Short Track Roller Derby: A first Scottish test

Whilst WFTDA’s Rules of Flat Track Roller Derby are the (overwhelmingly*) most widely played version of Roller Derby in the modern world, there are situations where a smaller version of the game is better suited.

Tournaments with many teams have adopted variations like Sur5al, Derby Sevens, PivotStar rules, Chilean Brutal, and so on, to fit more games into a shorter space of time – but most of these rulesets only significantly adjust a few parameters: the game duration and or the maximum roster size, and scale other properties (like timeouts) to fit the new game length. PivotStar rules, as we reported earlier this year, also make changes to reduce the officiating load, but even then, you still need space for that full-sized track…

…which is why Rolla Skate Club’s “Short Track Roller Derby”, launched to the public at this year’s Rollercon, is so exciting. 

Short Track Roller Derby is built around making a more accessible, perhaps more “fun”, version of Roller Derby, which needs less of every resource to run. A good comparison might be to five-a-side football or futsal, versus the “association football” of WFTDA derby rules.

In the words of the Owner of Roller Derby Athletics, and the co-founder of Rolla Skate Club, Booty Quake, Through a series of long derby road trips together, Luludemon and I had time to hash out everything we could think of that was challenging to the growth of our home league, and leagues everywhere. Then we set out to create a game that would address some of those challenges!  Luludemon had already pioneered the “Pivotstar” ruleset used at the Best of the West tournament in 2017. But we knew we could go even further. The game we’ve designed (with helpful rules and officiating consultation from Sir Cumference and Whack Job of NWO Roller Derby!) aims to be fun, fair, and safe. It’s also easy to orchestrate, with smaller teams, fewer officials, fewer game items to track, and a smaller playing surface. We hope this game will remove barriers for small and large leagues alike, and allow more people to participate in the empowering sport of roller derby!

Most significantly, this means that the track (unlike all of those variant rules above) is rescaled to just half the area of a WFTDA Flat Track**, and fits inside a standard UK four-court sports hall with ample room to spare***.

ShortTrackvsWFTDAvsHall

Relative areas (including ref lanes) of: WFTDA track (pink), Short Track (reddish pink / magenta) and the minimum-allowed 4-court sports hall in the UK (black). (Second image shows how two Short Tracks will fit into one WFTDA track, with space to spare.)

With a smaller track comes the next resource saving: players. The narrower track means that just two blockers per team are sufficient to impede the opposing jammer, so each jam fields just six skaters on track in total; and rosters for a game are limited to just seven skaters per team.

In keeping with halving the number of players and size of track, Short Track also makes the same change to the next resource: time. Short Track jams are just 1 minute long (and can’t be called off by a jammer), and a period consists of exactly 10 of them, for 10 minutes of play, and 15 minutes total time including the inter-jam breaks.

The final resource that the Short Track Roller Derby rules try to reduce is Officials. Unlike the other aspects of the sport, we can’t just scale the number of Referees and NSOs without looking at what makes the game hard to officiate, so Short Track Roller Derby makes a series of changes to enable a game to be more easily managed. Some of these are inherited from PivotStar: jammers score just 1 point per pass, reducing the complexity of scoring; and track cuts returning from out of play are measured relative to where you left the track, not the opposing players who were in front of you at the time – that is, there are no “run backs” or “recycling”.

On top of this, however, Short Track Derby also encourages a more communal spirit for handling penalties in general – the majority of potential penalties (“fouls” in the language of the rules) can be rectified by a skater by owning up to them and “yielding” (turning sideways, and giving skaters a chance to freely pass them) for a few seconds. Only more serious fouls, or fouls where the skater has not yielded, lead to a penalty being issued.
Because there are so few skaters on track in the first place, penalties themselves also work differently; rather than sending a skater off the track, each penalty counts as a loss of 2 points to their team’s score, a significant effect when each pass just gains a single point in return.
These changes to combine to produce a ruleset where a single referee and two NSOs can officiate a game (at a pinch – the rules suggest that two referees is a more reasonable number).

ShutterThugRollerConAction

Action (yes, they’re going clockwise) from the first ever Short Track Derby Bout, at Rollercon 2018. [Photo: Shutter Thug Photography]

Finally, Short Track Roller Derby also makes a few additional changes which aren’t part of the “scaling” requirements – instead, they seem to be a collection of “if we’d been designing roller derby now, knowing what we do now” changes. The most significant of these are: everyone has to jam at least once per period; and the game changes direction at half-time – Period 1 is played clockwise, whilst Period 2 is played anticlockwise. The former rule makes the “jammer” position less of the “star role” it used to have back in the earlier days of modern Roller Derby – and also helps to “spread the roles” in general across the smaller rosters. The latter addresses the well-known issues with lopsided development which derby skaters get from skating in one direction all the time, and might actually result in long-term health improvements.

The best place to get the rules right now is the Rolla Skate Club site: https://rollaskateclub.com/lets-rolla/ (currently we have draft v2 of the rules)  [but see the bottom of this article for more links]


Short Track Derby Testing in Scotland

With interest in Short Track Roller Derby across the world (the Short Track info group on Facebook has members from the ruleset’s birthplace of Canada, as well as Scotland, England, Russia, Sweden, USA, Latvia, Israel, Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Australia, and probably others I’ve missed), the Scottish Roller Derby community decided to form a group to seriously test this exciting new ruleset, and see what it was like.

After a lot of planning and recruiting (we had access to a draft of the rules from before the official launch at Rollercon), the first “official” test of the rules in Scotland took place in Dunblane, on the 13th of October this year.
(We believe that, at the time, this made this simultaneously the first test of Short Track Roller Derby outside the North American continent, and also the most Northerly test of Short Track Roller Derby, given the relative latitude of Dunblane and the majority of Canadian cities.)

Skaters attended this first session from across the country: from Dumfries in the South-West, and Ayrshire in the West, through the central belt from Glasgow through Falkirk and Livingston to the mid-Lothians south of Edinburgh in the East, and this despite the heavy rain and storms forecast for that weekend! We also had a wide distribution of experience in our test group, from high level competitive skaters to some newer members of leagues (who opted to NSO and make notes). This session was also run as Open To All Genders, which we think is also a first for Short Track so far.

In a relaxed three-hour session, we had time to lay a Short Track for the first time (in a hall too small for a “Full Track”), discuss the differences to WFTDA rules and people’s points of interest and concern, and play a full-length scrimmage of the game, with a second discussion session after the first period for further reflection. After the session, a short feedback survey was sent out – at the time of writing, more than 70% of attendees responded with comments and ratings.

ShorTrackInAction


Short Track Derby in action (all but one skater on track is in this picture) [Photo: Laura MacDonald]

Skater Responses: Before and After

In the pre-scrim discussion, there was a clear division between parts of the rules with universally positive feeling, and parts which were controversial.
Everyone was in favour of the smaller track and reduced roster (even larger leagues have problems with practice space, and some of our smaller leagues can have issues filling out two 14 team rosters for internal scrimmage).
Conversely, a significant minority of skaters were unconvinced by “skating the wrong way” for one period of the game, and a similar number were not that happy with the requirement to jam at least once per period. It’s certainly the case that there are skaters who have legitimate aversions to jamming, usually around being the focus of attention from the opposing team (and the audience in a public game), and it is possible that this might make Short Track less comfortable for them.

Our responses after the first period, and then in the feedback responses after the whole session, saw a significant change in feelings. No aspect of the game received a less than positive response, even the controversial items in the pre-game discussion.
Changing direction (and skating in “non-derby” direction at all) seemed to be not really a problem once people tried it; some feedback even indicated a preference for it!
Some of the skaters with an aversion to jamming were still not converted to regular jammers; but they all noted that the reduced number of blockers, and jam duration, made it a better experience than otherwise. (One skater, who regularly jams in their home league, went entirely the other way and noted that they specifically loved having everyone jam!).

No comments were strictly negative (no aspect of the game was rated below 4 (out of 6) by any of our respondents), but the aspect with the least positive response was the track size itself. Higher level skaters, and particularly those used to jamming or skating at high-speed, found it harder to adjust to the changes that the Short Track requires: both in terms of the reduced time for acceleration on the straights, and the smaller turning circle on the curves. As such, we found that those skaters gave the most qualified responses to the track, whilst still all accepting that this was due to their expectations being different.

Conversely, other skaters noted that the changes to pack definition and lack of run-backs actually made the game feel a lot faster than they were used to, especially in the half-time discussion. A lot of tactical discussion in half-time developed approaches to controlling space under the new rules, where “placing” yourself on the inside line by where you knocked a skater off-track is more effective than moving out of position. We noticed that tactics, and scoring, were already adjusting in the second period (although, given it was also run in the more familiar direction of play, it was also a little faster overall).

One skater noted that they found the yield position uncomfortable with pads on; we think this could be improved by just adjusting the hand position.

Screen Shot 2018-10-24 at 15.19.50

All Attendees (Skaters, Officials and observers) responses to Survey [13/18 attendees responses @ 5pm 24 October]

Officials Responses: Before and After

Due to a last-minute cancellation, our test scrim was run with just a single Referee, although one off-skates attendee provided “sock refereeing” support. We fielded the full complement of two NSOs (one Timekeeper and one Scorekeeper), with two additional NSOs mirroring them and taking notes.  All Officials opted to use the infield, with none taking the outfield (if we had had two Referees, one would have been in the Outfield position).

Before the test, our referee noted that the problem with all alternate rules officiating is that the officials need to override their instincts for the places where rules differ. Our NSOs were generally not concerned by any issues in particular; our Timekeeper was happy that their job was simplified (because all jams are exactly 1 minute long barring accidents), and our Scorekeeper agreed to test out our new Score Tracking form.

After the test, and between periods, our referee noted that, whilst it was possible for him to referee the game by himself, it was definitely a stretch, even with a shadow “sock-referee”. Concerns were also expressed about the reduced space in the infield; although our test run also made this more cramped as both our NSOs (and their 2 shadows) were also sharing this space. In a more “official” run, there would be only 1 NSO sharing the infield with any referees, reducing this issue. Officiating practice also evolved during the practice session: our referee noted that he had to consciously remember to call, and whistle, “warnings” (yields in Short Track); in WFTDA derby, warnings never require whistles (and anything is either a penalty or not a penalty).
Conversely, our sock-referee was uniformly impressed with the ease of officiating the scrim, compared to WFTDA standard games. (Our sole skating referee actually managed to run the game by himself, without needing to refer to her for missed penalties.) She particularly called out the changes to penalties as a significant improvement to the speed of officiation.

One officiating issue concerned the verbal signal to indicate a successful pass: calling “1 point” or “1 pass” led to distraction of the skaters numbered 1 as they anticipated a penalty or yield. Consensus was that changing the call to “Pass: COLOUR” was the best arrangement to make the signal clearly different to a penalty – this has been fed back to the draft rules.

Our NSOs were both happy with managing the entire NSO load with just the two of them; in fact, our Score Tracking form allowed the Scorekeeper to track not only the score, but also which skaters had received penalties in each jam, for both teams simultaneously (doing the job of both Score trackers, and half the job of the penalty trackers for a WFTDA NSO crew). Whilst the Short Track rules don’t require penalties to be tracked per skater, the fact that this was additionally possible demonstrates how much easier it is to officiate the game.

Our shadow NSOs, who were both newer to Roller Derby, noted that they found the game in general easier to follow than WFTDA derby; mostly due to the reduced number of players leading to having less things to have to focus on at once.

ShortTrackGroup

The attendees for the first Short Track Derby test in Scotland [Photo: Laura MacDonald]

Other Notes

All leagues present expressed an interest in using Short Track Roller Derby in some part of their activities in future. Higher level competitive leagues were more interested in incorporating the ruleset into training for specific skills, whilst the other leagues present expressed an interest in the game as an alternative in its own right. The reduced resource requirements made this a particularly attractive alternative for attending leagues with smaller practice spaces, in particular.

Of interest, one training suggestion from competitive leagues was in using Short Track as a stepping stone in blocking drills on the way to full 5 on 5 practice. This is also one of the uses suggested by early rules testers (pre version 1 release) at the Camp Block ‘n’ Roll bootcamp in Washington State.

As a personal aside, I was particularly interested in the changes to scoring differentials caused by the lack of lead jammer early-call-offs. The ability of the Lead Jammer to end a jam prematurely in WFTDA (and other rulesets) derby helps to amplify the scoring differential from even fairly closely matched teams; it seemed that removing it kept scores generally closer as a ratio.


Future Plans

The next open test for the Short Track Roller Derby rules in Scotland is already booked, hosted by Inverness City Roller Derby on the 25th of November. This event is ticketed, so sign up and buy a ticket if you’re interested!

Short Track Roller Derby was also a topic at the 2018 Big Blether, the Scottish Roller Derby community annual conference, where there was almost entirely positive reception to it.

We’ve also had additional interest in Short Track Roller Derby within the UK, and have extended our Facebook group to cover the UK as a whole. Anyone interested in trying Short Track Derby within the UK is welcome to join the group and work with us (but we’re happy if you want to do your own thing, too).

Version 2.0 of the rules of Short Track Roller Derby is currently receiving feedback (we used a draft copy for our open test), and will be released in the near future. To participate in the community, your best bet is to join both the above UK group, and or the official main Group, managed by Booty Quake: Short Track Roller Derby Info.


* Derbylisting.com reports more than 97% of leagues, depending on how you count, play by WFTDA rules.

**more exactly: a WFTDA Flat Track (with ref lanes) fits in a 108′ by 75′ rectangle. A Short Track (with ref lanes) fits within a 73′ by 48′ rectangle; 68% of the length, and 64% of the width, resulting in an overall area just 43% of a WFTDA Flat Track. In fact, two Short Tracks can fit within a WFTDA Flat Track side by side, with a comfortable 10′ gap between them.

***SportEngland’s minimum dimensions for a 4-court hall are 34m x 20m (111′ x 65′), 10′ too narrow for the WFTDA Flat Track; conversely, a Short Track fits with more than 15′ space in both directions. In fact, a Short Track will even fit within the smaller, rarer, 3-court hall with room to spare!

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