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.