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Roller derby: The rise of the female-led sport

BY Shey Hargreaves

4th Oct 2022 Sport

Roller derby: The rise of the female-led sport

Roller derby is the fastest-growing female-led sport in the UK. Here's your ultimate guide to this high-speed sport

Roller derby is a high-speed, full-contact team game played on roller skates. It is the fastest-growing female-led sport in the UK, and the number of new leagues popping up all over the world is astonishing. Roller derby has developed a loyal fanbase, an inclusive culture and a hefty rulebook over the last decade; here are some of the key things you should know about this fast and furious sport.  

What is roller derby? 

Roller derby is played on an oval track by two teams, each fielding 15 players. Each game is split into a series of about 30 2-minute rounds, called “jams”. For every jam, each team fields four blockers and one jammer.  

The jammer’s job is to get through the opposing wall of blockers, and go on to complete as many laps of the track as possible, scoring points each time they pass an opposing player. The blocker’s job is to stop the opposing jammer, and to help their own jammer to escape the opposing wall. The winning team is whoever has scored the most points by the end of the game. 

Roller derby

Confused yet? Don’t worry; every public roller derby game has a giant scoreboard and a commentator or two to keep you abreast of the action.  

The game can be described as somewhat akin to rugby, played on roller skates. The level of contact permitted is high, and as players are often moving fast, the ensuing chaos can look brutal. However, there are strict rules about exactly where and when a player can hit another player, and a team of up to six referees (also on roller skates) are present on track to ensure that the rules are followed.  

"Roller derby is a high-speed, full-contact team game played on roller skates"

In roller derby, the referee’s word is law, and any disrespect from a player will often result in extra penalties. The referees are supported by additional non-skating officials, or NSOs, who carry out roles such as timing jams, recording penalties and managing the penalty box.

Who plays roller derby?

The need for all these people on track makes roller derby a truly interactive and community-focused sport requiring a lot of commitment from its league members. Roller derby has a reputation for being inclusive and accepting of all different kinds of people.

Although it started out as a women’s sport, the UK is now home to many mixed and men’s leagues. People of all shapes and sizes are welcome—and indeed required—on track, as different physical attributes are valuable for the differing roles of blocker, jammer, or pivot (a blocker who can switch to a jammer on track, if needed).  

Roller derby

Blockers are typically taller and broader. Being able to claim your space on track is important here, as is the ability to hit other players with a reasonable amount of force.  

Jammers tend to be smaller and more agile, and thus better able to take advantage of every last inch of space in order to slip through the opposing wall. This is by no means a hard and fast rule, though; bigger jammers have the power to punch through walls, and smaller blockers can “get low” to create walls that are harder for bigger jammers to legally navigate. No matter a person’s physique, there will be a place in the line-up for them. 

"No matter a person’s physique, there will be a place in the line-up for them"

The sport has become something of a queer space, with many players identifying as members of the LGBTQI+ community. As with many sports in the UK, British roller derby players are predominantly white, and leagues still have some way to go to create an environment in which players from all ethnic backgrounds feel they can truly thrive.

It also remains a challenge for leagues to facilitate the involvement of people with disabilities, although my local league, Norfolk Roller Derby, has included players at various levels living with conditions such as hypermobility, ME and visual and hearing impairments. Such a high-impact game can present difficulties for players living with disabilities, but NRD in particular strives to support potential players in deciding how the game might work best for them. 

Where can I find roller derby?

Following a boom in outdoor skating during lockdown, many UK leagues are currently enjoying high levels of recruitment.  

Most UK cities have at least one roller derby league, and many leagues run “Learn to Skate” courses as well as rookie sessions for those learning the basics of the sport. To find your local league, learn more about the rules, or even watch some clips, head to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) website.  

International games are often posted to YouTube, so if you want to watch some really high-level derby, search for the International WFTDA Playoffs and Championships. You might just discover your new favourite sport. 

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