Goal-Based Strategies

Originally published June 2014

Strategy (noun): the skill of carrying out plans to achieve a goal.

Okay, so the the title, "Goal-Based Strategies," is a misnomer. All strategies are goal-based. What I really mean is goal-based decision-making: fluid decisions determined by the situation or impending situation, which are meant to reach a shared goal.

When I was a derby baby (back in 2006 through around 2008) the "strategy" was to skate fast and hit people. I have no idea how that ever worked. It must've been the dumbest luck in the world. 

Then we grew up and starting learning how to play roller derby, but we weren't quite there. When I began captaining my team, our only goal was to win everything. Ranking was based on a voting system, so you wanted a significant point-spread win, but having one didn't always impact the vote. We had no long-term goal, no short-term goals, just one simple goal: win. There was no plan for how to win the bout, other than play your best, play good derby. Sometimes that worked out and sometimes it didn't (we were so young and naive). In hindsight, I am painfully confident that if we had determined and articulated concrete goals, our team would have seen far more success. Hashtag-reality-check.

Aside from my team's blundering along in the rankings, we (well, mostly me) were hopped up on creating strategies. Often to our own detriment. For example, when passive offense became a thing (2009? or was it 2010?), we were all about it. The outcome, as many teams realized, was that our jammers got shredded by defense, as we stood by and watch. We decided to ditch passive offense and switch to aggressive offense. Then, we were speeding up the pack so much that our jammers were exhausted before they reached the defense. After years of attempting unsuccessful strategies, I finally realized (gawd, I'm a slow learner sometimes) that good derby isn't about finding complex strategies to outsmart your opponents. Playing good derby (aside from individual fitness and skating skills) involves making quick, informed decisions based on the simple goal in the moment.

Let's examine the power jam.

What is the goal? To take advantage of the opportunity to score as many points as you can before the opposing jammer is on a scoring pass.

Distilled to the simplest plan, how can you accomplish that?

  1. Keep the pack slow, stopped, or moving in the opposite direction to decrease the amount of time your jammer spends skating around and not scoring points.
  2. Create a situation, so the jammer skates through the pack as quickly as possible.

So, how can you possibly know what to do? First of all, don't pick one strategy. Every team you play is different, and what might work on one opponent won't work on everyone. Aside from that, a smart team will pick up on your one-trick pony act and exploit the shit out of it. Strive for variety. Not only to keep your opponents guessing, but to be versatile and adaptable for any situation on the track.

Before you decide what to do, you must remember your goals: keep the pack slow/stopped/moving in the opposite direction and get the jammer through quickly. This should always be in the back of your mind. Next, you must consider your situation (this list is not fully inclusive, but it'll get you started):

  • The speed of the pack.
  • The location of the pack.
  • Your opponent's skills (their strengths and weaknesses) vs your team's skills.
  • Your jammer's skills vs the opponent's defense.
  • Your jammer's ability to work with offensive players.
  • The number of defensive blockers on the track.
  • The length of time left before the opposing jammer is on a scoring pass.
  • The length of time on the jam clock.

All these things impact the success of your decision-making. Let's say your team starts a power jam with passive offense, but on the first pass your jammer is struggling to get through defense. You send one person up to punch a hole and quickly return to passive offense without breaking the pack. You do this, instead of all-offense, so you don't speed up the pack. The next pass you send two blockers up to punch the wall, to make sure your jammer can get through. During that pass two defensive blockers are sent to the box. On the next pass, your jammer has to go up against a two-wall. You know that your jammer is the world's best juker and can easily handle two blockers, so your team stays on passive offense. One more pass to go. There's just seven seconds left in the jam and the opposing jammer is out of the box and on a scoring pass. They are half a lap away. Your jammer approaches their final scoring pass, so your team moves to all-offense to secure every point and speed up the pack to prevent the opposing jammer from scoring before the jam clock ran out.

Congratulations! Your team employed four different offensive plays successfully. They did so because they were vigilantly aware of their surroundings, adaptable, and worked together. If your team had forgotten the power jam goals, they could have easily got caught up in chasing the defense or wasting time on passive offense or something horrible. If you weren't aware that the jam was almost over, you may have given up points to the opposing jammer. All these tiny decisions add up and have significant impact on your ability to succeed.

I say succeed, instead of win, because your goal in a bout may not be to win. If your team is new and you are playing Gotham, we can all agree you probably won't win unless you're the Oly Rollers and it's 2009. Sure, it would amazing to win every bout, but you have to be realistic when it comes to goals. (See my "Setting and Achieving Individual Goals" ebook or google "SMART goals" to learn more about goal setting.) 

Without going into the how of goal-setting, let's just assume you understand how to set goals for the sake of this discussion. Let's focus on how your team goals effect the tiny decisions made in a jam, but first let's look at the goal tree. 

The long-term goal influences each season's goal. The season goal influences the bout goals, and the bout goal influences the jam goals. The jam goal influences all the decisions you make in the pack. Every single movement and decision you, your teammates, and your coaches make should have a purpose rooted in the goal. 

I'll give you an example of how this could play out. Your team's long-term goal is to continually improve your WFTDA ranking. This season you focus on moving up ten spots in rank (yeah, you're one of those teams on that long climb to Divisionals). Your next bout is against a team ranked eight spots lower than your team (hashtag-higher-ranked-teams-won't-play-us-woop-ever), so in order to improve your ranking you need to win by 200 points and keep their team to almost nothing. Your jam goals are:

  • if you get lead, go for long points, so you spend more time in point-scoring mode and less time between jams or on non-scoring passes
  • defense must be tight - they must wear down jammers and keep them in the pack forever and ever and ever

How does this effect your training and decision-making? Welp, you would need to train for longer jams, so your team has the endurance to play that amount of time. You might want to focus on developing successful jam starts with one or two offense helping your jammer get lead. For jams that you don't get lead, develop your quick coordinated offense to get your jammer through and force the opposing jammer to call off the jam. These are just a few ideas, but hopefully the example makes sense in regard to decision-making from the season goals, to bout goals, to jam goals.   

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Developing Mental Toughness
Originally posted March 2014