Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some words with Ump: the North Central Referee Clinic (August 8th)

“We’re running basically every officiating position out there.” Umpire Strikes Back tells me.  Fifteen refs assembled on the Roy Wilkins auditorium floor circle two scrimmaging packs of Minnesota RollerGirl and North Star Roller Girl players.  With his dyed yellow hair peeking out from a painstakingly-detailed Death Star derby helmet, Ump looks like any child’s favorite cool uncle.  More importantly to us, Umpire Strikes Back (#1138) is the Minnesota RollerGirls head referee.  The buck, such that it is, stops with Ump.  And he does it with a bit of an infectous grin. He loves this sport.  

From behind that grin, you can see a touch of fatigue.  It’s Day 2 of the North Central regional clinic on a hot August day, and it’s clear that every ref here - caravaning from every corner of the region - has been soaking in each minute of time spent together.  All that focus makes them look more tired than the players, and those players are playing five of every six jams to give the refs a chance to work together.  Whistles pierce the air, jammer refs compare notes on how to hold up the points their jammer has just scored, and players - half in jest - point out how many penalties the player opposite them has accrued as each jam begins.

Ump walks me through the referee positions; outside boundary refs skating relay to keep pace with the pack’s movement, whiteboard operators collating penalties from every direction, penalty box refs and positional refs and wranglers and jammer refs inside of the track.  As he speaks, he points out that there are quite a few people that hear this list and wonder if there’s too many referees.  Ump suggests that perhaps that there are too few.

It’s an interesting proposition to make.  The first instinct of a lot of fans is, “let the players play!” Ump opines that when a good game is reffed well, the referees simply disappear into the pace of the game.  It’s when the refs are uncertain that the game stops cold and that everyone gets unhappy.  When one considers the speed of our sport, the level of danger that the players face at those speeds, and how hard the derby nation has worked to resurrect roller derby into a living, breathing, athletic activity, the focus on rules starts making a bit of sense.  Calling a game down the middle takes more than a rulebook.  For tournament-level play, it takes a cadre of elite skaters with their heads in the game.  

As we speak, we watch the dance of the packs and wince at the screech of toestops. Here's part of that conversation.

Why is this clinic necessary?
Ump: One of the challenges of the WFTDA (the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, our umbrella organization) is consistency; consistency in all the different leagues across the country.  Different leagues travel at different times, different places.  You more frequently encounter some leagues than others.  You have the East Coast, West Coast, and all that, and they’ve all got their different styles that will emerge if they’re left to their own devices. 

So the goal - like centralized and standard rules - is to have consistent officiating. The same bout should be called the same way whether you’re in Boston or LA or Nevada or wherever.  Consistency, consistency, consistency...that’s the watchword of the clinics.  Not just [here] but we’re doing one per region around the country.  

What did you cover before the scrimmages?

Ump: A lot of today was about positioning and what are the best angles to see the action from.  Also, what skating skills translate to what we do as referees.  For instance, why are turnaround toestops so important?  (he demonstrates, skating past me, turning abruptly and skidding to a stop on his toe like he had hit a wall.)  And that’s because it allows you to come to a stop as quickly as the pack.  It’s the fastest way to stop.  It’s the least amount of space to stop.

You just have to have the balance to use it?

Ump: Yes.  And being able to transition into that turn at speed.

Will there be anyone who will be travelling to other clinics?

Ump: There’s overlap between the clinics. (Motioning to the inside referees) Reverend Riot is doing this, but he’ll be at Long Island.  Others will be in Seattle or Memphis.

With the Big 5 (four regions and national) tournaments coming up, we wanted to make sure that if you’re going to be officiating at a tournament, you could come to a clinic beforehand to make sure you’re on the same page as everybody else.  And if you believe you’re already at the highest levels?  There are still those nuanced differences.  If you are that great, then you can help instruct.

I took a show of hands yesterday and - you know, we’ve got some of the best refs here already - I asked, you know, “Who’s learned something today?” and everybody raised their hand.

Going to do this again next year?

Ump: There will be continuing clinics.  We organized and hosted this; I, personally, didn’t throw this, but WFTDA will keep going with the clinics.

So why this year at the Roy?

Ump: Well, they put a call out for hosts. It was very short timeline from when the WFTDA board of directors approved and kind of directed the referees to put this on.  We hosted the very first North Central tournament, and [so] we hosted the first North Central referee clinic.  I wanted to do it for that reason, and the league did as well to continue to be a leader in the region.  

I also wanted as many of my refs to be in this as possible, and I figured that the best way to do that was to host.

Thank you.

-Garrison Killer, 
reporting for the Minnesota RollerGirls

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