BUILDING YOUR BASICS :: The Braced Wall
The great thing about roller derby (aside from everything!) is that the same strategies and skills apply to everything and everyone at every level. Sure, it LOOKS like there’s a lot going on, but the complexity and dynamism that is roller derby is made up from a small handful of basic skills. Trust me.
Granted, this is true of most sports but it certainly makes watching high levels of roller derby something that is more directly applicable to you and your teammates, rather than just an exercise in being the world’s biggest derby fan.
One of the hardest bits of watching high level footage (or watching any other team execute a flawless skill or strategy) is figuring out how to translate that to your team. So often, due to the nature of this sport and the way it grows, we try to climb our mountains from the top.
What does that mean?
You’re watching an awesome, high level game from last year’s Champs and you see a flawlessly executed braced wall — or cube or campfire or tripod or whatever you call it. “That doesn’t look too hard,” you think. So you take that strategy back to your team and you start by forming a braced wall.
It’s admirable to hit the ground running, but it can also be frustrating as fuck to try (and fail) a new strategy over and over again because nobody has the knowledge of how the strategy works or an understanding of the most basic skills involved in executing it.
You can’t climb a mountain from the top, you have to start at the base and work your way up.
You can’t execute a strategy until you have the basic skills to make that strategy successful.
The most common strategy in WFTDA right now is the braced wall. Some number of blockers face their backs to the jammer and some other number of blockers act as braces or support in the front of those with their backs to the jammer. It requires a lot of hand holding and everyone is doing it. (Even Bay Area. A little.)
And those high level teams make it look easy. But there are a lot of moving parts that we don’t always see that make their braced walls significantly more successful than, say, MY braced wall. Every successful braced wall — and every successful blocker in a successful braced wall — has to have the following BASIC SKILLS locked in place:
- Skate control
- Single footed plow stop
- Sealing at the seam
- Quick lateral movement
- Proper bracing technique
- Ability to anticipate the jammer
If the blockers within your braced wall are lacking in these areas, so too will the wall. The more areas in which you’re weak the more your braced wall starts to resemble a small cluster of skaters that the jammer simply gets to brush against as she passes.
1) SKATE CONTROL
This is a prerequisite for every roller derby skill or strategy anywhere. Ever.
If you can’t control your own skates, there’s no way you can control another skater on her skates with your skates. Skate control comes from time on your skates and the willingness to push your comfort zone so that you know, inherently, what you can and cannot do on your own skates.
Most of your team might have great skate control, in which case you can skip focusing on this in practice. Skate control will naturally improve as you climb this braced wall mountain and, as long as you have basic levels of control, spending practice time on it can be a bit of a waste.
If your team doesn’t have great skate control? Start here. And spend a lot of time on it. Securing a base of control on your skates makes literally every skill or strategy easier.
If you see these things happening constantly at your practices, you need to work on skate control:
- Getting hit in the face (or anywhere, really) by flailing arms
- Falling immediately upon jammer engagement from behind
- Falling when pushed instead of going with the momentum
- Skaters in “derby form” with their butts in the air
- Constant use of toestops regardless of the situation
Remember, having a handful of new skaters that lack skate control does not mean that your entire team needs to go back to the base of the mountain. But you might consider giving those skaters some homework.
2) SINGLE FOOTED PLOW STOP
It’s easy to tell a team that has built a solid base of skills from one that hasn’t. The first team can stop the jammer with the back of the braced wall. The second team uses the front.
Listen, it’s right there in the name; a BRACED wall. Which means your brace offers you support. They don’t do the job for you.
The single best way to stop in close quarters with your teammates is the one-footed plow stop. It reinforces the seal (which we’ll get to in a minute), keeps you more stable, and helps you avoid unsightly skate locking with your teammates.
If the skate control of your team is great, but your single footed plow stopping isn’t, then start here. This, too, can take a fair amount of time to build as a skill because, let’s face it, it feels weird. There are exercises you can do off-skates to help you manage the awkward motion, but ultimately you need to be able to nail it on skates.
This is for your own protection. Your edges need to be able to stop you so that you keep your toestops off the ground. A friend of mine has a name for that move: the Anklebreaker.
In terms of training the one footed plow during practice, starting alone isn’t ideal. It’s really difficult to get enough friction into the floor during the unfamiliar movement to actually stop well. Here are some recommendations for progressing the 1 footed plow:
- alone with resistance
- alone, no resistance
- with partner, with resistance
- with partner, no resistance
- flat wall
- braced wall
The bonus beauty of becoming proficient at the one-footed plow stop is that it can lead into higher level stops like the hockey stop and power slide which also come in handy during effective braced wall situations.
The point is to stop the jammer with the back of your braced wall through the power of the plow.
3) SEALING AT THE SEAM
If you follow other sports, namely American Football, you might have heard the phrase “hit the seam”. It’s often code for “finding the path of least resistance”.
Any player of any sport that needs to get somewhere THROUGH opposing players is looking for the seam. In a braced wall, the skaters with their backs to the jammer ARE the seam. A jammer that can go between those skaters has won a major victory. She’s not only taken their space, but broken up their ability to work together. Which means the wall is falling apart.
Successful single-footed plows make sealing at the seam easier, which is why you want to focus on those first. Getting friction into the foot farthest from the seam between bodies helps push the seam tighter.
Go back to the progression from single-footed plows and focus primarily on sealing at the seam. Start with a partner with no resistance and work up to seam sealing in walls.
Just a tip? The term sealing at the seam is actually misleading. Think of it less as leaning against each other and more of zippering over each other. Instead of pressing your shoulder against your partner’s shoulder, get underneath (or on top of) their shoulder so you’re pressing just below their collarbone (or on top of their shoulder blade).
4) QUICK LATERAL MOVEMENT
Got your single-footed plows and seam seals down? Time to add LATERAL MOVEMENT.
Yes, it would be great as a blocker if the jammer never moved anywhere. But also boring and… Nevermind, it wouldn’t be great.
The point is that stopping and sealing are important, but you also need quick lateral movement to continue stopping and sealing in front of a jukey jammer.
Really practicing your lateral movement will make you better at 99% of other roller derby skills because you’ll be advancing your knowledge of what you can do with your edges. This loops back to skate control.
Edging and lateral movement within your walls is a little bit more advanced. The best, quickest method usually looks a bit like this:
Smarty Pants demonstrates how to quickly get from here to there while still being braced for the impact that happens to a blocker in the back of the braced wall. Just like with single footed plow work, you should start practicing the movement alone with no resistance and work your way up to practicing it within your braced wall.
5) PROPER BRACING TECHNIQUE
There may or may not currently be (there definitely is) a hashtag on Twitter for Team #nonoodlearms. It’s small, but mighty.
These are the people that are against weak connections from brace to wall. So basically everyone.
The thing is that there’s a fine line between strong connections and the Vulcan Death Grip holding you in place.
The brace is in charge here (in case you haven’t figured that out by now) and they need to not only keep the jammer in their sights, but also allow the back blockers to do their job. Death grips aren’t necessary, but you need to be strong enough through your arms that if you shove your teammate at an open space they get there post haste.
London is the team to watch if you want to learn how to control the space within your braced wall. Unlike most teams, London spreads out hand-to-hand which makes it easy to see exactly how strong your arms need to be. And also that the brace should always, ALWAYS position themselves in front of the jammer.
Teams new to the braced wall or that struggle with it, need to stay in close. Think T-Rex arms. As your lateral movement improves — both in the back and as the brace — your arms will stretch out a bit to give you room to work. However, if you notice that your braced wall isn’t rotating quickly enough or that pushes from the brace aren’t translating fast enough, bring it in.
Imagine your arms as one of those grabby claws you use when you can’t reach things on high shelves. Those grabby claws would be absolutely useless if they weren’t rigid. Your arms should be the same way. Don’t lock out your elbow, but keep your arms engaged and ready to push or pull as needed.
6) ABILITY TO ANTICIPATE THE JAMMER
Why is this LAST?
Because your ability to anticipate the jammer can make or break your wall. If you anticipate the wrong thing and don’t have the above skills in place, you can’t correct quickly enough. More importantly, having the above skills in place makes the structure of your overall wall more solid.
A team that can control their skates, plow with one foot, seal at the seam, move laterally, and brace properly don’t have to rely on rotating their wall. Rotations are sloppy and the most likely place that a jammer will find the room to get through. It’s much, MUCH better to keep the same blockers on the jammer the entire time.
That being said, help yourself by:
- Watching the jammer’s hips. You can literally go nowhere without taking your center of gravity with you. Hips don’t lie, but feet and shoulders do.
- Studying the jammer’s habits. They’re human and they have the same habits that we all do. Do they fake to the inside and take the out 90% of the time? Keep that in mind.
- Trusting your brace. Your brace can see better than you can, so trust the direction she’s pushing you. This is another reason why strong connections are best; you can feel the direction she’s pushing you without having to hear her tell you where the jammer is.
- Trusting your blocking buddy. Know that she’ll cover your space if you guess wrong. And that she’ll finish the hit out if you guess correctly.
Every successful braced wall has these 6 things in common. If you’re team is trying to execute this strategy, start by analyzing where you need your work to be done. Do you have skate control? Can you single footed plow? Etc. Pinpoint your weakest area and climb the mountain from there.