Shape of the pack (part one)

Speaking to a lot of rookie officials last year, along with newer skaters at training sessions and scrims, something that came up a lot is wanting to feel more confident at pack awareness (skaters) and pack definition (officials).

Matters of the pack can feel difficult and require a lot of derby “bandwidth” – a concept beautifully described by Prime at Iron Octopus Fitness. The other issue is a struggle, particularly for newer derby folk, to understand what the pack actually is.

Some confusion stems from the fact many of us in the derby community use “pack” colloquially when referring to any group of blockers collectively. Maybe coaches talk about “two packs” and say “pack up” to encourage skaters to get closer together in drills – none of these reflect what a derby pack actually is, and starting out it’s hard to recognise which use of “pack” is which. Similarly we use “reform” to talk about reforming a wall just as much as we do reforming the pack – and these are two very different concepts of “reform”. (I’ve lost count of the times someone has simultaneously reformed the wall but destroyed the pack in the process.)

Breaking it down really simply, there are four basic components to gaining the confidence we crave:

1) An understanding of what the pack is, and thoroughly understanding the rules as to who is (or isn’t) in the pack and/or engagement zone. Define the pack in your own words then click the rules link to see if you’re correct.

2) Good distance judgement skills for estimating 10ft and 20ft.

3) Strong positioning for officials to be able to make that distance judgement (and for skaters, knowing where to look and which distance/s you need to measure when you’re on track)

4) Quick recognition of common pack “shapes”, the ability to anticipate what might happen next and eventually, as a skater, legally manipulate the pack to your own advantage.

These all require practice. If you want to get good at pack definition/awareness, you should be in the pack definition/awareness mindset as much as possible. When watching footage, when at training/scrimmage and when thinking through scenarios.

In this blog mini-series, I’m going to focus on point 4, though the other points inevitably feature. I’ll present some common pack shapes, how they arise, and what officials could anticipate happening next. All pack names are unofficial “Skew-isms” and are there purely to help them stick in your head and refer to other “pack shapes” within the blog.

There are other implications to gameplay and strategy you may want to consider in each situation, but the tips here are to do with defining the pack. Any referee positioning thoughts are what I prefer when I head up a crew, but you may have a different preference – there’s not necessarily one “right” way to do things!

Credit to Wonder Zebra and Vienna Roller Derby (also home of the legendary Fearleaders!) for kindly letting me use the URDUMB application to generate these images. Go there. (And drop some money in the pot if you find it a useful resource!)

Interpreting the diagrams:

  • Skaters who are part of the pack have a green outline
  • The engagement zone is shaded – 20ft ahead and behind the limits of the pack
  • Skaters not in the pack but still in the engagement zone (in play) have their outline in their team colour – this includes jammers!
  • Out of bounds skaters have a red outline

The sardines


Pack or no pack? PACK. All blockers included.

When seen: the start of most jams, or when both teams are executing highly defensive play

The key feature: Everybody is tightly packed, like sardines, probably within 10ft of every other skater, never mind some other skater in the pack

Anticipation: Pack definition is likely to change when one jammer breaks free or one jammer is hit out of bounds (and recycled)

Ref positioning notes: Ensure pack referee coverage to see both walls, particularly “seeing through the middle” to potential multiplayer blocks in the rear wall. Jammer referees may be jostling for position and need to be extra aware of each other.

The extended bridge

packs_extended bridge

Pack or no pack? PACK! In this example, all blockers but orange 3 are in the pack. Orange 3 is not, but is in play.

When seen: when a single jammer is within the engagement zone and one team is running a passive offence or is holding a single opposition blocker back as a “goat” (here said “goat” is orange 1) to control the pack.

The key feature: One team lurk at the rear, the other drops off one by one, no more than 10ft ahead of the previous player. This is what a lot of derbs call “bridging” – each successful bridge extends the pack (and engagement zone) further – adding up to 10ft on how far the front edge of the engagement zone could actually go. The final skater (or group of skaters) have 20ft before they go out of play. In the image above that 20ft is measured from orange blocker 2.

Anticipation: Any point of the bridge could break, so you need to be confident if any distance exceeds 10ft and what the consequences are for the pack/engagement zone. This could result in the front of the pack shifting backwards, or even a no pack situation! Once the jammer escapes the engagement zone, the pack may rapidly contract (so officials – be ready to adjust your position!)

Ref positioning notes: The rear inside pack referee should be covering the pack here, clearly defining it so the front inside pack referee knows who is the foremost pack skater. The front inside pack referee should be positioned to measure 20ft from this skater, and be seen/heard by orange 3 when calling “out of play”, should orange 3 leave the engagement zone.

The extended bridge (back)


Pack or no pack? PACK! Every blocker except orange 2 forms the pack. Orange 2 is in play. (In practice, without URDUMB’s automatic colour coding, you’d be perfectly justified in saying orange 2 *was* part of the pack. Distances get a little squiffy in the turns.)

When seen: When trying to tire an opponent or keep them off the track for longer by dragging them back, or delay a skater (often a jammer) legally returning to the track from the penalty box.

The key feature: It’s basically like the extended bridge in reverse, but more likely to be four single skaters bridging, rather than the blue team controlling one orange blocker as a “goat”.

Anticipation: Orange blockers will need to adjust their position to maintain their distances as their jammer pushes the blue wall forward – watch for points the pack and/or a bridge can break due to the distances getting larger than 10ft.

Ref positioning notes: Be aware of your division of labour and positioning to judge distances – the front inside pack referee could define the pack this time, moving to be alongside the blue blockers, with the rear inside pack referee moving back ready to (potentially) call “out of play”. The pack may rapidly contract as the team bridging back skate forward into a wall formation.

The single offence


Pack or no pack? PACK! In the image above, anyway (see anticipation note)

When seen: All the time. It’s a common feature of modern derby when a team want to help their jammer get out.

Key feature: Up to three blockers play defense. One of their teammates plays offense for their jammer against the opposing blockers

Anticipation: Strong risk of a split pack (see below) if both teams simultaneously employ this tactic without paying attention to the distance between the two groups of blockers (e.g. blue 3 skates back to provide offense for their jammer). Otherwise note that the single offensive player is the player upon which the pack revolves – if they stay with all the opposition blockers, that’s where the pack will be!

The split pack


Pack or no pack? NO PACK! (SPLIT!)

When seen: When teams execute the single offence simultaneously and the gap between the two equally large groups of blockers (from both teams) is over 10ft.

Key feature: It’s can be challenging for players on track to believe it’s a no pack, and can be initially missed by referees, particularly if they’re focusing tightly on one group of skaters, or there’s an inactive jammer in the mix.

Anticipation: Call “no pack, split” and be prepared that some players may be confused about how to reform. If any blocker in a group goes down/out, the pack will automatically be the other group, assuming the same hasn’t happened there.

Ref positioning: Make sure at least one inside pack referee is positioned to see if/when the distance between the two groups exceeds 10ft. Well-positioned jammer referees can help you to quickly identify if there’s an inactive jammer.

The two walls


Pack or no pack? PACK! Well, on the image above, anyway. (see anticipation note)

When seen: When both teams are playing very defensively

Key feature: Two groups of skaters, where each group consists of the same colour, and the groups are a certain distance apart. The walls will probably not be flat, so whether of the two opposition blockers closest to each other are in that 10ft proximity is key.

Anticipation: Position yourself to see the blocking in the wall most relevant to you but if you’re an inside pack referee, also to judge when that gap gets to over 10ft and it becomes a no pack situation. This formation can quickly change to any of the other pack shapes described so far in this blog.

Want part two? Click here.

Skew’s ref training ideas

1) I’ve deliberately omitted any referees from the images above. At the moment of each picture, where would you expect every referee to be positioned and why? Would you make any changes if you had a “short” crew to ensure good coverage? (e.g. only two OPRs, or a single IPR)

2) Drills featuring a single wall and a jammer don’t give any options for pack definition – you don’t have a representative blocker from the other team! Discuss with coaches if it’s reasonable to use a cone or preferably a skater to represent that blocker during the drill, so skaters and officials can practice distance judgement while holding that jammer.

3) Play with URDUMB. You could create your own scenario, recreate ones above and practice moving skaters around a little, recreate something you saw in training, or at a game or scrim, or something you saw in footage. The link again is right here.

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Looking for part two? Click here.

3 thoughts on “Shape of the pack (part one)

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