Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's Easy, just put your lips together and blow: whistle skills

 Every once in a while, I like to tease a ref or a coach who blew his or her whistle and all that came out was a wimpy "squeak".  Believe it or not, blowing a whistle, and whistle maintenance is way more complicated than you would think.  Here is some advice from Percy Q-Tion about reffing and handling your whistle.

Everyone loves attending sports events. I know, because I ref roller derby. It is more than just being around a lot of sweaty competitive people and the concession stands. But the reason fans attend things like this is because it reaches all of our senses. It touches our sense of taste because of the nachos we eat, it touches our sense of touch because of how the seat makes our butt feel, it affects our sense of smell because of how the snacks and the competitors smell, it appeals to our sense of sight because of the spectacular actions we are watching. But the most overlooked point, is how the sense of SOUND is affected.

Fans attend roller derby to watch something but also to "hear" things. They listen to the announcers and DJ because it makes us feel something, but to also listen for the whistles from the strange people that wear stripes Blowing a whistle is not as easy as you think. You will learn this in time, but more in experience by practicing. Yeah, my neighbors in the apartment complex were not thrilled with my practicing. But the following information are suggestions to refs about whistles. You have to remember, that as a ref, that is your most powerful tool/weapon and everyone in the arena/complex where you are, are depending on it.

The whistle recommended by WFTDA is the Fox 40. Of course you can get them online, but that one is available at Dick's, Target, and most other places that have a sports department. My recommendation? Get at least 2 of them. You never know when the one you are using will be filled with drool and you need to switch to another. Also get a lanyard for each individual whistle you have. Yeah, they have the "quick links" to snap on easily, but why not have it ready to go when you only have a few seconds to retrieve it from your bag or pocket? I needed a back up when I actually bit through the tip of my whistle during a bout. That is why I always have a spare in my pocket.

Have a finger grip Fox 40. As an OPR or IPR, it keeps your mouth free to call the minors (until they disappear in the rules) but also be able to QUICKLY blow a major. Fumbling with a whistle that swings around on a lanyard just to make a call consumes time and doesn't always result in you doing your job effectively. I tend to only use my lanyard whistle when I am jammer reffing because it has to be in my mouth to declare LEAD and to call off the jam. Other than that, I use my finger grip whistle. Okay, I know a lot of people will say that a finger grip one isn't needed, but in the bigger picture, using one means I can respond quicker to making a call and not be blamed for affecting the bout. If you only use a whistle that is always in your mouth, how clearly can you talk with it? That is what I've experienced from skaters that said they couldn't understand what I was saying or didn't hear them being called for something.

Learn to blow a whistle. I think that is wrong to say as a description, because you need to learn to CHIRP a whistle. Tripp N Dale from the Carolina Rollergirls taught me more about whistles than I ever knew. You have to use your tongue more than you ever thought possible. Trust me, it isn't a bad thing to have a strong tongue. But, you need to learn how to maximize your chirps. A suggestion about this is to have more water available than you thought you would need, because when chirping your whistle that many times in a very dry arena means you need hydration on the tongue. I've made some very bad whistle chirps because of a dry tongue, and even gotten it stuck IN the whistle because it was too dry. Hydrate. I work with a junior roller derby league and their refs, and have actually taken them outside of a rink to practice how to chirp.

Learn how many chirps you need to make. A single chirp (or tweet) starts the blockers, a double chirp starts the jammers. During a jam, a single whistle means someone is getting a major, a double means the jam ref is indicating LEAD. Four whistles means the jam is over. I call it the Pavlov Theory. Skaters and refs need to KNOW what they hear, not what they see. That is why the audio is so important to understand for EVERYONE on the track. We can't see everything, but rely on our ears to indicate what is going on. But, you have to also understand that you might hear a whistle even though it doesn't apply to you. You have to visually confirm. There have been a lot of times where I was calling a minor on a skater, but she heard a whistle so left the track to go to the PB and I had to call her back on. Please folks, remember, a bout is visually and audio chaotic. Don't blame the refs for all of it.

Even though skaters swivel their heads, they often RELY on what they hear. Your job as a ref with a whistle, is to make the bout as enjoyable and correct as possible. Learn your trade.


  1. It's nitpicky, but I gotta say: "Fox 40" is a brand, not a whistle. Of the many different-sounding whistles they make, get one from the "Classic" line (as pictured). If you also need one for loud venues, add a "Sonik". Ignore all other whistles Fox 40 makes if you want to sound like a derby ref.

  2. I like the CMG (cushioned mouth guard) variety of fox whistles. it's easier on the teeth than the raw plastic....and if you happen to fall while it's in your mouth, there is a little cushion there when you teeth clamp down on impact (not to say there is any research around whether or not the cushion provides protection to your teeth).