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Published on December 12th, 2011 | by King James


Bad Idea: Good; Good Idea: Great!

Roller Derby is a new sport. While it has been around for decades in various incarnations, it hasn’t been taken seriously until the most recent version under the guidance of the WFTDA rule set. Since it is so new there is still lots of room for innovation. Players, coaches, and fans will come up with new ideas, plays, and strategies as the game evolves and time goes by, but how do they come up with all those great ideas? Simple, by coming up with lots of bad ideas first.

Lets take the “slow game” as an example. If you had told anyone before the regional playoffs in 2009 that standing still on the track, or even skating backwards could be a game winning strategy, they would probably have thought you were crazy. But after the WFTDA National Tournament that year, everyone believed it – but only because it worked. It still sounds silly when you say it, but look how well the teams did who practiced it. Now, every competitive team is at least aware of why it is done and how to attempt to counter it, if not actively practicing it.

Need another? How about kneeling on the track? This one is newish as of 2011, but it didn’t take long before everyone in the country was doing it. If you want to get your jammers released ASAP, there is no better way to do it. But, at first glance, who would have thought kneeling on the track was a good idea, much less a winning strategy?

While I was not present when these two ideas were originally thought up, I can imagine how it went. A bunch of people obsessed with roller derby were sitting around talking about the rules and how trying to find something new to exploit. Someone suddenly realizes that nothing in the rules prevents you from standing still on the track. Then someone wonders how that can be used to your advantage. After 10 or 15 really terrible ideas, someone realizes that in a power jam its amazing.

Before they even got to standing still on the track I guarantee they had even worse ideas of how to use this rule oversight. I know, because I’ve had plenty of bad ideas. A lot of them end up being plain against the rules, or loop holes that are unclear, and dangerous. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can only really find out if an idea is good or bad is by trying it. This is our first lesson: You have to be willing to put yourself on the line and look like an ass. You need to accept that you are going to spend thirty minutes explaining something excitedly to your captains and coaches only to have them stare back at you like you just said the stupidest thing ever.

When kneeling came about, we thought, why not drag it out longer? If our players are laying on the track and take even just one or two seconds longer to get up, we get that much more of an advantage! In practice it ended up being dangerous to lay on the track (surprise) due to skaters jumping and falling over and around you, and sweaty people getting the track slippery. The referees weren’t quite sure how to handle it either, and the advantage was not all that great. It also turns out you make a really easy target to lay out when you are getting up slowly. After spending a lot of time practicing and even using it in a few games we abandoned the idea and moved on. This brings us to lesson two: you need to be prepared to put the new idea down and walk away from it. Even if it still seems brilliant to you, if nobody is willing to do it then it’s still not a good idea.

I know what you’re thinking, he’s sitting there in his comfy chair telling us to put our good derby name on the line with our bad ideas, why doesn’t he do it? Well here you go: Imagine you are ahead by a very small margin and it is the last jam of the game. You field the minimum number of blockers and make sure they are the fastest skaters you have. As long as they are faster than the other team, they skate as fast as possible to deny points. Who cares if you get an endless stream of majors for destroying the pack, cutting the track, skating out of play, and so forth; its the last jam. The penalties have no meaning. The referees can’t send off the last blocker, and if the other team never passes the opposing blockers they can never score points. Just make sure you never get passed by the jammer.

Would it work? Maybe. Is it legal? As far as I know. It probably needs a bit more fine tuning, and it’s kind of admitting that the other team could get the points in an even match-up. Then again, it might also be considered the equivalent of taking a knee to burn up time at the end of a game in American football. What was once considered against the spirit of the game, is now common practice.

In the end you shouldn’t be afraid of presenting bad ideas. You might be known as the person who always comes up with hair-brained schemes, but you only need one great idea to be famous. Whole teams are renowned for revolutionizing the strategy and influencing hundreds of other teams around the world, all for being the first person to come up with an idea like “What if we didn’t skate forward?”

The real point is that it could be a great idea, but I only go to it by having lots of bad ideas before it. Only by failing can you eliminate all the wrong ideas; therefore, we should not fear failure, but embrace it. I fully admit that the ideas I’ve presented may end up being a terrible, I haven’t gone out there and tried them all. If you are coming up with ideas, one of them will eventually work, to one degree or another. Remember that lions are successful in their hunt only about 1 time in 10, most businesses fail, and that old saying: “If it looks stupid, but it works, it’s not stupid.”

King James is a part-time coach for the Tallahassee Rollergirls, and runs in his spare time.

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