Ghouldielocks - Leader Of The Pack

So you want to be a Bench Coach?

Maybe you're off skates through injury, maybe you didn't make the roster but still want a hand in the next intraleague game, maybe you want to get in the driving seat full time. Whatever your reasons, you should know that bench coaching is a very different role to the more traditional routes of off skates involvement in roller derby.

A lot of skaters and spectators I've spoken to in the past said if they ever became injured/involved in derby they'd jump straight into bench coaching as its 'easy right?', 'you just go in the middle and shout at the Refs a lot' or 'you have to be bossy, I can be bossy'.

What a lot of people don’t know is bench coaching is one of the toughest, high pressure roles there is in our sport and it takes just as much time and dedication as skating to make it as a great one.

As a long serving skater myself I also coach, occasionally referee in training scrimmages and NSO as well as bench coach high level men's game play. Bench coaching is something I love (almost) as much as skating and wrote this piece to explain a few things about it.

As with any skater my only real prior experience and contact with the role was often bitching at our long suffering B.C. after receiving a penalty I disagreed with. 

So when I  first flew solo, it really opened my eyes to the delicate dynamics of a 'team' and the fine and often unnoticed skills required to steer a squad to success. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the Crash Test Brummies last year in their spectacular performance at the 2013 Men’s European Champs proved to be one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my derby career. Being able to live the games through those 20 skaters, celebrating every high and low with them made me re-evaluate my own relationships with my own team and coaches and got me wondering:

Just what does it take to be a good bench coach?

Patience, knowledge, and passion.

Ghouldielocks laying down the law to Rile. E. Coyote of the Crash Test Brummies. Photo courtesy of Floyd King Photography.

Full time bench coaching is an intense discipline of its own which requires strong leadership skills, good people management/communication skills, a knack for high pressure decision making, in depth rules knowledge and a complete and intricate understanding of every skater on the squad. Not to mention being able to manage your own passion and emotions and those of 20 other people. 

When we say 'team' in Roller Derby, often the skaters spring to mind first and are what we define our image of a team to be. The skaters are our first visual point of reference of our game experience so this definition is understandable, but what about the support staff? Would you consider them part of the 'team'? Do you think a team could function successfully and to its full capacity without a bench or line up manager in the midst?

I don't believe any team could. At least not to their full potential.

There will be those that argue that you have natural leaders in your squad, that you can manage without a bench coach, that your captains great at that sort of thing, and I bet some of them are great under pressure, but an active high rotation skater will not be able to function fully in either role. Dividing attention between two high focus tasks rather than committing fully to either skating or bench coaching often ends up muddying either decision making or their skating performance.

This is why, I believe that bench coaches have a pivotal role in the team. They allow skaters to focus fully on the task at hand and produce powerful and focused performances on the track.

Once you've got this nailed a good BC also has to consider the flow of the game. Maintaining a strong momentum in gameplay aids the team to perform at its natural rhythm. Choose your time outs well and raise your issues with the Refs in good time. Often they can solve your query in 30secs but leaving it till the five second call disrupts and distracts skaters from their mental preparation for the next jam.

A BC is often the root of success and failure of a lot of teams. The ability to foster and manage the atmosphere generated by 14 passionate skilled and on occasion, opinionated skaters is crucial in particular in high level games. We've all seen first-hand the quick and ugly descent into chaos when a bench coach loses their head or skaters returns to the bench angry and the situation isn't managed correctly.

Similarly we've all celebrated when a team and their bench coach has got that magic formula right and play their very best. You can observe the differences in level of focus and passion being channelled with every decision and play and facial expression. A good online example of this is the London Rollergirls v Rose City at the 2013 D1 playoffs. Both London and Rose played a phenomenal game where the level of focus and the positive energy on the benches flowed allowing both teams to play their very best. As a result London progressed to the next round with a chance to play for a place in the 2013 champs.

As well as playing the game in the best interests of the team for the desired outcome, sometimes you also have to consider how to deal with external factors away from the bench. Although you may not ever have to experience the following, it is a very real aspect of the job.
Ghouldielocks and the Crash Test Brummies - Photo by Pete Florey of MDP Images.

Fans, peers and even partners of skaters will bestow their opinions of your decision making upon you.

'Why didn't you challenge that call? Are you blind?'.

'Hey! That official review you called and argued over to swipe that last point was really douchey'. 

'My girlfriend/husband/wife/boyfriend isn't on the roster, you clearly don't know what you're doing. I think your decisions are disgraceful. What do you know? I could do this job better than you'.

I've had several of these direct experiences and unfortunately there is no easy way to deal with them.

Running the game as a bench coach is just the tip of the bout day iceberg. Your job starts weeks before with preparation of the rosters and lines, spending time with the skaters, examining the teams partnerships and dynamics, pre-game roster duties, captains and alternates meetings and pre-game team meetings and mental warm ups. All before you step out in your colours to lead your team to the track.

Feep! "White 62 Cut Track Major" power jam. 35 points scored and the score is now tied.

The skaters on the bench are going crazy:

"She didn't cut! The skater went out!" 
"Yeah and they keep throwing their forearms around"
"I got hit in the face and it didn't get called"
"Why aren't you talking to the refs about it" 
"Official review - Captains and Alternates in the middle please."

Ever wondered why bench coaches are always in the middle? Its not always because their arguing for the sake of it. All of these questions and situations often tend to hit you all at the same time and you'll need to be able to give your team some answers to get them focused again. 

These are just some of the endless situations and you'll be presented when you strap that alternates arm band on.  Its worth remembering though its not all doom and gloom, stress and pressure. There will be  highs too. When your pack holds that jammer for a full two mins. When you bring everyone together for a chant. When in the dying seconds your jammer nails that apex jump and wins the game.

These will be as much your successes as the skaters. Enjoy it. Praise your skaters. Work with them. Support them. Learn with them. Celebrate with them. 

So next time your on the bench waiting to go on, spare a thought for your bench coach. When you finish your game thank them too for being awesome and dedicating as much time to your team as you and your fellow skaters do. 

To close, If you ever get the chance, give it a go. Become the eyes ears and voice of your team. Indulge yourself in a truly interesting and involved role in your team and allow it to open your eyes and show you a completely different side of the sport you love. 


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