Six Pointers for Baby Zebras

So, a new zeeb sent me a message the other day asking what are some things I wish I had known, or witnessed, before I started officiating. That very same day I got an identical message from another skater about to officiate her first game. Then yet ANOTHER message shortly thereafter. Thrilled to see so many more people entering the world of officiating. It can be a rather hazardous mindfield at times BUT if you keep the following in mind you’ll hopefully avoid getting shanked in the parking lot. So, for her benefit and the hopefully the benefit of others, I give you 6 observations (with an added 7th) and lessons that you best hear about now rather than later. These are NOT extensive, there is much more that can be said and if you have anything to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section!

1. Focus on what you SEE, not what you hear.

In the heat of the moment, when a skater is screaming at you “SHE CUT!” or “BACKBLOCK!” or a different complaint about whatever great, unbelievable injustice has befallen her, it may be tempting to call a major on the apparent transgressor. Don’t do it! If you didn’t actually SEE her cut or backblock or highblock, don’t you dare blow that whistle! Nope! Put it down! Good.

Maybe there WAS a major cut… or, maybe, the girl screaming for a cut was out of play when the jammer returned to the track. Or maybe the girl fell while you weren’t looking, then got back up quickly. Hell, maybe the girl screaming for a cut against the jammer wasn’t even the girl who pushed the jammer out of bounds to begin with. There is wayyyyy too much that could have happened for you to be making a call based on a yelling skater. So don’t do it. If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.

"THAT WAS A CUT YOU SON OF A-" (Photo courtesy of Michael Squire).

“THAT WAS A CUT YOU SON OF A-” No it wasn’t… sneaky derby girl! (Photo courtesy of Michael Squire).

2. It is not about calling penalties.

Sayyyyy WHHAAATTTTTTT!? Being a skating official ISN’T about calling penalties!? That’s right all you growing zebras, it’s not. If you’re going into a game all pumped up about all the cool penalties you’ll be sending girls to the box for, just take a deep breath and step back for a moment. Do you want to earn a good reputation and prove yourself as a reliable, knowledgeable official? Well, here’s what you need to realize then: officiating is about 3 things… safety (for absolutely everybody on or near the track), consistency/fairness, and upholding the standard practices of your position.

Officiating is NOT about the grandeur and excitement of sending girls to the sin bin. If you’re sitting at half time with 30+ penalties on the board and you’re bragging about how 25 of them were your calls, then something is up. At this point your head ref should be thinking: “is there REALLY a major penalty or two occurring ever single minute of this game”. Furthermore, “is this outside pack ref REALLY seeing all of these majors? Why is nobody else calling them?”. Your head ref may then have a conversation with you about the game. Or maybe he or she won’t. But do you really want to be that guy/girl who called 41 out of 58 majors? Leading the crowd to really focus on you. I sure as hell don’t…. just remember: a good official is invisible to the fans.

3. Balance, you must…

Officiating is all about balance. Call way too much and YOU could be impacting the course of the game with your calls (not to mention placing your judgements in question when inconsistency exists across those calls). On the flip side, call way to little and I guarantee play will become aggressive and get out of hand (a girl can only take so many shots to the back and head before she gets angry and starts acting out)… focus on following the standard practices, communicating with your fellow zebras, and keeping the game safe and fair. Keep calm and adapt when needed. Sometimes you’ll have to call more, sometimes you’ll have to call less. Sometimes there will be 4 majors in a row, sometimes a giant pileup will make it impossible to determine who the initiator was. Just keep your cool and adapt to the flow of the game. Also, learn to accept feedback and to actually consider what is given to you be it from your fellow stripes, coaches, captains, etc.

4. Hey, you with the stripes, guess what? You are on a team too!

Damn right you are. It’s called team zebra, aka team stripes, aka team officials. You and your fellow skating and non-skating officials are a TEAM and it is through the combined efforts, skill, knowledge, and focus of every single one of you that a game is successfully, and safely, run. Without you there is nobody to count points, nobody to ensure penalties are served properly, nobody to watch for dangerous play, etc etc. It would be pandemonium without the officials. Be careful not to let that get to your head, a sense of pride in your performance is good but delusions of grandeur are not. Strive to constantly improve your knowledge and performance. Learn from each and every call you make. Absorb lessons from every crew you work on. And for the love of god, don’t be a lone wolf… I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this or what boot camps you’ve been to, get on the goddamn team please… HELP ME… TO HELP YOU!

communicate!5. You can get hurt too. Badly.

So for the love of god, wear a mouth guard, buy a multi-impact helmet, and replace your ratty, crappy pads. Yes, you’re not playing but wear and tear happens to your stuff too and believe me when I say that you being an official does NOTHING to protect you from a falling, flailing, derby girl coming at you at high speeds. I’ll admit I didn’t wear a mouth guard for a very long time. I told myself “I’ll be fine, I can’t speak clearly or blow the whistle with one in my mouth”. Yep, that was my logic and although I’d like to think that deep down I knew it was bullshit, I just honestly couldn’t be bothered with it. Until I got WRECKED by a men’s derby skater twice my size getting knocked off the track during a scrim at Flat Track Fever 2013. Luckily, no concussion but I was sore, dazed, and pretty rattled. Seeing footage of it afterward, sweet mother of god… it was a doozy of a wipe out that sent me into the benches.

Since then I have noticed a number of truly magnificent and grimace worthy wipe-outs, take downs, and spills involving officials that simply shake them off like they’re nothing. Some of them wear their mouth guards and good quality helmets. Some of them don’t. Let me just say that nobody is immune to head trauma and busted kneecaps. Nuff’ said.

6. Read the rules. Regularly.

“I know the rules, I don’t need to keep reading them!” Shut up. Yes, you do… this game is CONSTANTLY changing. New scenarios can come up at any time. New strategies are always being discovered that exploit or play around with the wording of rules. Official clarifications and alterations are released much more frequently than you may think. And guess what… sometimes we forget things. There is a hell of a lot packed into that rule set. Keep on top of it and keep up to date. There’s nothing more embarrassing than arguing about multi-player-blocks when you haven’t read the new rules clarifications. I’ve seen it happen. AWWWKKKKWWWAAARRRRDDD…

o6t2zADDED: 7. Find a mentor.

Seriously. If you are brand new, find a couple of experienced referees to latch on to. Dig your claws into their undersides and drain them of ALL the knowledge and experience that you possible can. Ask questions. Clarify confusions. Ask for advice. Whenever you officiate a bout, contact whoever your head ref was and ask for feedback. No matter how big or small the question, never be afraid of annoying them. A good, passionate official will make themselves available to ANYBODY who wishes to improve themselves and learn more about the sport. Hell, no matter how long they have been officiating for themselves, even the biggest most highly respected officials have their own mentors too!

ADDED: 8. Talk about the rules… just NOT at the after party.

It’s important to talk about the rules and about calls in order for you to learn and grow. But doing so after an intense game, when everyone is tired and emotional and getting drunk, is asking for trouble. Stay away from those discussions. Go have fun on the dance floor singing along to Don’t Stop Believing or play beer pong or something. Come up with a nice or hilarious excuse and get out of dodge before you’re sucked into a conversation that will come back to haunt you.

ADDED: 9. Stop beating yourself up… the fans, coaches, and skaters will do that for you!

Okay, seriously last one to add. Please, please, PLEASE don’t be ashamed of your mistakes. Beating yourself up at the half because you know you messed up is only going to lead to an even worst second half (I fell into this trap a few times). Take a deep breath, OWN your mistake, talk to your head ref or a fellow official about it if you’d like, and learn from it. Say to yourself: “yep, I done @$#%ed up”, figure out how/why (were you confused with the wording of something? Do you have two rules mixed up? Did you miss a rules clarification?), then find out exactly what you need to do for next time and move on knowing you won’t repeat the same mistake again. It really is as simple as that .

Now go forth into this sport and grow my little ones! Be free! Make mistakes! Have fun! Learn, live, and love derby! Just take your goddamn stripes off at the after party…


Kevlar 2Written by Kevin ‘Kevlar’ Dennison




  1. I would say (kind of as an add-on to #9):
    If you’re having trouble with someone or something in the bout, tell your Head Ref. It could be something they would have no way of noticing, and it could be impacting the game or other refs more than you realize. Not only that, but they may have some words of wisdom to help you through the problem; or they may be able to squash the issue immediately so that it’s no longer a problem for you and the other Zebras.

    From personal experience this is usually to do with Coaches in particular; but while it could be an expert coach like Lime who will make you second-guess even the most solid calls and be the most annoying person you’ve ever met (during the game only… you rock, Lime); it could also be a coach or a player who is doing something that they SHOULD actually be ejected for. If your HR doesn’t know what to do, they’ll consult the other refs and/or the rule-book. We’re all a team (#4), and we do our best work by working as one!

    Keep in mind, almost all of this applies to NSOs too. In the case of what I’d written below, if your bout has a Head NSO, you should try to let them know first; but the HR is on your team too!

  2. One of my favorite comments in this article is ” a good official is invisible to the fans.” I’ve noticed this myself as a Skating official. I’m always overwhelmed by the Thank-you’s I get from the Skaters after a bout. I still consider myself a very in-experienced ref ( I think I’m at 6 or 7 bouts as an OPR ) As mentioned, I’m terrified to make mistakes…and honestly, a pack of 10 skaters can be tough to watch closely. I make my calls cautiously because I want to KNOW that i’ve made the right call. Sometimes it results in the Skater “Yelling” what they think the call should have been. That being said, I haven’t made a call because of what someone yelled at me…..yet. Great article…and good advice about re-reading the rule set. Because every bout has something different about it…and new scenarios do happen…there’s lots to learn. Thanks to all my friends who I’m fortunate enough to officiate with. It has been a great learning experience…and I have lots more to learn.

  3. I’m absorbing this all … and have more questions! I’ll remember to ask when I see you next, Kevlar.

  4. This great I have read and re-read it. I even printed out. I do #9 alot to me self. It is nice to have it in writing to tell me self to stop.
    #7 I had to join websites to latch onto other refs,which helps.( there are not any refs close to me)But when I am at Bouts I hit up every ref on what I can about the most crazies things on Derby.

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