Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Flock Theory

A High Level Approach to Anticipating Behavior

Flock Theory started as an attempt to re-describe the legally defined pack, it has become a tool for referees to use to anticipate certain calls, calls that are often the hardest to make and need to be made the quickest. Before I go further though I need to restate that it is imperative that you never make a call before something happens, this is only to help you see something when it does happen.

As in a flock of birds, skaters within a pack should exhibit some basic tendencies. There are certain spots that they are largely always trying to gain or maintain. Likewise there are positions that they are trying to get away from or out of. You should already be familiar with these positions, if you are not, I would suggest you learn more about the different positions, because it is necessary that you understand the basics of pack behavior before moving on. Once you understand these positions and their value to the skaters, then it is easy to advance to the point of anticipation. Yes, I said anticipation.

For instance, we know that the inside line, especially the inside line in the front of the pack, is a valuable position to pack skaters. So, if we see a skater or a group of skaters abandon this position, we should anticipate that something is about to happen, they are abandoning pack behavior, it is likely that the basic pack should be affected by this move. Say that we have one skater abandon this position, she is likely chasing the jammer. We can then immediately begin watching both the position of the front of the pack and start judging where 20 feet is from that front. Again, we're not going to penalize the blocker unless she commits a penalty, but as we're all aware of how fast the front of the pack can change, being on top of it can improve your calling immensely.

Similarly, let's imagine that a group of blockers abandon the front of the pack and start to skate out in front of the pack, there are two things we should be watching for here. First, are they moving together? Are they creating, in their way, a smaller pack all with the same goal? If so, look back and decide if this group is going to leave the pack, or in fact cause a split pack, be ready to make that call when it happens! Maybe though they are not all acting the same, not splitting the pack, but in fact stretching the pack out, this too you should be prepared to see in this instance, because it is something that often looks like there is no pack, or that they are 30 feet from the pack, when in fact they are still within the pack. An educated ref who is prepared for this situation will anticipate the move and apply penalties (or not) as appropriate.

This leap, from reaction to anticipation, is an easy one to make conceptually but a difficult one to make in practice. Make sure that you are constantly watching the behavior of skaters during practices or scrimmages, and never forget to keep watching for all the other penalties. As is always the case with reffing, it will take a long time, but with constant work, it will eventually come naturally.


  1. Nice post, I think the derby player and/or coach can learn a thing or two from this. I have attempted to relate derby play to some of the stuff I teach on how ants are able to cooperate to perform a task without actually communicating, just by having everyone follow the same simple set of rules (kind of what you are implying by the bird flock analogy). I might attempt to formalize my thoughts more in my copious amount of free time...

  2. Reader (and MRD skater) Charlie Hustle sends along this related link!

    An interesting read, I wonder if the person being talked about could be talked into investigating the same things in derby?