Misconception: A skater can contact their teammates anytime, anywhere in any way and can’t be penalised for doing so.
Truth: There are rules governing how teammates can affect teammates in gameplay – you can only contact a teammate to help them or yourself out in specific situations.
Assists are on a comeback in derby. I’m positive we’re seeing more powerful whips of jammers out of the pack than we were two or three years ago, and as derby starts to speed up again we’re rediscovering the joys of momentum transfer! That said, despite searching, we couldn’t find a lot of modern derby writing or instructional videos on whips in gameplay, although Kid Block did a class at Rollercon so I live in hope.
Of course, all whips are assists, but not all assists are whips. This, however, is very much a whip:
An assist is a very particular type of help
In everyday life, to assist is to help someone out, and in an age of increasing offensive play, blockers can “assist” their jammers in this way by initiating contact with opponents and providing some excellent offense. But this is roller derby, and “assist” has a specific meaning in the rules. If you speak to an official and use the word “assist” without being clear of the context, this is likely what they think you mean:
Assist: Physically affecting a teammate. Common examples include a push or a whip.
A consequence of this is that you can’t technically take an “assist” off an opponent. This would likely be some form of forearm penalty, rather than being an illegal assist, though can veer into other categories of penalty. And don’t even think about taking an “assist” off an official. That, my friends, is veering into expulsion territory.
This also means technically you can’t “block” a teammate. You’re accidentally “assisting” them onto the floor there. Oops.
Who initiated the assist?
The person who initiated the assist determines if it’s legal or not as they’re responsible for the contact. So this could be the jammer, whipping around their teammate’s hips or off their shirt, or a blocker, grabbing, flinging or pushing their jammer. Or a blocker and a blocker. You get the idea. Ask yourself who’s responsible? There are going to be some grey areas, especially as some assists actively have both parties involved – make a call, ref!
Initiator: The Skater who is responsible for contact happening to an opponent (initiating a block) or teammate (initiating an assist). A Skater can also initiate their own assist by taking a whip off of a teammate’s body, or initiate a counter-block in response to an opponent’s block. The initiator of a block or assist is always responsible for the legality of the contact.
Why is this important? Derby has areas where the rules work in one direction: think about how you can legally block a stopped skater, but they can’t block you whilst stopped. It’s the same for assists.
So what’s legal and illegal?
Assists in the current rules of WFTDA roller are neatly defined – if your teammate was an opponent and you could legally block them from your respective positions on track, you can legally give them an assist, or they can be a passive party as you “take an assist off them”. From the rules (2.4 – plus a reminder in 4.13):
Skaters may not block or assist while out of bounds, out of play, down, stopped, or moving clockwise. Skaters also may not initiate a block (or assist) on an opponent (teammate) who is down, out of play, or fully out of bounds. Skaters may, however, initiate a block (or assist) on someone who is straddling, stopped, or moving in any direction (even clockwise).
The key thing to remember when thinking about the legality of assists is, forgetting for a moment which parts of your body/uniform are involved: “what if this was a block on a member of the other team?” One reason the legality is uniform between blocks/assists is it enables the opposition to legally block the assist. A whip given or taken during a no pack is illegal. Why? Because nobody can legally block it, so you can’t legally do it either.
A useful example to consider to get your head around the difference of initiator on legality of the assist is considering being stopped. If a blocker is stopped on the track, a jammer can take a hip whip around them, but that stopped blocker can’t push or whip the jammer themselves while they are stopped. If the initiator is coming to a stop, but hasn’t actually stopped, it’s perfectly legal. Similarly a skater that was stopped but started moving forward just before giving the assist.
And, because of physics, the party in the assist that has momentum taken away from them may come to a stop as a result of giving the assist. That’s legal, too. The illegal assist we look for is a skater who has established themselves as stopped, and uses the purchase from being so (ie. toestops and/or edge firmly dug in) to initiate an assist.
The unofficial consensus is that we’re not going to penalise a stopped skater for simply helping a fallen teammate to their feet, carrying over this principle from older rulesets.
But…we still need to see impact on the game.
Every so often, there’s an attempted whip and it kind of…fails. The vast majority of penalties require some form of impact on the game and thus any illegal damp squib of an assist might not actually get penalised. Officials have to ask themselves: did the illegal assist actually result in an advantage for that team? Usually that’s if a player improved their position as a result of the assist.
There’s a nice example and rationale in the casebook scenario C.4.1.3.D for an assist coming from out of bounds.
Occasionally officials may use discretion to penalise an illegal assist that has a clear impact on the game, but doesn’t actually result in an improvement in relative position – in doing this they need to bear in mind the guidance in section 5.4 of the rules.
Not all assists are whips and pushes!
The rules say “physically affecting a teammate”. That’s broad. Players bracing or otherwise providing resistance may be viewed in the context of an assist. Many officials will penalise skaters who successfully brace or otherwise reinforce a wall whilst being out of bounds, as long as there’s impact on the game – ie. the jammer being significantly held back due to the brace.
A skater might also use a teammate to help propel themselves into an apex jump!
Some assists are like this viral clip of Hauss the Boss of Texas – the white jammer – using a teammates shirt to stay in bounds and not go down or out of bounds. (Remember: one hand down/out means the skater is still up/in!)
Watch out for multiplayer blocks!
It’s easier than you might think for an assist to turn into a multiplayer block – one teammate grasping another (or their clothing!) only requires an opponent to try to pass between them and be prevented from doing so. More on multiplayer blocks in a previous post here.
Weird and wonderful assists
People like to ask about the pegassist. It’s attempted/goes viral every so often and rather than reinvent the wheel, Axis of Stevil has a nice discussion (with demo clip) at the end of the video found here. Please check it out. To summarise: it’s possible, but difficult to do without it failing completely and the jammer going out of bounds or getting a cut penalty, or a stopped assist penalty being issued to the blocker.
There’s also a discussion regarding another “show” assist you may have seen online…
Hey Skew, what about [insert unexpected and potentially dangerous action here]?
Just because an action isn’t expressly prohibited by the rules doesn’t make it legal. You can’t throw your lightweight teammate over the top of a wall, even if they don’t even touch the heads of the opposition.
Officials will ask themselves the question “is this a dangerous move in the context of what’s going on around it?” and make a decision accordingly.
Skating official training exercises:
1) We often condition ourselves to focus more on contact between opponents than contact between teammates. The big assists with impact usually stand out. Spend a few iterations of a drill you’re observing instead focusing on how teammates contact teammates. What does it look like? What’s legal?
2) One for any rules learner – map out possible illegal assist positions in three columns. One for positions that are illegal if either the initiator A or “passive party” B of the block is in that position (e.g. fully out of bounds), ones that are only illegal if the initiator is in that position (e.g. straddling) and ones that are always legal. Visualise and give an example for what each might look like! If you want to thoroughly cover appearances of assists in the rules try searching on “assist”, “whip” and “push” as sometimes only one of the three words is used.
3) See if you can encourage skaters in your league to try practising some different assists – what are the risks of each assist? What makes it challenging to identify whether an assist is legal or not?
Other resources on this:
WFTDA online education on whips as a minimum skill – all hip whips where the skater benefiting from the whip is the initiator.
Fountain City MADE Assists – lots of interesting assists to look at, and pick part including a legal whip where the initiator comes to a stop and several “two-stage” assists. It’s from a league using the MADE ruleset, but all of these could theoretically crop up in WFTDA/MRDA derby.
Pirate City try pegassists – it’s challenging to execute a pegassist without the “base” being stopped.