(Ed note: Spocker stepped up to write this guest post about braced blocking after I tried doing it at Wreckers practice and felt a million years old. “In my day, skating backwards at all was fancy!” I’ll keep working on it. Thanks Spocker!)
With The Big O now behind us, a lot of top-tier teams have shown us their stuff, and I’m more than a little excited to see how this season unfolds. And, whether you were glued to the live feed or watching in-person, you probably saw quite a few backwards-skating blockers in those bouts, as teams like VRDL and Rose City used tripod walls or “diamond defense” to shut down even the most wily of jammers.
When backwards blocking first started to show up in higher-level play, it was interesting, but mostly felt like more of a confusion or intimidation tactic than an actually-effective technique. Now, the braced wall is becoming a go-to tactic and giving us proof that, as with so many things in derby, blocking backwards is better when you do it together!
So, why should my team use a braced wall for blocking?
Getting (and staying) slow. Containing a jammer is easier when the jammer is slow. Keeping a wall together is worlds easier when you’re slow than when you’re racing. Slow derby is smart derby. Keeping your wall slow, however? That’s hard, y’all, and keeping that wall slow when a jammer is pushing on you is even harder. Then, next thing you know, you’re 20 feet from the pack and you’re out of play and everything is terrible.
When you have a blocker buddy facing backwards and bracing your wall, they can dig into their toe stops and edges, and help your wall keep control and stay slow. Your wall stays tighter, the opposing jammer stays slower, and your life gets much easier.
Seeing what’s happening. Most every blocker knows that in roller derby, the action’s usually happening behind you, and that means looking behind you to keep track of things. Thing is, we’re not owls, and we can’t turn our heads far enough to see every single thing that’s behind us. When your wall has a backwards-facing blocker to brace you, that backwards-facing blocker also has a great view of what’s coming from behind, and can help your wall adjust for it.
Adding depth to your wall and protecting points. Your flat wall feels ready to catch a jammer, but they might bust through a seam, or spin their hips around you on the line, and now they’ve snagged all of your points and are gaily skating away scot-free. That’s no fun for you. With a braced wall, however, if that jammer breaks through your forward-facing line, your bracing blockers still have a chance to catch and contain them. Granted, it’s not ideal (we’ll get into that in a bit), but it’s a chance. And, your brace blocker also has their hips ahead of the rest of your wall, so their point is protected.
Okay, I’m convinced. How do I make braced walls work for me?
There are a few key points to remember, if you want to be a good brace for your wall:
- Communicate constantly! When you’re the brace, you have that super-sweet view of the action, so you should be telling your forward-facing blockers what’s happening. Keep talking!
- Keep your arms firm and strong. Your teammates will be leaning on you for support and slowing, and wet-noodle arms are not supportive! I don’t personally recommend locking your elbows, but you do want to keep your arms mostly-straight and strong.
- Keep space between you and your forward-facing blockers. Make sure they have plenty of room to plow stop, move laterally, and do whatever they need to do to contain the jammer.
- Give support where the action is. If the jammer is pushing on an outside gap, you won’t help anything by bracing your inside blockers. Pay attention to where the action is, and be ready to move your brace from one gap to another.
- Control your speed. I don’t just mean slowing the wall down, either–you don’t want your blocker friends to get stop-block or clockwise-blocking penalties, so you’ll need to adjust your slowing power to keep that wall from completely stopping.
What if I’m the forward blocker being braced?
You’ll have more support to adjust your position in your wall. You’ll find that you’re able to do things with your hips and torso that you couldn’t do as easily without a brace. I’ve had success with dipping my shoulder in front of a jammer to regain position in front of them, but different tactics work for different people. Try a few things, and see what works best for your body type!
Talk with your teammates about how you like to be braced. Some people are fine with being braced on their shoulders, other folks prefer bracing by the forearms or hands. Others like to grab their brace, rather than having the brace grab them. Again, it’s going to be different for each skater, so try different methods, see what works best for you, and let your teammates know it.
How do we get into a braced wall position?
The answer to that can vary, depending on the lineup. If your blockers are good at lateral movement and covering the lines, starting a jam with your brace already in place can work well for never letting the opposing jammer get speed. This can work really well if the opposing jammer is more of a pusher than a juker.
If you have a particularly juke-y jammer on your hands, or if you have blockers in the box, you might prefer to start as a flat wall, so you can cover more of the track. If you’re starting flat, your best bet is to let the opposing jammer make solid contact and commit to a gap, and then let one of the blockers who isn’t directly engaging the jammer become the brace.
Crap, I’m blocking in a braced wall and the jammer is breaking through! What do I do?
This usually happens in one of two ways:
The jammer sneaks around the wall on the inside or outside. The good news is, if you’re the brace, you can see this happening, and put a stop to it!
- Drop your brace. If you don’t drop that link with your blocker friend, you could get sent to the penalty box for a multiplayer block.
- Transition to face forward and fill the gap in your wall. It’s important to transition all the way forward–the jammer can hit your side as much as they want, but if you give them your back, they can’t push on you as easily.
- Let another blocker become the brace. Now that you’re in direct contact with the jammer, a blocker in your wall who isn’t engaging said jammer can take your spot as the brace. Voila! You’re braced and super-slow again!
The jammer breaks through the middle of your forward-facing blockers. As I mentioned above, going chest-to-chest with a powerful jammer is, um, not the most ideal situation. Most skaters aren’t as agile facing backwards as they are facing forwards, and things get especially gnarly when you realize that blocking backwards exposes a gigantic legal blocking zone, which the opposition can use to blow you to kingdom come.
Fortunately, if an opposing jammer is just breaking through part of your braced wall, they probably don’t have much speed to use against you. So, if you’re that backwards-facing brace, stay calm. It’s going to be okay. You’re still there to try and stop the jammer, right?
- Make contact with the jammer. This will likely be chest-to-chest contact, but that’s okay. You want to make contact first so she can’t surprise you with a huge hit to your chest, but more importantly, so you can track of where that jammer is.
- Keep contact with the jammer and let your blockers recycle up in front of you. You don’t have to hold the jammer forever–just long enough for your blockers to get in position and help you re-form that wall.
- A recycling blocker transitions to face backwards. That blocker who just recycled is now ready to brace you. Ideally, they’ll put a hand on you and let you know that it’s okay to flip.
- When you have support, transition to face forwards. You’re now part of the new forward-facing line, and your blocker friend is facing backwards, bracing you and keeping you slow!
Wow. That’s a lot to take in.
I know. This stuff isn’t easy, and it’s going to require a lot of practice time with your team before you’ll all feel comfortable with it. Your team can start by breaking it down into parts–backwards skating drills, stepping and agility drills while facing backwards, backwards-blocking one-on-ones, working in pairs to get used to bracing and transitioning together, and so forth. If your teammates aren’t around, you can practice your transitions, so you can easily flip backwards and forwards without thinking about it.
No matter what your situation, you can make this work for you! All it takes is time, hard work, and a little extra patience–you know, just like everything else in roller derby.
Shaolin Spocker skates with Rose City Rollers, and is wrapping up her third 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 read her sporadically-updated derby blog, or 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.
Photo by Regularman