I like to play on the lines, and one of my favorite qualities in a Lane 2 or 3 blocker is when they have awesome, hard plow stops, so I can easily support their blocking. Jammers who don’t want to risk running up the line often hit and push the middle gap hard. If you can take those hard hits and still stay slow and dug into your edges, a middle lane might be for you.

Are you extra-good about having your head on a swivel? Every blocker needs to have their head up, looking around, and to keep aware of what’s happening on the track. But, while Lanes 1 and 4 have their respective lines as a boundary to fall back on, middle lane blockers need to keep alert to both sides of themselves. If your track awareness is on point, you might try a middle lane.

Are you good at closing gaps and cinching together with your blockers? You have blockers on both sides of you, so you’ll need to be especially on-point with closing up gaps and gluing yourself together with your adjacent blockers, while still staying stable and in control.

Is hammer-and-nail your bread and butter? Middle lane blockers are all set up to deliver that strong hip check out of bounds when their blocker friend on the inside or outside line is holding the jammer.

Lane 4, or Nearest to the Outside Line

It’s not quite as easy for a jammer to sneak up the outside line as the inside line—it’s a longer path, and they’ll need more speed to pull it off—but there are a lot of similar skills to the Lane 1 position that’ll serve you well with holding the outside.

Got a good sense of where the line is? Momentum can make it easier to stay on the outside line than the inside, but it’s still important for you to be glued to that line when the jammer’s sniffing around.

Okay with transitioning and bracing? Again, if your team likes starting flat and flipping into braced walls or wheel/diamond formations, the Lane 4 player is likely to be making that transition.

Do you love hitting to the outside? It’s pretty common for derby players to be more comfortable with hitting or making C-cuts towards the inside line. If you’re good at finishing your hits all the way to the outside line, however, then Lane 4 could be a great place for you—especially if your team tends to work in a narrower wall that covers less track, and particularly if you can consistently finish to the outside without following your opponent out of bounds yourself.

Dedicated Brace

It’s becoming more common, especially at higher levels of play, to start with a backwards-facing brace in your wall, and that means someone has to volunteer to brace. It’s not exactly a “lane” in the strict sense, but it does ask for some pretty specific skills.

Do you have the gift of clear, consistent communication? One obvious advantage of being the brace: you’re facing backwards, and can easily keep your eye on the opposing jammer! Your team will want to use that advantage as much as possible, so you’ll need to be comfy with talking to your wall a lot and calling the shots.

Is your backwards lateral movement pretty reliable? A brace will be more effective at supporting their wall when it can shuffle side-to-side to give support where the action is, i.e. where the jammer is pushing. So, if you’re at least decently comfortable with backwards lateral movement, you could be a great brace.

Got strong arms? Yeah, you’re going to need them to support your blockers. Wet noodle arms are not helpful for support or wall-slowing.

BONUS: Are you fearless when it comes to chest-to-chest contact? Ideally, your forward-facing blockers won’t let this happen, but it *is* possible that the jammer will punch and make contact with your chest… which just happens to be a completely legal blocking zone. Scary! Nobody likes trying to stop a jammer chest-to-chest, but if you’re willing to do it in a pinch, be that bracer. (Hint: being lower than they are will often get you most of the way there!) (Editor’s note: Spocker may have taken some strong contact like this in the past.)

Hopefully, you now have a few simple metrics to help you get a better handle on where you might work best in your wall on bout day. Ultimately, you need to use a variety of skills to be an effective blocker, so being strong or weak in one particular skillset doesn’t mean you have to stick to one specific part of the wall.

Maybe, now that you know what you’re good at, you can take some time to work on lanes where you’re less comfortable! As you get towards higher levels of play, you’ll need to have a greater ability to be dynamic and adaptive in your walls, so it’s definitely worth your time to try different positions during practice. Push yourself and try it!

 Shaolin Spocker helps new roller derby skaters figure out where their strengths lie when lining up in a wall | roller derby for beginners

Photo by Regularman

Shaolin Spocker skates with Rose City Rollers, and is going into her fourth season with her incredibly smart-and-pretty home team, the High Rollers. She likes Star Trek and pie (both baking and eating it), and actually knows kung fu, but has received decidedly more high-fives for hitting people in derby than she has anywhere else. You can check out her web design and photography work–both of which she does better and far more often than blogging–at her creative design studio, Upswept Creative.


Taking Roller Derby Feedback Like a Pro

Roller derby is such a chaotic and humbling experience for people. First of all, you’re being judged on how well you physically move around a small, oval track while you have eight wheels strapped to your feet. Now add the fact that people are slamming into your body repeatedly, either on your team or against your team. Roller derby feedback can feel like someone’s slamming you all over again.

Roller derby can make you feel less than graceful, less than effective, and just plain vulnerable. Nobody likes to be vulnerable, especially when we’re feeling awkward. Heap on top of that sensation of someone giving you feedback. Yes, feedback is a criticism, and many people instinctively dislike being “judged”. But think of roller derby feedback from your coaches as a preemptive judgement that keeps you from dealing with the harsher and more final judgement of a referee!

Even vets can feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of feedback, but you can start your derby career off on the right foot by learning how to take feedback without getting angry, defensive, and frustrated.

Listen. Listen listen listen listen. The number one complaint I hear from vets is that people don’t give much feedback to them. People seem to be more willing to give newbies feedback, so when someone says something to you, listen! You may not want to hear feedback at that moment; high frustration levels tend to make us want to shut our ears off. Don’t just hear the feedback, listen to it.

Take a moment to digest the feedback. The biggest mistake I see derby players make is immediately rejecting the feedback they receive. It’s not easy to take feedback when your adrenaline is pumping, or you’ve just fallen, or have just committed a foul. I see this scenario happening over and over on the track with newer skaters. The skater has incorrectly completed a drill, and the coach tries to correct the action by giving feedback. The skater immediately says “I know!” and skates away in a huff.

Look, I get it. Getting feedback right when you’re feeling the most vulnerable is terrible, but look at it from a coach’s perspective. They see the incorrect behavior and they want to correct it right away. It makes sense intellectually, but when you add embarrassment to the equation, sometimes our first instinct is to reject it. This is why you should take the time to digest it. Take a deep breath and and let it sit in your brain without your judgement getting in the way.

Don’t discount feedback, even when you’re not sure what to do with it right away. This is close to digesting feedback, but sometimes someone is going to give you feedback that you just can’t wrap your head around–that’s when you need to file it away and think about it later. I remember when I was jamming against a veteran skater, and she looked at me and said “never hesitate.” My first response to her feedback was to say “okay” but in my head I was thinking “Whatever! You’re amazing and I suck at this and I’m scared as hell to jam!” It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I really could internalize what she was saying to me; playing derby is all about not hesitating. It’s about being familiar enough with your game and your skills to do what you need to do instantly.

Now I tell that to every newbie I work with, and I’m sure they have the same internal reaction.Sometimes you’re not going to be able to use the feedback you receive, but keep it in your head and it might come in handy later.

Take it with a grain of salt. Some people have an unconscious bias when they give feedback. I’m a six foot tall skater, and every short trainer I ever had was hypercritical of my stance, skating style and general appearance as a skater in general.We all have a point of view, and it clouds how and what we give feedback about. I listened to my shorter trainers, and I still concentrate on getting lower, but there is no way that I can get as physically low as someone who is five feet tall and still be able to skate without my knees being in my face. Take in all feedback but sift out what doesn’t work for you. Remember, the feedback may not work NOW, but file it away and see if it will work for you later.

Be proactive in seeking feedback. If you don’t always understand or appreciate the feedback you’re getting, ask people for specific correction. Approach your coach or a veteran skater you trust and ask them if they will watch for something specific you’re trying to do.I used to have a horrible time going from forward skating to backwards skating, so I asked for certain people to watch me perform my transitions and show me how they did them. It was very educational, because everyone had different tips! It took all of those tips just to get my transitions down, and I’m grateful to each person who took the time to show me how they turn, over and over. Asking for feedback and help is a win-win situation; most people are flattered to be asked for their opinions, plus, you get directed and tailor-made feedback for your skating style. Perfect!


Will you always handle feedback perfectly if you follow these suggestions? Nope. You’re human, and the people giving you feedback are human. Your feelings will be hurt once in awhile, either by something someone says, or HOW they say it. It’s okay to have hurt feelings once in awhile. What’s not okay is becoming someone who people don’t want to help with their feedback.

Elektra Q-Tion blogs at You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Loose Wheel.

What’s the best feedback you’ve ever gotten?

The Brand New Roller Derby for Beginners

When we started, this website was a companion to my book, Roller Derby for Beginners. I wanted to have a web presence for people who might be interested in buying the book, sure. But I also wanted a place where I could delete and add pertinent information for people who were new to roller derby: Other sites, stores, blogs, etc. It pretty much served as a Resources section for the book. Things change, you know.

…until now.

Now, I’m launching Roller Derby for Beginners as the premier blog for new and potential roller derby skaters. Some of your favorite roller derby writers will be here, helping you along as you start your journey. Check back often, and follow along on Facebook and Twitter, because this is going to be fun.

Thanks for coming.

-Frisky Sour