So, you’re at roller derby. Maybe your friend finally convinced you to come. Maybe you saw an event on Facebook and took a chance. Maybe you’re lost and you have no idea what the hell kind of multicoloured, whistleblowing, fight club on wheels this is that you’ve walked in to. But you’re here now, so you might as well take a seat and get comfy. Because what you’re about to experience is something truly wonderful.
As a new experience, watching roller derby can be about as confusing as reading the transcript of a Donald Trump speech. When I first started coming to watch I had a million questions about what was going on. Why are they pushing each other? Why are there so many whistles? Was I supposed to bring my own whistle? Where can I get a whistle at this hour?
But fear not, as a (fairly) new spectator myself, I’m here to give you some hints and tips about what to look out for on the day and what you can do to make sure you get a rolling start *winking emoji* on your first experience at roller derby.
So let’s start with the main event; the big show; the thing I’m too afraid to try. Actual, full on, roller derby. The game is played by two teams of five on an oval track. On each team there is a Jammer, who is responsible for scoring points, and a pack four Blockers, who do everything they (legally) can to stop the opposing Jammer getting past them, bumping and blocking them with their hips, shoulders and butts.
The Jammer’s first job is to fight their way past the opposing pack. Whilst they do that, their teammates are trying to stop the other Jammer from getting past them. First Jammer out becomes lead Jammer and then gets to decide when the Jam gets called off. This can be a huge strategical advantage as the team who gets lead is normally the one which scores the most points. Once the Jammer gets out of the pack, they speed around the track and catch up with the opposing pack once again. This is where they score the points. They get one point for each opposing player they lap. Some Jams can be a quick little 1-0 and some can run for the full 2:00 minutes, with both teams racking up big numbers. The world record for most points scored in a single Jam is 50, so even when the scores are close, one huge Jam can flip a game on its head.
As a spectator, the Jammers are the ones to watch as they define much of the action. Fortunately, the roller derby gods made this an easy task for us mere mortals by giving them natty helmet covers with a star on. Keep your eyes on those and you’ll be off to a good start.
So far it might sound like a particularly violent game of British bulldog on wheels. But there are, of course, rules that need to be followed – this is not WWE after all. I’m not even going to pretend that I know all the rules, but I can give you the gist. The big fouls are for things like Blockers blocking in illegal ways (no shoving, elbowing, kicking, headbutting or any other Hulk Hogan-esque move) and Jammers jamming in the wrong way (no skating out of bounds, always re-enter behind someone who legally knocked you off track). If a player commits a foul they are sent to the penalty box, where they have to wait for 30 seconds of Jam time. This time can run over to the start of the next Jam, so you’ll often see teams start with less than the normal five players on track.
In an ideal world your Jammer “gets out” straight away. But if I’ve learned anything from international politics over the last few years it’s that this is not an ideal world. Sometimes your Jammer might struggle to get going. In the worst case scenario, when your Jammer is stuck behind a pack and can’t move, there’s one last chance for them to get some points. In each set of four blockers, there is a special player called a Pivot, who wears a natty helmet cover like the Jammer, only theirs has a stripe down the middle. If the Jammer can’t get past the opposing blockers, they can pass their helmet cover to their Pivot, who will then act as the Jammer for the rest of that Jam. This move is called a star pass and everyone seems to get really excited about it, so trick the people near you into thinking you’re a pro by nodding and clapping when you hear the announcers talking about it.
So now you know what to look out for. Your team is doing well if a) their Jammer gets out of the pack and b) their Blockers can slow down or stop the other Jammer from getting past. And if in doubt, just cheer when everyone else does.
Many roller derby events will have several games happening on one day. Make sure you check out the schedule ahead of time so you know when the team you’re rooting for is playing. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than making the effort to travel to a game and turning up late, only to find that your team is already 200 points ahead with five minutes to go, your girlfriend has stopped jamming and your friend Phoebe has fouled out of the game because of her “consistent, wild aggression” (my words, not hers). So plan ahead, check your travel options and arrive early. You don’t have to be there for every game, but to make the most of your day I would suggest attending all the games you can make.
Next, the stalls. Most roller derby events have a few stalls selling their various wares. Sometimes you’ll get one of the specialist skate shops turning up, so if you find yourself fully swept away on a tide of quad-wheeled glory you can get yourself fully kitted up quicker than you can say “wow that looked painful”. There will probably be a local craft business or two, selling something gorgeous and handmade. And there will almost always be homemade cakes and snacks available and maybe a raffle. BUY THOSE CAKES! BUY THOSE RAFFLE TICKETS! The money from these things normally goes straight back into the league or to a good cause, so you’re doing a great thing by spending your hard earned dinero on game day.
Aside from the players and stall runners, you’ll see a small army of volunteers help make the game day happen. As you enter the sports hall you may be greeted by voices bellowing out over a PA system. Do not panic! It’s not riot police trying to disperse the crowd; it’s the Announcers and they’re a huge part of the roller derby experience. These people know their roller derby and can really help new fans understand what’s going on. My tip – sit as close to them as you can. There’s a reason the Royal Philharmonic don’t set up shop in a sports hall to bang out Beethoven’s 7th and it’s because
there’s always someone playing bloody badminton the acoustics are terrible. The closer you are, the clearer the commentary.
On track, you might notice a pack of skaters, dressed in black and white, who aren’t actually playing the game. To answer the obvious questions; Yes, they’re supposed to be there; No, they aren’t zebras. They’re the Referees (or skating officials), without whom the game couldn’t happen. Being a referee can be a thankless task. So if you know a ref, show them love. Skaters gonna skate, but for roller derby to happen, refs gotta ref. The key ones to watch are the Jammer refs, each watching the actions of one Jammer. If they put their hand up and point, the jammer they’re watching got out first and has got “lead status”, whilst the other ref will wave their hands at like they’re a magician doing a trick at a children’s birthday, signalling that the other jammer got out last.
You’ll also notice a general buzz of activity around the track during games, a swarm of busy little bees greasing the wheels of kick-ass competition. They are roller derby’s lifeblood. They are the true heroes of the sport. They are the legends about whom sonnets will be sung in a thousand years. They are the Non-Skating Officials (NSO’s) and volunteers and they’re doing everything from timekeeping, scoring, penalty box watching, track repair and general dashing around to make sure everything keeps ticking over on track.
Finally, at NRD’s June games, we’ll have a group of volunteers on the door ready to answer any questions and welcome you to this frenetic world. If you’re a first timer, make yourself known and they’ll sort you right out. They are going to be there specifically to help new fans and they want to make your first roller derby experience an absolute banger of a day.
The Things You Can Do to Support This Incredible Sport
So, I hope I’ve equipped you with enough information to help you fall in love with this sport. Outside of the things above, the main thing to remember is to take in the unique atmosphere of this wonderful D.I.Y. sport. And if, like me, you find yourself irresistibly drawn towards the culture of roller derby, here are a few ways you can support it and everyone involved.
As a Fan – engage with the sport. Follow the teams you like on social media, keep track of their updates and attend games. There are some great blogs and websites to check out too, for example, visit The Apex (thederbyapex.com) for the low down on the big teams competing in the WFTDA. Or do some research on the teams and tournaments in the MRDA championships.
As a Volunteer – want to give back? Contact your local league and get involved. There are a bunch of ways you can help out. Gameday volunteering is one option, but there are all sorts of things that leagues need help with. Do you have a very particular set of skills – preferably unlike those of Liam Neeson in “Taken” – that you can offer? Let the league know and they may be able to find a use for your all your talents and energy.
As an Official – enjoy having your judgement questioned by people so sweaty they can barely string a sentence together? Why not become a skating or non-skating official. All skaters love their officials (once the game has ended) and you’ll find yourself being welcomed into a highly valued and fundamental part of the sport. Most leagues actively recruit new officials, so get in touch and see when they can bring you on board.
As a Player – the leap of faith. JOIN. A. LEAGUE. Has the game inspired you? Do you want to be part of a team? Do you have the urge to barge? Let your local league know. Most leagues have regular intakes and will be super excited to take on keen, aspiring players. You don’t have to invest straight away either. Many leagues will have some kit you can borrow when you first start and are working out if it’s the sport for you. And if it’s not, hey, you can still stay attached to the league as a fan, volunteer or official. Because once you get involved, you might just find out that you don’t want to let go. Most people join for the skating, but they stay for the friendships.
So there you have it, a first-timers’ guide to roller derby. If you want more information, don’t be shy to contact Nottingham Roller Derby. They’re good folk, they don’t bite often, and they would love for you to come down and get involved with your friendly, neighbourhood roller derby league. And hopefully, it won’t be long before I see you down at the local sports halls, noshing on a homemade scone, cheering like crazy as your favourite team jams up a storm.
Words by Joshua Helmer
Please visit our leauge Facebook page Nottingham Roller Derby to get all the info you need on our teams, how to get involved and upcoming events.