Locker Room Photo: Alex Erde

Published on November 22nd, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


Photo: Alex Erde

It’s Going to Take Me How Long?

By Ref in Peace

In our world of roller derby, there are a bunch of sub-communities that evolve, and a pretty important one is the officiating population. In a sanctioned bout, according to WFTDA rules (as of the writing of this article), employs up to 7 skating officials, and between 12-18 non-skating officials, in order to capture all of the plays, penalties, and stats.

That’s 20-something volunteers, taking time out of their lives, to work a sport for, and I can’t stress this enough, other people’s benefit.

Which “other people”, you ask? Well, generally the skaters involved in the competition, of course, but also the fans who come to watch and geek out on stats, differentials, etc.

Each position is pretty important, all the way from the Head Referee to the Lineups Tracker – all of these people are there for 28 competing skaters, and if anyone isn’t doing their job to the best of their ability, it can hamper everyone else from doing theirs, and subsequently make the 28 competitors less satisfied with their efforts.

Considering this, many officials take the act of officiating pretty seriously, working hard to constantly improve and deliver the best possible experience on bout day.

The sport of modern flat-track roller derby is possibly the most complex sport to officiate out there today. Even reading the Wikipedia article on the subject of “Referee“, you can see that every other sport has less wording to explain what a referee’s position is in context of that sport, even Quidditch.

Recruiting, training, and most importantly retaining, quality officials is a struggle many sports face – however ours is compounded by the sheer quantity of personnel required. A basketball game can have up to three referees, three officials – six people total. We have more skating referees alone. And we’re volunteers, whereas high school basketball officials get paid around $70/game.

It’s frequent that I hear about events that are just shy of begging for officials to travel, visit and work their bout, help train their budding officiating crew. You may be such one league, and know exactly what I am talking about. In the Northeast corner of the USA where I live, there’s pretty much some sort of bout going on every weekend – there’s plenty of work to go around for those that want to, and can afford to, travel.

Currently, the incentive for travel varies – financial support varies from some help with travel and shared lodging, to nothing at all. At that point, it’s pretty much completely out-of-pocket for the travelling official. Some leagues are considerate enough to pass along a few dollars for gas & tolls to visitors, but that never really covers much other than a beer or two.

There aren’t enough officials, and there are even fewer official training/mentor programs to help bring in new officials. Some officials, having worked 3-4 seasons, are considered “senior”,
since they may be the last ones standing, while others have moved on. In more traditional sports, “senior” equates to some 10+ years experience.

In 2007, Anders Ericsson published The Making of an Expert, which was further discussed in Outliers by Malcom Gladwell in 2008. A key theme from Ericsson’s paper that Gladwell focuses on is the idea of the “10,000 Hour Rule”, wherein if you truly want to be an expert at something, spend ten thousand hours doing it, and you’ll most likely be an expert. Bill Gates is one such expert, who spent 10,000 hours programming, starting at age 13, to become an expert, and we kind of know how that turned out for him.

This translates roughly to 20 hours a week, for 10 years.

I don’t know anyone practicing or working 20 hours a week in derby in any capacity, and we surely are not 10 years in – so I don’t know who would be an expert yet. But I know I’d like to get there.

Setting real-life expectations on how long it takes to become a good official is something we don’t do enough. Explaining the time commitment and seriousness, and sometimes high costs, for something that is all voluntary, can be daunting and potentially turn fresh faces away, and we don’t want to do that.

But sometimes I wish I knew how much time I’d be putting in, to set some sort of expectation, for some sort of achievement.

Maybe someday.

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  • TheCycrone!

    “Life and achievement and fulfillment are not linear. You don’t do X amount of work for Y amount of time just to claim Z reward or accolade. Every once in a while, yes, it feels good to collect a blue ribbon, but the true value of hard work is inherent. It teaches you about yourself, including your gifts and your weaknesses; it teaches you to develop the former and strengthen or work around the latter. Hard work teaches you the value of investing yourself fully in something vs. just going through the motions. It teaches you to give vs. take.” (Carolyn Hax)

    If you know any derby league administrators, or folks who participate at the WFTDA level, you know LOTS of people who are working 20+ hours per week in derby, also (most) without pay.

    It’s a tough, expensive hobby for everyone. You did a really fine job of summing up some of the obstacles to recruitment. It is difficult to find people who want to do hard work, and a lot of it, for the sometimes sole motivation of the work itself.

  • Guest

    Really great post and nice to hear from a Zebra. Without officials, Derby does not exist. We give you a hard time but we are nothing without you :)

  • 909sfreshtips

    Great post and good to hear from a Zebra! Without officials Derby does not exist. We may give you a hard time, but we couldn’t live without you and really appreciate all the work you do.

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