Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tactics Tuesday: Power Jam Offense

I want to talk tactics for a moment.

No, wait, I want to talk plays. There is a difference between strategy, plays, and tactics.

This will be the first of a few entries analysing various popular plays in roller derby. Many people, I think, implement plays simply because they see the big leagues, be it specifically LRG or any other WFTDA side, using them. These plays work in the big leagues, so it's reckoned that they'll work at the local level as well.

Thing is, a play is like a multi-variable function in maths. It operates on a set of initial conditions or parameters, such as the skaters, conditions of the bout, and rules, and produces an output (points). One expects, for a given set of parameters, to see an output within the margin of error. Ever see a bench manager go into an absolute fit, but not at the ref? That's because the function gave an unexpectedly low return.

So, let's say you were watching the Men's European Roller Derby Championship, and you saw Reaper tear up a power jam. I do believe he recorded at least a 30-point power jam in there somewhere. And, for all the flak that the conga-line play gets from the the older derby folks and fans of the faster game like myself, Southern Discomfort really showed how elegant it can be. There is definitely excitement in watching a man skate a 25-in-5 when there are four high-quality blockers in his way.

After seeing that jam, you decide you want to teach your league the play. This is exactly how derby gets spread—people see something they like, so they try it themselves. Thing is, SDRD did the maths:

f(SDRD,QG,R,Z) = 30
where SDRD=Southern Discomfort RD, QG=Quad Guards, R=Reaper, and Z=Team Zebra

So, for this set of parameters, the function returns 30 points, and a hell of a charge back into contention. Without this jam, the gold medals from that tournament were likely headed across the channel.

But you, the viewer who decides to take it to your league, does your league have the same parameters?

Well, maybe. Let's go through them point by point. Also, I'll be reckoning each one's value out of the 5 points in a grand slam, just to give an idea of the relative importance.

The Friendly Pack: No, I'm not talking about a bad sequel to Casper here, I'm talking about the pack on offence. This probably seems least important of the parameters, as from a cynical point of view it seems to take little skill to stand still on the track looking like a queue for the loo. However, depending on the behaviour of the opposing pack, it may be necessary to roll backwards {to keep them up-the-front}, or to form a lateral wall {to give the jammer a friendly side on which to enter the track}, or even forwards {to avoid failure-to-reform penalties}. To maximise f, a team needs to ensure that their pack has one or more tactics/rules experts on the track. This play is based on skating just this side of legal, so the friendly pack needs confident, correct leadership to make the maths produce points. A good friendly pack is probably worth 1 point.

The Opposing Pack: Well, you can't really choose them on the day. Can't exactly march over and tell them which four to put on. But this play only works against specific opponents. First off, the opponents have to play by the rules themselves. If they're willing to pick up stop-block major penalties to stop the jammer, things can get really brutal really fast. Secondly, this play is designed to be run against blockers that it will work on. Sorry to state the obvious, but there are some blockers who are very talented at catching a fast-moving jammer. Against them, throwing a jammer forward without any help is just cruel to the jammer. To maximise f, teams need to make sure they're not running the play against a pack adept at stopping it. The opposing pack is quite important, so worth 1½ points.

The Jammer: This is the most important part of the equation. You don't have to know calculus to see that the jammer will be going into a 1-on-2 situation at best, and a 1-on-4 situation at worst. This play is clearly designed for the best quality jammers. I have seen some teams actually call the jam the moment the power jam begins to re-set their lineup, such as Mr. Brains. Running this play with that jammer who just passed her minimum skills is likely nothing short of sadism. A jammer doesn't need to be nimble, I've seen some hard-hitting ones punch their way through the opposing pack, but the jammer does need to be good in this style of play to rack up the points. Being the most vital part, the jammer's worth 2 points.

The Referees: People don't often think of them, but there's a little bit of a correction to the calculus here. If Team Zebra are calling out-of-play majors very quickly, the offensive team will be quickly up against a pack of two. If they are not, the opposition will be four-strong, and about the full 30 feet long. If the standard of evidence for a back block major is lower than average, the power jam may be over a bit sooner than the offence had hoped. Don't count out the flow of the game when attempting this play. However, the refs are usually a correction factor, worth ½ point.

So, complex maths? Well, sure it is, but don't dust off the slide rule quite yet. It's impossible right now to put numbers on the parameters as I've described them; it's really based on gut instinct. A good manager, captain, or tactician will feel it in his or her bones when the time is right. And when it's wrong. 

From the same tournament, watch The Mechanic jam. One power jam, he's about 20 feet from the back of the pack, and calls out whilst swinging his arm across. His team sweep over from their conga-line and blanket the defence, giving him an unopposed outside line. Presto, 5 points based on teamwork offence rather than a jammer going 1-on-4.

The sign of a poorly managed team is when they run a play time and time again, and still see no results from it. However, there probably isn't time in a bout to have a proper think about whether or not to use this play, so I expect most teams will use it as a first-choice. If it works for you, great! Keep it up! Be brilliant!

Did you spend 60 seconds of power jam and have 5 points to your name? Do something different. Offensive blocking? Goat a blocker? Something clever nobody's even tried yet? Try it! If it works, keep it up! Be brilliant!

There are thousands of minds thinking about derby in the UK alone, each coming up with slightly different answers to the same problem. The beauty of the game is seeing that myriad of solutions played out on a 160 foot oval surrounding a white board.

Roll on!

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