Rules with Skew (8) – getting the low down – low blocks, leg blocks and more…

Misunderstanding: A really great place to block a skater is “just above the knee”

Demystified: The part of the leg just above the knee is still an illegal target zone and you may find yourself liable for a low block penalty.

The humble “low block” call used to be a catch-all penalty for contact involving mid-thigh and below. Similar to the head and neck, this part of each leg is both an illegal blocking zone and illegal target zone. You can’t block with it or block to it. It’s been this way for a long time – this is not new for 2017/18 – but the new verbal cue of “leg block” seems to have suddenly got people thinking about lower limbs.

We’ve long distinguished between being blocked to the head/neck (high block) and blocking with the head (head block). Low block (blocking to the lower leg) and leg block (blocking with the lower leg) utilise a similar idea. Most of the rules behind the leg block penalty have been there for a long time – prior to 2018 they would just have been called as a low block.

The illegal blocking and target zone

Illegal target zones are parts of the body you can’t hit/block. Illegal blocking zones are the bits you can’t hit/block with. The key point here is the illegal zones are both the same and both start at the mid-thigh. Not the knee.

This means any blocks made with the knee, or made to the alleged “sweet spot” in the lower part of the thigh are an illegal no-no. And nope, this isn’t new. The current zones diagram in the WFTDA rules can be found here, but older ones (even in 2010 – see page 15!) show pretty much the same thing.

My personal opinion is the diagram shows a skater with a short thigh, assuming the knee is directly under the middle of the cap, and in reality there’s often a larger amount of illegal zone above the kneepad.

Here’s what it looks like on a real skater, from the side:


The size and shape of the illegal zones are going to look different on different skaters because – hey – we’re all built differently and aren’t going to precisely mimic a diagram, and different brands of kneepads sit a little differently on different knees!

It’s also important to remember that an exact line representing mid-thigh isn’t going to be 100% consistent across officials making that split second judgement, and sometimes contact is going to be made simultaneously above and below the line.

So when is it a low block and when is it a leg block?

Most of the time when a skater initates a block to another skater using their lower leg, and the skater being blocked loses relative position in some way, it’ll still be called as a low block. Why? Because the block was to that other skater’s lower leg.

The penalty hierarchy found on page 2 of the WFTDA officiating cues codes and signals tells officials which penalty to pick if they’re confident criteria for several penalties are met at once. With a block from one person’s lower leg to another lower leg, the leg as a target zone is further up the hierarchy, so we call “low block”.

If we’re only sure the lower leg was used as an illegal blocking zone, but we’re not confident where on the receiving skater it struck (e.g. if the block landed on the borderline of the mid-thigh) then due to only being confident in the illegal blocking zone, we could call the “leg block”.

So when else could it be a leg block?

A leg block could involve a blocker’s lower leg and a point above mid-thigh on their target. We’re not talking deliberate kicks here – they’re likely going to come into the realms of gross misconduct – so what you’re most likely to see is contact between two skaters where one has lifted and used one leg as a bar or to wrap around the opponent.

Given this is a block with an illegal blocking zone, significantly holding back the targeted skater with the lower leg would be enough (just like forearms) to warrant a penalty, as would causing the recipient of the block to lose relative position.

If the action would be sufficient impact for a forearm penalty…it should be sufficient impact for a leg block. This means significantly altering the opponent’s trajectory or taking the opponent significantly off balance is also enough impact to penalise for any block initiated with the lower leg. You are not required to see a loss of position for illegal actions involving use of illegal blocking zones.

Another easy-to-picture example is lateral movement by a taller blocker into a shorter blocker, where their leading knee strikes above the shorter skater’s mid-thigh, with the knee contact moving that skater enough to create a gap that allows their jammer to pass through or otherwise allowing some change in position.

Some officials will call a deliberate and forceful strike with a knee, such as the one described in C.4.1.2.C as a leg block. Some may call it as a misconduct penalty. It’s important to note that it’s the deliberate and forceful nature of the block here that makes it penalisable – no other impact on the game is required.

Tell me about “normal skating motion”

Prior to 2017, blocks arising as a result of leg contact that could be judged part of their normal skating motion weren’t liable for a penalty unless they were habitual over the course of a game (5.3.7, 5.3.8 and 5.3.11 in the 2015 ruleset).

You are frequently going to make incidental contact with your skates to other people that has no real impact – there’s a reason “wheel clipping” is assessed in minimum skills!

In today’s roller derby, however, if your limbs are a little wild when you stride – beware. If contact from that striding leg has a penalty impact on an opponent, you may see yourself with a low block or leg block penalty. The same applies while stopping – if you initiate by going into a wide, sudden plow, or your hockey stop/powerslide/turnaround-toestop goes awry and you accidentally trip an opponent, you could be in for a low block penalty. It wasn’t an intentional block, but intentional doesn’t matter here – all low contact with a clear initiator is held to the same standard.

Sometimes pile-ups won’t result in a call, or may only result in one call. This may be because officials could not clearly isolate responsibility for each individual engagement. (Or it was in fact teammate-on-teammate contact!)

Not every low block arises from a poorly executed intentional block. It can be easy to snag your leg on and accidentally trip an opposition skater, or sweep someone’s leg just as you land an apex jump.

pauljones_downed skater

Photo used with kind permission from Paul Jones Photography Cardiff – shows a downed skater in a position where they could incur a low block penalty, while an upright teammate continues to block the jammer, who toestops around the downed skater.

Low block vs blocking a downed skater (“charging”)

Imagine a skater has been knocked to the floor. Another skater collides with them and falls down over them. When is it a low block on the fallen skater? When is it the falling skater blocking a downed skater? When is no call made at all? Blocking a downed skater used to be called “charging”, and while this is no longer the official term, it’s still in common use. The penalty issued will usually be an “illegal contact” penalty, though some officials may plump for calling “misconduct”.

Officials ask themselves:

  • Who initiated? (This is usually focused on whether the skater who goes down second had opportunity to avoid the contact)
  • Did the fallen skater fall small and do everything they could to prevent themselves becoming a hazard? If so, they’re not usually liable for a penalty. If they’re sprawled, they’re in the frame for a possible low block.
  • Did the other skater deliberately initiate a block on the downed skater before they became upright again? If this is the case, we would consider the penalty on the other skater.

Fallen small: A Skater is said to have “fallen small” if they fall with the arms and legs controlled, tucked into the body, and not flailing or sprawled.

Sometimes falling small won’t save you…

If you’re knocked down, you’re encouraged to fall small – to tuck your limbs in. Most of the time falling small will save you from a penalty if another skater falls over you, such as the discussion above, and in the example in C4.1.1.A .

The exceptions to this are:

  • If you go sliding into someone’s legs like a human bowling ball and take them out (see C.4.1.1.B)
  • If falling small and *still* having people tripping up and go over you is habitual behaviour – the casebook suggests penalising after the third occurrence

What about expulsions?

Expulsions will be considered for low blocks in the case of deliberate, dangerous or particularly negligent actions. This can include deliberate trips, or even “unsuccessful” attempts to trip. Slide tackles are an obvious no-no. Officials may also consider egregious low blocks that arise through no attempt to fall small when a skater could have done so. Deliberately kicking someone may fall under the low block/leg block framework, but could also sit under gross misconduct.

Skew’s skating official/referee training ideas:

1) During a suitable skater drill, take some time to focus solely on what’s going on below the hip, particularly if you think you’ve been neglecting this sort of contact. Discuss with the coach beforehand that you’re focusing on a particular area so consequently other things may not get called as readily. (I find telling those participating in the drill leads them to avoid testing their limits and actively avoiding anything contentious – this is less useful for your training!) When comfortable with this, make sure leg contact is still on your radar, but as a part of everything else.

2) Evaluate your positioning and inner “zoom lens” – if you stand too close to the track boundary, seeing lower body contact becomes challenging, particularly if you’re tall. It’s also an easy error to just focus on the hips/chest/forearms of skaters when they’re making contact. Practice “zooming out” and taking in the whole picture. If skaters are practicing “lateral lunge” style blocking techniques where they lead with one leg and sweep to try and move a skater – what positions make it easier/harder to see the location of the contact? Try and collaborate with skaters on this one and find out if where you see the contact matches where they feel it.

3) Delayed impact resulting from low blocks can be very easily missed, particularly when it comes to a jammer snagging a blocker with established position as they apex jump or hop along the line. Pack referees are in a better place to determine the initiator and to see the impact from such actions – sometimes by the time the blocker stumbles out of bounds trying to regain their balance, the jammer is already halfway down the straightaway! This is also great practice for efficiently and clearly relaying delayed calls on jammers.

3 thoughts on “Rules with Skew (8) – getting the low down – low blocks, leg blocks and more…

  1. Nice discussion, but you neglected to mention the difference in impact metric between low block and leg block.
    Low block requires “change in position” to be penalizable, while leg block, being an illegal blocking zone penalty, is also penalizable for significantly altering the recipients speed or trajectory, knocking the recipient severely off balance, or impeding the opponent.
    You did touch on impeding, but neglected the other two.


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