From Drills & Skills to Play That Kills

Transferring Practice Radness to Real Live Roller Derby

We’ve all been there. We drilled The Thing over and over again. It feels good. We’ve got it down cold. But on game day, it wasn’t there! What happened to that awesome Thing we did at practice? And how can we make it show up for prime time?

Usually, context happened, and it created enough chaos to get in the way of success. And to play better, we’ve got to practice better — focusing on drills that make us read, plan, and do.

Context: Roller Derby vs The Drill

Drills often isolate certain skills or concepts outside of the context of the game. Players become good at the drill but not necessarily how it would apply to real live roller derby. The missing piece is context, which teaches players when and how to use The Thing. Without it, skills and drills won’t transfer like you want them to.

Of course, roller derby requires good technique, physical capability, smart strategy, and well-executed tactical movements. And we can drill those things in isolation until we’re blue in the face, but roller derby excellence requires relentless decision making with immediate movement response in accordance with primed team plans. We must train holistically for the pieces to become inseparable from the whole. This is motor learning.

The best drills play a lot like roller derby and require skaters to understand what’s happening around them (read), make decisions about that information (plan), and then perform a skill with solid technique (do).

Case Study in Walls

Imagine practicing a 3-wall vs an opposing jammer every day at practice. Groups spread out on the track and block for 45 seconds at a time. Your blocking is amazing and that jammer is toast.

How does the drill compare to gameplay? Well, we have a regular ol’ wall blocking a regular ol’ jammer. But some things are pretty different.

Gameplay feels a lot different when some ref gives you an ultimatum to fix the pack or go to the box. It’s harder when you have to predict where a jammer might attack while coming in hot. And even worse when other people try to stop you from carrying out your business. So that’s why it’s harder to execute standard 3 vs 1 blocking in a game as compared to the drill. There’s a lotta other stuff going on!

How To Practice Better

In a practice planning sesh, my teammate Shuggie mused,

“I like when we practice a specific skill, then apply it to a less predictable environment.”

Brilliant, right? We can introduce new skills or firm up shaky ones by focusing narrowly on the skill itself. After we have a general understanding of the skill and how it works, we add context. You know — same same but different. In the case study of the 3-wall, next steps might be:

If you want to get real weird with it, you could even try tightening parameters of the drill beyond regular roller derby rules to increase its challenge. Use them to reinforce desired habits or force players to read quicker, think harder or plan better before execution. For example:

For more on the benefits of motor learning in transferring skill to sport, check out Trevor Ragan’s Train Ugly. Have fun, add context, and get weird!

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