Strategy 101: The Wall

A fundamental of Flat Track Roller Derby, you’ll often hear announcers and skaters refer to a Wall, but we’re not referring to those silly foam buffers protecting the Crash Zone and the only other barrier on the track is a half-inch high rope boundary- hardly constitutes a wall. So what’s this ethereal “Wall” of the flat track and how does it impact a hard hitting sport of speed and skill? Here’s a quick intro to derby defense: The basic roller derby wall.

D-Day and Sol Train's Iron Curtain, one of RCR's earliest and best front wall defensive pairs.

The Wall has been a staple of derby ever since skaters realized this is a team based and team dependent sport. It became the great equalizer back in the day of all-star jammers who orbited quick point-producing laps around disorganized clouds of blockers. Two blockers got together and figured out their joint effort could match and surpass even the feistiest lone jammer. Combine two talented pack players and your basic team defense produces an impenetrable Wall.

[Ed. Note: Today we’re going to talk about the basics and essentials of a two-skater defensive wall so before you 6-year-veterans and OG’s of modern derby pounce on all the gaps, old-school theory, and defensive advancement we see in modern top ranking derby (namely through the recently adopted 3-person wall) please consider the audience. I’m writing to the fans and skaters who wanna understand what’s going on in a wall and how a basic wall can be effectively executed. You wanna get into rotating walls and 3-1 strategy, you’re in the wrong place. We aint goin’ for rocket science and advanced tactics here, this is Strategy One-oh-Fun.]

Basic wall: Teaming up to shut down a jammer. We'll call this one a "Scratcher Sammich."

A basic wall is comprised of two blockers working together on defense (that means stopping the other jammer- this is important to remember, that’s why I’m speaking in oh-so-simple-terms). The blockers align themselves side-by-side in very close proximity. Typically a wall starts at the inside track boundary and extends unbroken through both skaters to about the center of the track. The goal is to cover as much of the inside “lane” of the track as possible without allowing a gap or a hole for an opponent to sneak through. A wall deters or destroys the forward momentum of an opposing jammer through positional blocking* and keeps her from breaching the pack to complete her lap.

Sounds simple, right? Skate next to another girl around the track? Don’t let another skater pass you? I’ve been doing that during the couples skate song at the rink since I was a little kid (and it only got awkward when I hit puberty). Not so simple, really- this isn’t your hand-holding fun skate and there’s a lot to think about and maintain when you’re trying to stop a quick-footed jammer without succumbing to the assault of her four friends.

It’s called a wall because it’s too big to get around, too sturdy to be to toppled, and impossible to scale- otherwise we might call it a post, barricade, or fence (respectively). Keep those things in mind and you’ll recognize walls in no time.

“Walling Up” – When are walls implemented/most valuable?

Staying in front to control the game behind you.

While you’ll tend to find teammates skating in a pair or group most of the time, a wall becomes absolutely vital when the opposing jammer reaches the pack. Walling up too early clues the opposing blockers in to your placement & strategy- they’ll know who to separate and what walls to break up by the time their jammer reaches your wall. Walling up when your own jammer is trying to navigate the pack may impede her progress. This timing is only a best-case idea, however, and doesn’t account for the establishing pass or any subsequent laps when both jammers are in the pack.

A wall’s intention is to inhibit, slow down, and ultimately trap the opposing jammer so a well built wall may last an entire jam if they can effectively hold the opposing team. If a jammer is stuck behind a wall of opposing blockers, you’ll tend to hear it called exactly that way by the announcers. If a two skater wall is this effective on their own it frees the remaining blockers to focus on offense- a good thing for your own jammer.

Otherwise, as is typical, blockers constantly transition from defensive walls to offensive strategy depending on jammer placement on the track (both jammers, mind you, as there are usually two in play).

The Ol’ 2×2

Often teams implement the basic 2×2 (pronounced “two-two” and not to be confused with tutu) defense strategy whereby two pairs of blockers work together to form two independent walls. Placement and pairing isn’t the key to a 2×2 as much as maintaining two independent defensive lines that the opposing jammer must overcome in her pass through the pack. Often the rear wall of your 2×2 is less important and works more independently as a lone defensive blocker and dedicated offensive blocker (someday I’ll explain these things- maybe when you’re older).

Placement of the walls in a 2×2, while important, isn’t a deal breaker. As long as you can get two skaters together walling up and blocking the inside line, they have a good shot at being successful regardless of the opposing blockers. Of course leaving the opposing blockers to gang up in front or behind you is never beneficial; and some teams do well stacking both walls close together with the other team separated or scattered about.

Sustainable Defense – the Rotating Wall

The rotating wall as depicted by my animation budget.

Just like the wall is born of a need to partner up in order to shut down the opponent, a rotating wall is born of a need to keep up with the opponent’s stamina and remain one step ahead. The rotating wall allows your blockers to take bigger (often riskier) hits on the opposing jammer without losing the team’s defensive wall (and we know how much you love big hits over positional blocking). The basic premise is that when a blocker leaves her wall to engage a jammer (or is picked off by an opposing blocker), her wall partner will rotate into her position and another teammate will take up whatever gap is left over. Depending on the number of skaters dedicated to defense, up to two skaters might be available to rotate into a wall as the wall fluidly switches from passive blocking to full-on hitting.

That means if a defensive blocker goes for a big hit and fails to recover to her position (misses, falls down, goes out of bounds, etc.) she has a teammate ready to take her place at all times. Nobody has to be a hero or do all the blocking herself- it’s evenly divided among the rotation of blockers. The opposing jammer? She doesn’t have this luxury- half way through your rotation she should be beaten to a pulp and an easy target if she tries again.

The Two-Headed Monster

Ask Frisky: Why the silly face?

A good wall is comprised of four eyes, two booties, 16 wheels, and half a brain. Two blockers working as one and communicating fluidly. They can watch the entire track if each stays focused on her zone (typically the inside line watching the inside track/inside line/jammers and the outside skater watching on her outside and the rest of the pack over her right shoulder). They take up half the track or better by each skater covering as much space as she can through use of a wide stance and extend this coverage with synchronized lateral movement. They communicate- not just verbally but physically through pushes, tugs, and other subtle cues. They stick together and don’t get distracted- an individual in a wall overthinking or trying to take on too much often results in the wall disintegrating into solo blockers without a chance against the opposing offense. The goal is to stick together, use your teammates, and hold back the opposition.

And there you have it. The basic how and why of one of the most common & necessary strategies in derby. You’ll identify it easily in play and maybe someday I’ll take you to some magical new strategies that grow from the wall like the slow game, trapping, shutting the door, and the oh-so-timely 3-1.

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