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Learn How to Play Roller Derby

An Overview of Derby Rules and Requirements

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Roller derby is a contact sport that is played on quad roller skates - either speed skates, jam skates or roller figure skates. One reason for the fast growth and popularity of the sport is the simple rules and easy access of locations and equipment to play the sport. Two teams of derby players skate counter-clockwise around a small oval track, and derby games, normally called bouts, consist of two 30-minute periods. Each period is divided into 2-minute long jams. But, like any sport, there are detailed rules that spell out requirements for the playing surface, the team structure, things that should be accomplished to score points, and things that are restricted from the game.

The Derby Team Structure

Derby teams have a maximum of 14 skaters on the team roster, and they can have only five active players on the track during each jam including one jammer, one pivot and three blockers. Helmet covers are used to identify each player's role on the team.

  • One skater, called a jammer, wears the star helmet cover and is initially positioned at the back of the pack. It is the jammer's job to try to skate through the pack once, and then score points by lapping the opposing team's skaters. The first jammer to get through the pack while staying in bounds becomes the lead jammer, and earns the right to call off a jam by placing hands on the hips.
  • Each pivot wears a striped helmet cover and skates at the front of the pack. Pivots are there to set the pace and are the last line of defense. Players look to the pivot for guidance, since this skater can call out plays on short notice.
  • Blockers complete the team package. They work to keep the pack in a tight formation, and they work to restrict the movements of the opposing team's jammer to prevent the jammer from passing them. Blockers also try to help move their own jammer through the pack safely. They are largely responsible for the exciting constant contact derby is known for, since they engage in checks and bumps.
  • Both blockers and pivots will try to knock down opponents so that their team's jammer can get through.

The jammer's part is high profile, but since each team gets points based on how many opponents the jammer is able to pass, every player's role is an important one. Helmet covers are used to display the players' positions: a cover with two stars is used for jammers, a striped cover is used for pivots and no cover is used for blockers.

The Roller Derby Track

Roller derby takes place on a banked or flat circuit track, on which players usually travel counterclockwise. The two teams each send the five players they are allowed onto the track. The two lines marked on the track include a jammer starting line, and a pivot starting line that is 30 feet ahead of the jammer line. The two pivots start on or behind the pivot line. Blockers line up behind the pivot line - non-pivot blockers also line up in any order behind the pivots, if the pivots are on the line. The group of eight pivots and blockers are called a pack. The two jammers start 20 feet behind the pack on the jammer line.

What is a Jam?

There are different rounds, called jams, in a roller derby competition. A jam is a 2-minute period, beginning with jam formation, during which the jammers attempt to score points. A jam begins when the referee blows the whistle, signaling the pivots and blockers begin to roll forward. The jammers are allowed to start racing through the pack at the sound of the second whistle - which consists of 2 tweets. The first jammer that gets through the pack without committing a penalty is the lead jammer. After passing the pack the first time, jammers earn one point each time they lap an opposing skater. Only jammers are allowed to score points after the initial pass. The lead jammer has the option to stop or call off the jam before the full 2 minutes is up if they so desire.

Blockers attempt to assist their jammer through and out of the pack while stopping the opposing jammer from exiting the pack at the same time. Blockers who fall or leave the pack are considered out of play and are not allowed to block again until they are back with the pack. Each blocker must maintain contact with the pack by remaining within ten feet of the nearest blocker.

Both jammers have the option of passing their positions to their teams' pivots. This option is called passing the star and is done by removing the star helmet cover and handing it to the pivot to wear. The pivot is then considered the jammer, and the jammer is considered a non-pivot blocker for the rest of the jam. If the original jammer was the lead jammer, the lead position is forfeited when the star is passed.

Players can block by putting themselves in front of the jammer or other blockers or by hitting or checking the other skaters to stop or slow down the progress of the opposing team's jammer. These actions can make players fall or go out of bounds. Any skater who is forced out of bounds is required to return to play behind the player that sent them out.

What Happens When the Jam is Over?

At the end of each jam, there is a 30 second break. Teams can switch positions or even replace players at this time. Players return to the starting lines and start again. Each game consists of two 30-minute periods. The period clock continues to run during the 30-second break between jams, but the clock is paused for timeouts called by an official or a team. If the clock runs out during the 30-second break, the period is considered over when the period clock reaches zero.

When Are Penalties Assigned?

Penalties are given to skaters who skate or block illegally. Using body parts above the mid-thigh, excluding forearms, hands, and head. Elbows, forearms, heads, hands, knees, and feet is prohibited. All contact to a player must occur above mid-thigh and below or at the shoulders. In addition, no contact is allowed to the back side of a player. Referees will call penalties for violations of these rules based on how much impact they have on the game. For instance, an inappropriate practice that has a minimal or no effect is not called as a penalty.

Minor penalties, include any practice that causes some impact like as moving an opposing skater forwards or sideways - but not down or out of play. If the referee blows the whistle, it will usually be for a minor foul. These penalties are recorded by the statistician, and four minor fouls will send the skater to the penalty box for 60 seconds while the team skates without her. The most common minor penalties include:

  • Illegal use of hands or forearms
  • Blocking from behind
  • Blocking more than 20 feet forward of or behind the pack
  • Intentional cutting the track or skating out of bounds
  • False start

Any action that allows the penalized skater to improve her position (i.e., moving her in front of another skater or knocking the opposing skater down or out of play) is considered a major penalty. Each of these infractions result in a 60 second stay in the penalty box for the skater while the team skates without her. The most common major penalties include:

  • Any form of illegal block considered as a serious threat to other skaters
  • Tripping
  • Excessive insubordination to a referee
  • Gross unsports-lady-like conduct

When skaters' loss of tempers results in fighting, the penalty officials deal with them.

Referees have the option of warning a skater without assigning a penalty. Players who serve seven or more minutes in the penalty box are ejected from the game.

The Official Roller Derby Rules

Contemporary roller derby is played by similar sets of rules created by different organizational bodies. Each set generally reflects the interests of those organizations' member leagues. Most leagues use the comprehensive set of official roller derby rules that were developed by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).

Use the information below to learn more about the history of roller derby, the types of derby tracks used, the equipment needs for participants, the rules and strategy behind the sport and why derby skaters love it so much.

If you want to try a quick and easy digital overview of today's derby sports, try Germaine Koh's Intro to Flat-Track Roller Derby iTunes app to get an introduction to the fast-moving sport of flat-track roller derby, including a video demonstration, explanations of the most common referee hand signals and a FAQ archive right on your iPhone.

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