Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ya Know The Rules: Contact Zones

Newcomers to the sport of derby are often confused and bewildered by the gameplay of a sport that many of us may not have grown up watching or playing. It's easy enough to tell these soon-to-be fans to watch the skaters with the stars on their helmets (jammers) try and pass their respective opponents, while the skaters without stars (blockers) try to hinder their opponents and help their teammates. The sport is fast-paced and action-packed enough for this simple pointer to be enough for many casual and first-time fans to enjoy the sport.

But what about the rest of us? The true fans, nerds, and geeks of the sport. Roller derby gameplay is as complicated and as subtly nuanced as the play of any sport, if not more so. Understanding the rules, and how they're interpreted and applied in different situations, can be challenging - all the more so due to the fact that this is a relatively young sport and the rules evolution is still in that quick and dirty phase where significant updates and changes seem to occur almost each season.

You needn't be a total geek about the minutae to enjoy the sport (God bless the fan who's happy to just watch athletic women skating and hitting each other), but odds are you'll occasionally find yourself confused by the refs' calls or the strategy employed by teams if you don't have a good working knowledge of the sport.

I'm no ref, nor any type of "derby expert" and I don't claim any special knowledge or insight - aside from the fact that I've read each iteration of the Official WFTDA Rules (currently on edition 3.1) that's been accepted and I've been watching the sport since about 2005 - but I'd like to start a semi-regular segment here on the Coroner's Inquest that takes a little closer look as some of the more interesting, important, controversial, or misunderstood rules that govern the sport we love.

Hopefully y'all (a) will find this interesting and informative and (b) will participate with discussion in the comments. So, without any further ado (and with apologies to the mighty KRS-ONE), let me pose the question: ya know the rules?

What are "Contact Zones"?

Rule 5.2 defines them as the legal and illegal "blocking zones" (parts of the body used by skaters initiating hits) and "target zones" (parts of the body in which a skater receives a hit). Rule 5.2.1 defines the "legal target zones", 5.2.2 the "illegal target zones", 5.2.3 the "legal blocking zones", and 5.2.4 the "illegal blocking zones".

WFTDA provides helpful diagrams of the Contact Zones here:
Target Zones
Blocking Zones

It's important to note (and readily apparent when you look at the diagrams) that the legal target zones and blocking zones are not the same!

For instance, under it is legal to initiate a block with any part of a skater's torso - including her back. However, under it is illegal to deliver a hit to the back of a skater's torso, booty (yes, they use the word "booty" in the official rules), or thigh.

OK, think you got that? Let's throw in another wrinkle: Rule 5.1.2 states that "[t]he skater who makes contact with a target zone of an opponent is considered the initiator of the block. The initiator of the block is always responsible for the legality of the contact."

Combine these sets of rules and now you have the the key principle of my favorite type of defensive play: positional blocking. A smart and agile defensive skater can place herself directly in front of an opposing jammer, and not just prevent her from passing, but can actually use her back to physically make contact with the jammer and block her. And if by chance that jammer gets frustrated, or is unable to control her momentum, and she initiates contact with the blocker's back - THWEET - the refs are gonna call that as a minor or major penalty on the jammer (depending on the impact of the illegal hit).

The blockers (and sometimes jammers when they skate defensively) most skilled at positional blocking are agile enough to juke right or left as the opposing jammer attempts get around her, each time presenting their backs as a tempting (but illegal) target for the jammer to hit, while at the same time physically slowing her down while they legally hit the jammer using their backs. And the most beautiful part about positional blocking: the jammer basically can't (legally) hit back!

Another effect of Rule 5.1.2 (placing the responsibility for the legality of the hit on the one initiates it) is that a clever skater can use the momentum of an opponent who's about to hit them to turn what may have started out as a legal hit, into an illegal one by turning and presenting her back as the target for the hit. It's certainly not always easy to do, and requires good balance, but if "skater A" (about to be hit) turns so that "skater B" (the one initiating the hit) makes contact with her back, "skater B" picks up the penalty. And if the ref believes that "skater A" was in fact the one who initiated the contact, she still picks up no penalty because, as we know from the above discussion, it's legal for her to block with her back.

Thus concludes this little primer on "Contact Zones". If any of this was new to you, hopefully it will help you understand the importance those blockers out there who lap after lap can singlehandedly hold back opposing skaters, without ever sacrificing their position in the pack by attempting to land a "big hit". It also shows how risky it is for those "power hitters" out there to wind-up and telegraph that big hit; a slight shift of the torso by their "victim" and that text-book body check suddenly becomes a trip to the penalty box!

If this seemed basic, have no fear because in future "Ya Know The Rules" posts I'll be exploring some of the juicier and more controversial topics. Stay tuned!


JeLLyPiG said...

RIGHT ON! Thanks Nader, this is an awesome post.

the_mad_nader said...

Thanks JeLLyPiG! I thought I'd start this new segment off with a relative soft ball as many derby fans already get "positional blocking" and know the legal contact zones. This was more for the newer fan who asks me "why doesn't she just hit her?"

But rest assured, I'll get around to some of the trickier rules bits in coming weeks!

The Coroner said...

Top drawer, Nader. Keep 'em coming!

JeLLyPiG said...

I look forward to it. I made hollow threats of writing similar posts when this blog first started. I am glad someone is actually doing it.

Ringer said...

that's naderiffic!!