A primer on “impact” in roller derby

Most derbyists are familiar with the phrase “no impact, no penalty”. It may sometimes sound frustratingly dismissive, particularly in those past years where someone smacked you hard in the spine and your teammates kept you upright and stable. (Thank goodness for changes, eh?)

Many actions in roller derby are illegal, but this alone is insufficient to just go dishing out a penalty. Officials should be sure there is sufficient impact on the game before blowing the whistle.

We’re not talking “where did the hit impact on the body” here: we’re talking about impact on the game. We need to be clear on the direct consequence of the illegal action.

But what is that impact? Is the required impact for a penalty different dependent on the type of illegal action? Yes. Are there sometimes awkward grey areas where officials have to make a judgement? Yes. Is every possible impact example precisely laid out in the rules? No, but there is a substantial collection of information in the rules and casebook that can help us interpolate and make a judgement.

Something being impactful enough for a penalty can be about safety (for that skater and for others), gaining an advantage for that skater or a teammate, causing the opposition to be disadvantaged, disrupting the game, disrespecting the officials or the sport…the list goes on.

“What was the impact?” – be ready to ask yourself and explain to others

I’ve touched on this in my New Year’s Ref-o-lution series, but when you make a call, you should always be ready to verbalise the impact of the illegal action, if asked.

If you’re issuing a penalty, you should always be clear on what the necessary impact was. Why was that “enough” for a penalty? It should usually not take more than a few words, for example:

  • X lost relative position to Y and Z
  • Y went down as a result of the contact
  • X cut their distance to the box significantly after completion of the cue
  • The contact from Y significantly altered X’s trajectory

Note how these aren’t the “X hit Y while travelling clockwise” or “Y used their forearms on Z” but what happened as a result of some illegal action like those.

Thought experiments and discussion with others are key…

Impact can be difficult to get your head around for those new to it, because this stuff is nuanced. And I’m sorry (not sorry!) but the key to getting over this hurdle is to watch a lot of derby (footage and drills at training) and think and talk about it.

Where is the line between something that superficially affected the game but isn’t penalisable, and something that is? For example, think about the illegal block that caused people to move slightly and adjust their wall formation, but nobody lost/gained position. It affected what the opposition had to do next, sure, but did it have sufficient impact on the game? Nope.

The common thought exercise I get new officials to perform is “what if we penalised every time we saw something equivalent to that chain of events?”. If the answer is “half the skaters would have fouled out by half time” it probably isn’t sufficient impact for a penalty. That, or you’re practising with skaters who really need to clean up their play!

You also require a hefty spoonful of implementing guidance from the casebook, and a sprinkle of just using common sense within the spirit of the rules as written. For example, if an illegal block was caused by the initiator having been illegally blocked by someone else, do we penalise that skater? (Nope.) Should we penalise the skater that delays getting off track after being called for a penalty, when it’s clear they’re just trying to be safe or avoid engaging other skaters? (Nope.)

…but sometimes things are fuzzy

Sometimes the line is fuzzy and different officials will have justifiable calls/no calls for the same situation. Sometimes there isn’t one clear always-right answer and it’s good to talk about this. Just bear in mind though – sometimes there will be individuals who will insist on a call contrary to a more solid consensus, or even something clearly laid out in the casebook. Learn to spot them and spot the consensus.

It’s also true that officials and skaters alike have a tendency to get caught up in theoretical “edge cases” and “what ifs”. These can be great to explore the thinking behind concepts in roller derby, but in the heat of the moment you have to pick your call, and then be consistent with that rules application for that game. (After the game you might discuss and revise your way of thinking in future. That’s okay.)

Big hits with big impact don’t necessarily result in penalties

The impact of a hit may be there and obvious for all to see, but if the hit itself is legal, there’s no penalty here. If the skater experiencing the big impact initiated the block – and there was no illegal counterblocking from the opponent – there’s no penalty either. They were responsible for their own misfortune.

To further this – you can’t make a penalty call if all you saw was the impact.

Understanding examples of sufficient impact

In the WFTDA rules, penalties are broken up into broad categories and you’ll see these in the way the rules are organised:

For this reason, it’s good to study one of the above areas at a time, because each are considered slightly differently on how they have impact on the game. Get comfortable with each area and really think about that action and its casebook entries rather than everything merging into one.

I’m briefly going to go the opposite way – working backwards from the impact on the game:

Forceful contact initiated with/to: is sufficient impact for high blocks, head blocks and soon-to-be back blocks. For most other illegal contact, a forceful hit alone is not enough, but bear in mind an illegal hit with enough force so as to be deemed reckless, intentional or negligent may be considered for an expulsion.

Going down: 99% of the time, if a skater initiates an illegal block that sends the recipient down, there’s a penalty to be had. “Down” isn’t necessarily that simple, either – if you’re unsure whether one knee, both arms, one arm or one hand touching the ground count as “down” check the WFTDA glossary.

Going out of bounds: 99% of the time illegal contact that sends an opponent out of bounds is sufficient impact because you’re putting them in a position from which they cannot block. “Out of bounds” is also defined in the glossary, though at the time of writing (November 2018) conflicts slightly with the definition of “in bounds” in terms of how you handle one arm, rather than one hand, touching out of bounds. (Most officials will prioritise the out of bounds definition.)

One case where this doesn’t apply is “late hit” penalties for contact after the end of the jam. Simply going out of bounds is insufficient impact as after the jam the track boundary lines cease to have meaning after those four whistles have blown.

Gaining relative position or allowing a teammate to do so: An obvious example of illegally gaining position is the “cut” penalty, but using an illegal block to create a space for your jammer to pass, allow yourself to pass etc. within a jam is also penalty-worthy. An illegal assist that allows you or your teammate to gain relative position would also warrant a penalty call.

Significantly holding an opponent back: using an illegal blocking zone (e.g. forearm or leg from below mid-thigh) to significantly hold back a skater is a penalty.

However if a skater initiated with their back against your chest to push you, and you adjusted your position and applied resistance (effectively counterblocking to their back – an illegal target zone) to hold them back, this wouldn’t be a penalty.

Causing officials to unnecessarily go to an official time out (either stopping play, or delaying it being able to resume): For example, if a skater who knows they’re queued for the penalty box isn’t on track at the start of the next jam, or a team fails to field a jammer, or any blockers.

Most ordinary OTOs won’t result in a penalty – such as if officials use an OTO to discuss something in the previous jam between themselves, for an injured skater to get medical attention or get a substitution in the penalty box, or because the track needs fixing.

The above list is not exhaustive. Use the examples given to get thinking of other real game scenarios, and how some penalty-worthy impacts relate to one type of penalty, but not another.

Where do I find what’s sufficient impact for a particular illegal action?

For an oversight: The WFTDA rules are broken down into different broad penalty types, with a general idea of sufficient impact given for some, all in section 4.

For greater detail: Take yourself into section 4 of the casebook. Each broad penalty type has a series of casebook entries describing specific scenarios along with useful “keep in mind” statements to help understand *why* that call was made.

What about expulsion?

Hold tight, friend, I’ve got a whole blog in the works on this. But from 4.5:

Expulsions are a way to penalize a Skater or Team Staff who has committed an act that is sufficiently dangerous or unsporting as to remove the individual from the game for that action alone. Negligent, intentional, or reckless actions should be considered for expulsion independently of their impact.

The key takeaway here is *some* expulsion worthy actions won’t have an obvious “penalty impact” on the game. One example is an intentional slide tackle…that misses taking out anyone. Dangerous and unsporting? Yup. Enough to remove that skater from the game? You betcha.

Differences in interpretation of impact

“Our team doesn’t normally get called on forearms but we got loads in that game!”

There are some penalties where the impact for calling them can be (for example) significantly holding back, significantly slowing, significantly altering the trajectory of a skater etc. These are a lot less black and white than “goes down” or “goes out of bounds”.

Significantly can look different to different people. Sometimes it’s obvious – like a skater severely overbalancing, looking like they’re about to go down, but recovering after a beat or two. Most people would say that skater went significantly off balance.

Sometimes it’s less obvious – exactly how much “holding back” does that forearm have to do? It’s important that officials work at getting our “significantly” as similar to others to ensure consistency.

Want to cement your understanding? Map it!

Seriously. Map it out visually. For each action, map what possible impacts on the game would make it a penalty (e.g. going down, going out of bounds, improving position). Perhaps use another colour for examples of the aftermath of the action that would likely make it a “no call” (e.g. ceding the cut, only making the skater momentarily stumble…). I suggest using a section of a notepad with a penalty call per page.

Further reading

Understanding the philosophy of the 2017 rules – Ref-Ed

WFTDA certification online learning (The Rules module really gets you to really think about how the rules are intended to be applied)

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