jammer cultivation 101

YOU GUYS! CAN YOU BELIEVE that I actually have a garden!? Sure, the peas are tangled up with the peppers, and a monster zucchini has completely overrun my poor tomatoes…but I have veggies! After decades of killing every plant I touch, this year is finally the year! Just as this year has been the year for my beloved British Roller Derby Champs team. We won Women’s Tier 4 East, after smashing all four of the other teams in our division. You can chalk it up to luck or fate if you want, but I’m convinced there’s a scientific way to replicate the sweet, sweet victory we found on the track this year…and I’m also pretty sure my garden holds the key.

I’m a jammer, but I truly believe it’s blocking and defense that wins games. And our walls this year were Ah. Mazing. When our team’s resident psychologist and hardcore blocker, Asterisk asked us to reflect on how teamwork made our season great, the answer seemed obvious to me: Our blockers kick ass! But applying that teamwork question to our jammer roster was trickier. How the hell has my team managed to cultivate such a deep roster of consistent, high-performing jammers that work together so well? Wait….what? Jammers work together? Yes. It turns out that they do. I never really got that before this year, but my garden and our Champs season have made me a believer. Teamwork is just as important among your jammer corps as it is among blocker lineups. Bear with me and my garden metaphors for a bit, and you’ll learn… How to Make your Jammer Garden Grow Our final championship bout was terrifying and nerve-wracking and has turned into a bit of a blur in my memory. But it’s telling that both my best and worst feelings about that day relate to my fellow jammers. Teamwork is EVERYTHING in roller derby, but the way jammers interact with their team and with each other is an especially complicated beast, fraught with all kinds of potential drama and pitfalls. Our final Champs bout really brought home the point that jammer collaboration (both off the track and on) can powerfully influence the outcome of a season.

The best part of that bout was seeing our newest jammer explode onto the track. Sketchy Character is an incredibly talented skater with loads of potential. She’s also had a bad case of stage fright for most of the season. In practice, this girl would shine, breezing by every wall she faced. But on game day, she had trouble executing as a jammer. And so, for most of the season, she’s been blocking (which she is also ridiculously good at). With two of our regular jammers sidelined, Sketch was put into the starting jammer rotation for our last game. I don’t know if she was nervous, but I was nervous for her. Not because I thought she’d suck, but because I thought she might be worried she’d suck. And on top of the usual big game pressure, she had to face that this-is-your-big-chance-and-your-team-is-counting-on-you pressure. Even worse! But guess what? She did it. She not only did it — she killed it. It was truly beautiful to watch her skate and even more beautiful to see her smile when she accepted the Best Jammer award. Maybe my joy in this moment just comes from my personal relationship with Sketch (she was my pivot for most of the season and is just a really great person besides), but the pride and happiness our whole team felt for Sketch speaks to something more:

Jammer Cultivation Rule #1: Culture of Positivity

Competition can bring out the worst in almost anyone, and whether you’re a tomato plant in my garden or a roller derby jammer, competitive angst will happen to you. If you haven’t felt that green-eyed monster squirming in your guts when another skater progresses faster than you or bumps you down on the roster…well, my friend, you just haven’t been skating long enough. And the outcome can be bad…like, really bad. Think tantrums and tears in the locker room, friendships destroyed, and teams decimated bad.

Somehow, though, successful athletes and leagues are able to use the power of those inevitable competitive urges for good rather than evil. There are whole books and pages on cultivating a personal growth mindset for yourself (check out Fixed or Growth: What’s Your Derby Mindset? or read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck). To create a sustainable and resilient team of jammers, the whole league needs to buy into and enforce a communal growth mindset. This attitude is the sunshine that will make your jammer garden grow, and it can shine down from the training staff or radiate up from the skaters themselves. It works best, however, when everyone in the league mindfully commits to a culture of positivity. Our league’s training committee understands the importance of this kind of environment. They’ve initiated a Captain’s Choice award after each bout to recognize the skaters who’ve gone above and beyond to embody positivity and teamwork.

For our jammers, a positive culture means lots of encouragement heaped on the up-and-comers, as well as a “can-do” attitude from the entire team. Sketch was a cheerful and willing team player all season, blocking like a rockstar in bouts and tirelessly drilling her jammer skills at practice. Patient hard work from the team, coaches, and herself were each necessary (but not sufficient) components of her success in that last bout. It was the synergistically combined positivity of the whole league that got her to this amazing outcome:

Oh, and I shouldn’t even have to say it, but no snide comments, sabotage, or backbiting. Nip that s*#t in the bud! The worst thing about that game, the very worst, was seeing our star jammers sit it out. Crystal Beth doesn’t just have natural jammer talent and strength, she also has an immense reservoir of drive and dedication stashed somewhere in her hot little booty shorts. All season she’s had the best practice attendance, has jumped into every drill first, and has kept that star panty on her head when the rest of us schmucks were pulling it off to take a break. And then there’s Devilbird: I don’t know how to describe her other than Make-Blockers-Cry good. Powerful, strategically brilliant, fast as hell, and determined to score ALL the points. Just get out of her way, ok? These two ladies led our jammer roster early in the season. But then…disaster! Well not really a disaster for Devilbird, just a much-wanted baby on the way (awesome for her, a disaster for us). But true disaster for Beth: a badly sprained ankle the week before our last game.

This is a jammer’s worst nightmare, especially when you’re on a team full of talented skaters all vying for those starting spots, and even when you’re as kickass as Beth. There are newbies and transfers all queuing up behind you, and you’re never 100% sure your spot is safe. Not to mention that it just plain SUUUUUCKS to miss out on the biggest bout of the season due to injury. There were no tears, or pouting, or self-imposed seclusion from our girl, but my heart hurt for her, which made the game a lot less fun. Yet there was still some good that came of it, which brings me to…

Jammer Cultivation Rule #2: Room to Grow

It’s very easy to grow dependent on one or two star jammers to score all your team’s points. ‘Star’ jammers become the zucchini in my garden. They’re huge and gorgeous and bear all kinds of fruit….but they can crowd out all the other plants, and if they die or get injured, then you’re f*cked. (Also, who wants to eat that much zucchini?) Those are downsides for the team, but there are also downsides for star jammers themselves. If encouraged only to grow in one direction and without diverse challenges (and failures), jammers run the risk of losing their motivation, getting overconfident, and being less resilient when they face true adversity. I’m not suggesting that we should take baseball bats to all our best jammers’ knees or anything, but there is a lot to learn from injury…and from anything else that diverts a skater from their intended path. Instead of giving up the season for loss, Beth and Devilbird used their circumstances to grow in new directions. Devilbird spent this season honing her coaching skills and is sharing her badass wall-busting techniques with the rest of us. And Beth has faced those first serious injury demons with nothing but class…. she wasn’t leading from the track as a jammer but from the bench as our cool, collected (and still hot booty shakin’) line-up manager.

Finding room to grow is not just the responsibility of each individual skater. Like a positive attitude, it needs to be a culture shift adopted by the whole team. Our league has started holding “jammer school” sessions about once a month. The expectation is that everyone (blockers and jammers) will participate and try something new each session. Where each skater chooses to place their energy and what they choose to try is less important than the expectation that they try something. This creates not only room but encouragement to grow, something that is bound to give you bigger tomatoes…and better jammers. If you really want to max out your performance, every skater in your league needs that room and encouragement, both the frustrated, struggling newbies AND the big, established stars. And this is where rule #3 comes in:

Jammer Cultivation Rule #3: A Diligent Team of Gardeners

As we were planning our garden, there were some heated arguments in my house about what kind of peppers to plant. (Let’s just say my husband and I have differing opinions about how fun it is to have your face burned off by food.) Similarly, if you listen to a group of derby fans watching the World Cup, you’ll likely hear some heated words about who’s the best jammer. Skating style, off-track personality, agility versus strength…these are all things that affect our judgment about jammer performance. And they’re all subjective. Sure, there are stats to fall back on, but humans are subjective beasts, and putting jammer selection in the hands of one individual can be dangerous, much like letting my husband plant your garden for you: If you’re not careful, your face will probably get burned off.

If you’ve ever been on a team with an authoritarian coach or cronyist training committee, you know the dangers of which I speak. There are favorites, there are cliques, there are hard feelings, and hopelessness.

Nothing crushes jammer development like feeling that your hard work isn’t appreciated. Why bother trying if you know that Sally Superstar is the only one the coaches notice or care about? Avoiding these pitfalls is pretty much the sole responsibility of your training and coaching staff, though individual skaters can also play a role.

The most important task for league leaders is this: recognize that you are human and bound to make subjective mistakes… and then ask for help. Many leagues, for various reasons (history, league development, competitiveness, depth of derby experience, sheer personality) may find themselves with one individual making most of the roster decisions for the league.

The room-to-grow principle can be a strong factor in these situations: a coach who makes authoritarian decisions because she has the most derby experience is never going to allow anyone else to grow their derby experience. In the long term, this is bad for both the league and the coach (Burnout, anyone?). In the short term, it means the team may be missing out on some important insights that could make or break a season. The value of multiple perspectives in developing a jammer corps cannot be overstated. One person can’t possibly pay attention to everything, so at some point, you’re going to miss that little seedling superstar or step all over a blooming crossover jammer’s dreams.

My league is super lucky it has made the strategically brilliant choice to have our head coach and captains make jammer lineup decisions collaboratively after intense stat review and observation of all the jammers. The individual skaters contribute by understanding that rostering is done for the good of the team (See Rule #1: positive culture!)… and also by speaking up when or if they feel the system is breaking down. But ultimately, even that contribution is driven by our captains and coach, who’ve made it clear that they welcome and expect feedback from every member of the team. Collaborative decision-making can be challenging, but when it comes to jammer development, I promise it’ll be worth it.

Sometimes when those magical seasons happen, it’s tempting to attribute your success to chemistry, or luck, or talent, or even just the weather. Or you might be more analytical and chalk it all up to one particular strategy or combination of drills that made everyone perform so well. I would argue that whether we’re talking about a garden or a derby team, a good growing season takes a bit of both. Nurturing a successful team of jammers, in particular, requires something you might call strategic chemistry. With a little care and attention to the basic rules of jammer cultivation, you, too, can grow a crop of badass skaters and harvest all the points. Happy gardening!

Suffolk Roller Derby

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  • Dr. SpankNGrind

    Dr. SpankNGrind isn’t a real jammer, but she plays one on the track. She began skating in 2014, and currently lives in England where she competes with Suffolk Roller Derby. In real life, Spanky is a family physician and mother of two. She co-hosts Mind, Body & Roll, a podcast on whole-skater wellness for roller derby athletes.