Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bench coaches: the secret weapons of derby

I know, I know, we all get into this sport because we want to skate fast and hit people, right?  Then we learn that derby is way more complicated than we could ever imagine, and we start working on our skills and strategy.  We practice, we struggle, we cry, we sweat and curse the people who designed practices to be such a torment.  What kind of sadistic bastard would do this to us?  Oh right, the coaches.

First of all, I have nothing but love for derby coaches.  These people volunteer their time, energy, their money sometimes to help our teams to become amazing.  Coaches don't do it for the glory of skating in a bout; they really take their supportive roles seriously.  Coaches can make or break a skater, team, league and a season.  It takes a special person to be able to break down skills and drills, give feedback and know where each skater fits into a team.

Unfortunately, some leagues don't put enough emphasis on finding and training amazing bench coaches.  Many times, injured or unrostered skaters end up filling the role of a bench coach at a game, and even though I understand that we all want to help our teams, sometimes this isn't the best way to conduct a game.  Injured skaters DO know and understand their team and their game, but if they aren't trained to do so under pressure, they are more likely to make errors in line ups, strategy, and dealing with majors and minors.  I also think these skaters can be put to better use, as you can read below.

 So, what makes a good bench coach?  Here are some of the aspects I believe that all excellent bench coaches should have in order to help their team perform at its best!

1. Have a Calm demeanor.  I know some bench coaches are famous for yelling and screaming at the game, crowd, refs or players, but if you can keep your bench calm, you can keep them focused.  The best way to do this is MODEL the behavior for them.  If your team trusts that you are calm and in control of the situation, they will listen to you and follow your directions.  Would you rather have an agitated bench or a calm bench? 

2. Be Aware.  Whether the bench coach is running line ups or working on the active strategy of the game, she must be aware of the penalties the team is accruing, how the players are performing, and what the other team is doing on the track.  That is an amazing amount of things to be aware of!  I have seen games lost because a bench coach put in a jammer with three minors, or didn't know who was in the penalty box.  I've also seen players demoralized, sitting on the bench because the line up coach kept skipping them due to other player's penalties, or just because she was under such pressure to get a line up out on the track, she goes with what she knows.  Sometimes bench coaches forget to communicate with their jammers, and points are lost because she didn't call it in time.  Bench coaches are like jugglers juggling chainsaws, flaming swords and the occasional grenade!

3.  Anticipate.  Bench coaches have to anticipate what move to make next.  They have to watch the penalty board, their strategy and the other team's strategy.  To help with this, a lot of teams employ an unrostered skater to watch their jammers, and report back who is having a good game at the half.  Another unrostered skater watches the other team's jammers, so the bench coach can know who is the biggest threat on the track.  Lineups can be changed to deal with this information at the half, and that can make or break a game.

4. Be Spontaneous.  As we all well know, line ups last approximately four jams, and then chaos starts to reign due to injury, performance and the ever present threat of penalties.  Bench coaches that are married to a line up they wrote before the game are never going to be effective at rolling with the punches during a bout.  Be ready to think on your feet and have a contingency plan!  Also, see #1!  If you are calm, your team will be calm, even if all hell does break loose!

5.  Be Assertive, Not Aggressive.  A lot of bench coaches seem to be slightly passive when dealing with duties like talking to the refs or calling a time out.  Call a time out if your team needs it.  Walk up calmly and assertively to discuss a ruling with a referee.  People respond to assertive behaviors, and will take you way more seriously than if you are less confident or way too aggressive.  Do your team a favor and be its advocate, but don't go overboard!

6.  Be Firm.  Do you have a trouble maker on the bench?  At times, players let their emotions overrule their better aspects and they act out.  Some players get in their heads and start bringing the rest of the team down, and it is part of your responsibility to intercede with this player.  Maybe she needs to sit out a couple of jams to get her thoughts together, or maybe she needs to take a breath and focus.  Your expectations of bench and game behavior should be discussed prior to the game, so everyone should be clear of what will be tolerated on the bench, and what won't.

7.  Have Great Practice Attendance and Knowledge of All Players.  You can only know your team if you're there at the majority of practices.  Don't expect to be a great bench coach if you only come to the two practices before a game. 

I know that I have basically described my dream bench coach, but I feel the position is so important and can really have a positive or negative effect on any game.  I have bench coached a few times, and each time I do it, I have more and more respect for great bench coaches.  It is a skill, just like everything else in derby!

It also helps to dress for success!  Photo by Joshua Craig. Joshua R. Craig photography


  1. i really liked this blog post! i agree with all of it and especially the last point... i prided myself in knowing my players, what they are good at, what they have improved on, and what they need improvement with. it really helps during bouts to know what skills a player takes on the track ensure to have a well balanced pack of blockers for whatever the need is.

    good job!

  2. It is also amazingly helpful to know the way your skaters work together. There are some girls who just naturally sync up and work like a well-oiled machine together, while other pairs block each other or miss each others' cues.

  3. Thanks, Q! A lot of great stuff here...loved it!

  4. Great points, an enjoyable read.

  5. Great read and totally agree with your points made. Unfortunately some leagues/people don't see it like that which is a detriment to them.

    If you had a minute I would love you to read my most recent experience with roller derby benching written as a breakup.