I’ve been playing derby for about a year and a half. I was smitten right after my first practice (spent a lot of time in close personal contact with the wall on Turn 2 due to crappy rental skates). I ordered my gear as soon as I got home after my second practice. I knew nothing about the game, the rules, the strategy, just that I loved what I had thus-far seen of it. The horrible bruises on my knees and elbow didn’t deter me, in fact they spurred me on to improve!
I was somewhat out of shape, so it took some work to get my 25-in-5 (at that time) and to build my endurance and skating skills. I love to skate! I love trying new things on my skates and feel that I’ve improved greatly my technical skating skill level. Not only are good skating skills paramount for being a player, they are also needed for reffing.
Two weeks after I went to my first practice, a group of us went to Saskatoon to watch a double header. I was amazed that there were seven refs. I had no idea there were different reffing positions and each position had its own duties. As confusing as I found watching my first live bouts, I was more confused by the refs. What were they yelling? What did the hand signals mean? Rules?! What rules?
Fast forward to now. Our (fairly newish) league has played in several games, I’ve played in several scrimmages and have enjoyed each one. Sure, there are challenges and frustrations, but I can honestly say I have learned at least one thing from each playing situation. The game is always evolving and the strategies and skills are always open for improvement and learning, as a player, a coach or a ref.
I had thought about reffing earlier on in my derby “career” but for the time being was content to play. Blocking was a satisfying position to play (I don’t have the legs or lungs for jamming). I learned what I could do well and what needed work (and what was likely never going to improve!). As I learned more about playing the game, I started to read more about the rules and officiating, went to a few rules seminars. The rules seem to be ever-changing, or at least being refined, so there was always something new or something to further read, learn, refine.
There was an opportunity in June for me to OPR a Sunday scrimmage. I initially thought I was going to “shadow” an OPR, but got thrown right into it. After a few bumbling jams (where I wasn’t sure where I was, was I in position? how far did I skate before turning back? …) I got my skates under me, so to speak, and was able to concentrate on game play. Some of the penalties were obvious and I was whistling and calling out before I’d even thought about it. Others were more insidious. Hmm, I was sure what I just witnessed was a penalty, but was not sure what it was, so I couldn’t call it. I needed to brush up on the rules. (This coincided with WFTDA releasing the July 1 updated rule set, so I have a letter-sized bound copy of that and it’s my constant companion. Overkill Bill has walked into our bedroom and seen me fallen asleep, reading glasses on and the rule book at my side.) It took me a few jams to get the whistle/hand signal/verbal cue to all match up at once, but by the end of the scrimmage I was feeling more confident.
The major, huge epiphany for me was how different a perspective of the game it is from the other side of the boundary. There is so much going on, so much to watch for. And the number one consideration of officiating is if you didn’t see the beginning/middle/end of an action, you cannot call the penalty (if there is indeed an infraction). There were times I’d see the middle/end but not the beginning. So while I could surmise what may have occurred, I didn’t actually see it.
There is so much to absorb, the blocker on blocker contact, the jammers coming through the pack, the flow of the pack. It certainly gave me, as a player, a new appreciation for the position of referee. When playing, we can get caught up in the competitiveness of the game and question the validity of calls (or our perceived lack of a call) and not realize what is seen while skating from the other side of the tape. As a player, there are concepts of game play that become clear when you read the rules and observe from an official’s point of view – rules that I, as a player, didn’t really understand or comprehend how it impacted game play. Not the obvious ones (elbows, low block, back block) – although those also had components of which I was unaware, but the pack definition rules, direction of play, the 13 (THIRTEEN!!) illegal procedure major verbal cues, etc. The number one priority of the rule set is to create a safe and fair playing environment. The number one priority of the referee is to ensure a safe playing environment is maintained.
While the camaraderie of playing as a team is incomparable and rewarding, I feel I have gone as far as I can as a player, skill-wise. That is not meant in a self-deprecating or solicitous way; it simply is what it is. While I consider myself an average blocker, I think I might have the makings of a good ref. I’m teetering on the line right now. Do I want to move from player to official? Although I was nervous and somewhat terrified, I really, really enjoyed the three outings I’ve had so far as an OPR and felt great satisfaction. I have two more lined up (one scrimmage, one bout) and am counting down to those. I look forward to learning more, becoming more confident and knowledgeable as an OPR, then in the future moving onto the inside track official positions.
So that is the big question. I have the delightful luxury of being on vacation right now. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the bigger picture – work, health, stress and which fork in the derby road to take. And really, I couldn’t have foreseen a better derby name to spill over into reffing: Cranky Busterchops!
*Feature image courtesy of Karla Dawn Pratt.