Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's a Small World, After All

A busy past couple of months, for everyone in derby. Everyone's talking about it, I'll add my thoughts and experiences. But first, let's summarize those weeks.

Prelude: WFTDA Regionals starts on September 16th. I'm out of vacation and personal time at work, so I spend the first three weekends watching non-stop online before I finally get to ref at North Centrals in Indianapolis on October 7-9.

Then stuff goes crazy.
November 11-13: WFTDA Championships in Denver, CO.
November 18/19: Kitt Traxx Banked Track Tournament in Chicago, IL.
November 26/27: OCDG Ref Clinic in Edmonton, AL, CAN.
December 1-4: Blood and Thunder World Cup

That's an amazing month, probably the best I've ever had, in terms of experiences, in terms of being challenged, in terms of being inspired. What's more challenging, officiating the top flat-track players in the WFTDA as they vie for their most coveted title, or officiating a style of derby you've only seen live once before? What's more inspiring, seeing a huge number of new refs from new leagues coming together with absolute enthusiasm to learn and improve, or seeing people only a couple of years further on in that effort come together to help put on the most epic tournament the derby world has ever seen?

But most of all it was the people, the officials at each of these that made it so outstanding. The WFTDA system has been bringing officials together for a long time, and we're settling into a great groove. It was wonderful to start the month by working with such an amazing assemblage once again. But the banked track refs were remarkable to work with too. As supportive as any HRs I've ever had, willing to put faith in our abilities as flat track refs and our commitment to dedicate ourselves to reffing quality derby. I learned things that weekend which I'll take back, and I can barely remember the last time I was so nervous to ref a bout as those two that weekend. The Canadian referees were so ready to learn, so hungry for information, and that always makes teaching a joy. It reminded me of being where they were, of how exciting roller derby can be, how lucky we are to be a part of it. Which made me even more excited for the next weekend. Refs and NSOs were coming in from around the world for the B&T World Cup. Organization and communication wasn't maybe at the level we all expect, and there were logistical issues we'd never run into before. But everyone's commitment to making this a success (which goes not just for the officials, but also for ToRD, B&T and every team) was what made it the success it was.

And that's what I really take away from this. Commitment to officiating, commitment to improvement, commitment to the sport. More than anything this is how we've gotten here. It's how we can come together cross-discipline and work together in good faith and be rewarded with new friends and new experiences. It's how officials can come together from around the world and a mess of different systems and not have even one that needs coddling. We are the support system and we are the means to improvement for ourselves. Banked or flat, Germany or Australia or US or anywhere else, we are all the same in being roller derby officials. And that's pretty awesome.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

No Minors. Thoughts, reactions.

During this ECDX weekend I was able to officiate one of the WFTDA’s Beta-test bouts, trying out a new ruleset with no minor penalties. The ECDX had three such Beta-tests scheduled, in addition to those happening elsewhere; I was assigned to Head Referee the bout between Maine’s Port Authority and Steel City’s Steel Hurtin’. Below are some of my reactions to it.

1) It was a lot of fun. That’s my biggest takeaway from this experience. Spectators report me walking away from the bout smiling. Yeah, I know, that’s serious business. But it was exciting, and so much fun. You remember when you first saw Roller Derby and thought “I love this game!”, and then you started refereeing or NSOing (or skating or announcing) and as you learned to do that you thought “I love this game! This is fun!”? But then, slowly, maybe you didn’t even notice it happening entirely, it became a little less fun, and a little less fun. You’re getting yelled at for not calling something that’s defined as having no impact on the game. Or you keep getting called on things you can’t imagine actually matter. Or you can’t explain what’s going on because even the skaters and refs don’t seem entirely sure. There’s a lot of timeouts to get all these minors sorted out, it’s not the best experience. This experience, without minors, was different than that, it was fun. But why it was fun has to do with these other points.

2) You can focus on the game more. As refs, I really think minors distract us from the game itself. For instance, there’s the reporting of the penalties that can cause us to miss something important. A Major penalty, a pack destruction, a Lead Jammer trying to call off the jam, or even a team whose facing the wrong end of a 2-on-4 pack while down a jammer getting their two skaters up to the front of the pack. We miss that stuff. But it also keeps our attention on things that again, are defined as having no impact on the game itself, so we’re paying far too much attention to stuff fundamentally unrelated to the game, instead of the game. With no minors, I can see something happen, I can dismiss it faster than I maybe otherwise could (it didn’t have significant impact, move on), and I can see the game develop, I feel it’s rhythm, and that allows me to better anticipate what action will happen next.

3) It’s less confusing. Spectators and announcers don’t usually know why someone’s received their fourth minor. They don’t know what three she got before that one, and they probably don’t know what her fourth was either. Is that a surprise? It shouldn’t be, the skaters usually don’t know that either, and that’s because the referees usually don’t know that information. I feel like a superstar referee when I can let a girl know “Black 42, you have four, (it was a forearm)”. But now, almost every penalized action is obvious, the spectators see it happen and see it affect the game. The skaters experience the effect, often times know they did it, and the referee is under no confusion about it. Even penalties coming in from the outside are easily communicated. It’s transparent, and that’s to our mutual benefit.

4) It was easier to administrate. In the bout I officiated we had two NSOs on the inside, the Penalty Tracker and the Jam Timer. There was no need for an Inside White Board, or two Outside White Boards. No need for a wrangler. We did add one NSO, a Penalty Tracker on the outside, to see if we needed one on the inside, from our one trial, the conclusion is no, we don’t. This means you have only one NSO in the middle, the Jam Timer. Consider also how much easier that makes it for everyone to see everything. But also, no Official Timeouts for handle late fourths. No intentional fourth minors.

5) It was aggressive and kept moving. Now, let me be clear, by “aggressive” I mean it kept things happening, it was offense oriented. With no minors, there’s more Lead Jammers, that means more aggressive blocking, rather than passive blocking. In the Windy City v Charm City bout I watched there were multiple hits that resulted in the whole crowd reacting. No penalties for those, they were just big hits. That’s not common right now. That’s fun. And the heightened penalization of Direction of Gameplay and Multi-Player Blocking penalties meant things moved forwards far more than they stood still or backwards.

6) This last one though is perhaps the one I’m most excited about. To begin with, there’s a simplified strata of impact, we train referees on one scale, penalize this, not this, and here are you’re three exceptions. That makes it easier to train and standardize to. We will have more consistent refereeing, more quickly. But also, review. Four years ago I told Kool-Aid that every week NFL referees get a video of their calls from the weekend and a review how was their positioning, was the call right or wrong, what could be improved. We can’t do that with minors, we are making literally hundreds of calls a game, one referee can make a hundred calls themselves in some games. Right now, we can only teach referees to generally be in this spot, and to want to move to be in position, and list some scenarios. But now we have the potential to review the dozen calls they made. You were out of position on this call because of this. You overcalled this because you missed this. This is huge. And it also makes it a feasible reality for video review during a bout, if that’s something we want. But that’s another discussion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Championships Crew Head Ref, Day Three

As you may, or may not, know, I was one of the three Crew Head Referees for the WFTDA Championships in Chicago this year. It was an honor, and I was completely pleased with the way my crew performed. I wanted to run through the three days, and talk about things we did and discussions we had, because I think they all fed into our performance. This is not an instruction manual. This is not what we did right that other crews did/do wrong, I wasn't on those crews and I don't know what they did. This is what worked for us, this one weekend, and which may work for others, over a weekend, a season, or a career.

Day Three - Sunday
Before we'd all left on Saturday night, the crews were informed of their assignments for the next day. For what it's worth, I appreciated this. Obviously we're still figuring things like how and when to announce these to crews and teams, and we'll continue to refine those procedures, but for me, it was helpful knowing what our crew would be doing the next day. It gave us the chance to talk about how we should be preparing, to focus in not just over the course of a few hours, but half a day. And it let us process and get over the excitement and nervous energy we might be experiencing and settle into a more comfortable place.

So, yeah, in case you're wondering, Otto Kerner, Jr., got assigned to the Championship bout on Sunday, a rematch of the Western Regional Championship, Oly v RMRG, this time for the Hydra Trophy. The night before then, when informing the crew, I also asked them to go home, get some rest, and consider the notes we'd gotten over the weekend. Which ones had really helped them to improve over the weekend, because I wanted to review them as a crew before the bout. Really what I wanted was to ensure that the crew stayed hungry. Not that I'd expect it from anyone on that crew, but I would hate to have someone show up suddenly sporting the over-confidence that can be the death of a referee. For me, it was that note from the first day, about missing OOP or general penalties in front, and I knew it was because I was reffing the refs' reffing too much, instead of the game, something I'd been explicitly trying to avoid. I couldn't make that same mistake in this bout.

It turns out I had nothing to worry about, the crew went out there and, frankly, nailed it. I have a hard time thinking of a bout I've come off of feeling that good about. There have been a couple of calls talked about, I'm not going to get into them specifically because I think everything that needs saying has been said, plus about a million extra pages worth. What I will say is that I'm proud of this crew, and every call they made, and I have no doubts about them, because I trust those referees.

really, it was an awesome experience. Not just that one bout, but everything, working with that crew, reffing those bouts and those teams, being in Chicago for the tournament, everything. Best ever, until next year.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Championships Crew Head Ref, Day Two

As you may, or may not, know, I was one of the three Crew Head Referees for the WFTDA Championships in Chicago this year. It was an honor, and I was completely pleased with the way my crew performed. I wanted to run through the three days, and talk about things we did and discussions we had, because I think they all fed into our performance. This is not an instruction manual. This is not what we did right that other crews did/do wrong, I wasn't on those crews and I don't know what they did. This is what worked for us, this one weekend, and which may work for others, over a weekend, a season, or a career.

Day Two - Saturday
Saturday was split into two halves, before and after a dinner break. OK,Jr. was scheduled for only one more bout before the dinner break, with everything after dinner still being un-scheduled. Due to the nature of this tournament and the level of refereeing we expect, that's just sort of how it had to be. It would be dishonest to say though, that none of us on the crew were feeling the need to really deliver in the one bout we had left scheduled. Of course, you always want to deliver your best when refereeing, but that doesn't mean you can't experience increased pressure.

Kansas City v Philly
That said, I think we handled it, and more importantly the bout, really well. It was a good second bout, both in that it was a very straight-forward bout and that our crew really gelled during this bout, perhaps as a partial result of the straight-forward nature of the bout. Let me insert here, when I say "straight forward", that's not supposed to imply anything about the teams playing or what I think of how they played. Some bouts have lots of technical calls, some bouts don't, it's as much about how the teams react to each other as it is about anything else. But regardless of why, it was this bout where I felt like the Pack Refs really hit a stride and figured out how we were going to work together, where we really got our communication down with the Jammer Referees, and where we nailed timing and sight lines between inside and outside. At this point it was down to fine tuning.

Philly v Oly
All that being the case, there was one thing we never quite got down to clockwork, intentional fourth minors. That's as much on me as it can be on anyone. I wanted the OPRs positioned in turn 4 to handle it, and I don't think that was normal for anyone, add to that the fact that the NSOs preferred to talk to me about it, and that I was all the way up at the front of the pack, it was messy. Not game-affecting messy, just Three Stooges messy. It's worth noting in this bout particularly because I felt like it kind of blew up. Again, never to where it effected the bout or our refereeing, but enough that it made us (or, to be more fair to the crew, it made me) feel like it was closer to MNRG v CCRG than KCRW v PRG. Of course, beyond the intentional fourths, it also was more like MNRG v CCRG than KCRW v PRG, with much more going on regarding pack definition and Direction of Gameplay penalties than we'd had (and led to the minors), but when we looked back on it, and when we got our notes from Vroom, it felt to me like the idea that it was a hairy game simply came from being busy watching so much, not from anything like that we'd stepped back. To be sure, despite feeling hard, it had at the same time felt like a good bout, and what more can you want?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Championships Crew Head Ref, Day 1

As you may, or may not, know, I was one of the three Crew Head Referees for the WFTDA Championships in Chicago this year. It was an honor, and I was completely pleased with the way my crew performed. I wanted to run through the three days, and talk about things we did and discussions we had, because I think they all fed into our performance. This is not an instruction manual. This is not what we did right that other crews did/do wrong, I wasn't on those crews and I don't know what they did. This is what worked for us, this one weekend, and which may work for others, over a weekend, a season, or a career.

Before the Tournament
In the weeks leading up to the Tournament, I made a point of calling all the referees on my crew. The aim was to go over some position specific items, talking about the crew and assignments, and feeling out any questions or concerns they might have for me. I felt like this would give us a chance to start thinking about us as a crew and how we were working together before we ever got to Chicago. It also helped me to zone in to Head Referee mode, handling the different moving parts early.

The night before the tournament we had a crew dinner at a nearby bar. The idea was last minute talk. I wanted to remind people to stay focused, to maintain their hydration and rest before bouts throughout the tournament, not just the days leading up to the tournament, Communication was also a big issue. We also discussed our goals as a crew. They were dual, and would either end up at odds, or synergistic. One was for the tournament to have the best refereeing possible, especially in the Championship bout. The other was for us to be assigned to the Championship bout.

Day One - Friday
Minnesota v Charm City
We'd discussed some the night before, but were sure to discuss before this bout, while watching earlier bouts, what we might expect out of this bout; physical play and lots of Pack dynamics were to be the order of the day. Even with the traditional sitting together for earlier bouts of the day, it was still a tough bout for our crew, and I felt like we were still finding our rhythm. I'm not going to claim that I felt like we totally did find our rhythm in this one bout, but we came pretty damn close. What's most significant about this bout for our crew was that, instead of getting down about any mistakes, we used them as a stepping off point. We took the notes we got at the half and fixed those things, allowing us to look forward to our next bout with much more minute problems to fix. For myself, the biggest thing I needed to address was 'reffing the refs'. I'm sure we've all probably felt like we've been in a situation as a Head Referee where you need to supervise the calls all the other referees are making, double checking your Jammer Referee's score, etc. But we also have a job to do, for me that was Front Pack, and I needed not only to focus on that more, but also to recognize that the referees on this crew didn't need refereeing.

Getting back to that idea though, of fixing problems and moving on to the next set, that ability, to fix a problem and move on to another problem without then slipping on the first issue, these were what I felt our crew's true strengths were. In addition, the ability to talk and assess each other honestly and critically without it being disregarded (which is something I feel generally happens too often in Derby) because "[we] know what [we're] doing", and to not just listen to the Head Referee (and here I'm talking about Dr. Vroom), but to really hear what she had to say and take it and internalize it to improve.

We all walked out of our first bout both feeling good over-all, but also with a list of things we'd need to improve on. Not that we had a lot of time to improve.