Refereeing: A commentary

Posted: December 14, 2017 by Warren Chow in Competition
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In addition to training in Krav Maga, I am involved in the judo community. For instance, I am a referee for various judo tournaments that are held in the province each year, and I have refereed for matches ranging from white belts to black belts.  In my competition days as a teenager I always took the referee for granted and didn’t appreciate the value that they brought to the match, other than to award points based on actions that the competitors would successfully execute.  However, as I evolved from being a competitor to an adult recreational practitioner, I became interested in becoming a referee and giving back to the community.  I’m unsure about other martial arts, but being a judo referee is an unpaid, volunteer position and, in fact, often involves being hundreds of dollars out of pocket having to travel to the various tournament locations.  So, “giving back” means more than just donating your time.  However, I enjoy refereeing and consider the expenses a cost of having a hobby.  Whether it is judo, or any other sport that requires referees, the role is vital because it allows the athlete to compete to their utmost degree and being in a safe, controlled environment, while being monitored by an objective 3rd party.

When I first started refereeing I was very nervous. Although I was already familiar with the point system and the various calls that the referee would make during the match, and I had taken the two-day seminar that went into much more detail on the duties of the referee before, during, and after the match, I still wasn’t prepared for being out there on the mat trying my best to make the right calls at the right times.  In fact, the first tournament I refereed at was a simple, low stake, “inter-club tournament” for juniors, but I was very nervous and was stalling as long as I could until my daughter threatened to call me out and embarrass me in front of everyone unless I got my butt out there on the mat “right now!”.  I did not have fun that day, but I also knew that it was the first time I refereed matches in real-time, with real winners and losers, and that the experience would (or should) only get better from that day forward.

161203-14.jpgThe referee is responsible for much more than is evident. In judo, the referee ensures that the mat area is clean of debris before the match, the competitors have regulation gis that fit properly, and follow the proper protocols for bowing and being prepared to fight.  During the match the referee controls the flow of the engagement by awarding points or penalties appropriately and pausing the match at the necessary times.  After the fight is over, the proper winner must be announced, and the protocols followed for disengaging from the match.  The top three priorities for a referee are ensuring the match is conducted in a safe manner to prevent injuries, being objective and fair towards both competitors, and keeping the flow of the match moving along.  As with anything with rules, the application of the rules becomes more of an art than a science.

In the referee seminar, one of the points that the instructor stressed was that, in the end, the right person needs to be declared the winner. Anything else is a lower priority.  This may seem obvious, but as the competitors are fighting, time is ticking, and points or penalties are being awarded left and right, and it can be confusing for the scorekeepers to keep up.  Although it is rare, there has been more than one occasion in which a coach on the sidelines is yelling to have the score changed because there was some mix-up, and they are right to be upset.  In the junior matches the stakes are not very high since they are regarded as developmental tournaments and learning opportunities.  However, in the more senior matches it is vital that the correct scoring is applied as the outcome can directly impact and influence the athletes’ candidacy for moving on to higher level tournaments.  Or, in the case of the annual Canadian Judo Nationals, can determine who gets to stand on top of the podium and be declared “The Best in Canada”.  As the instructor constantly repeated, any call can be overruled and corrected before the fight is officially over and the winner is declared.  And with that in mind, it made my learning curve for refereeing much less stressful.

As I’m progressing through my refereeing career it’s becoming easier and easier. With each tournament I attend, I learn a bit more and since I’m less nervous, I can focus more on smoothing out my rough edges and improve on making better judgements.  In the beginning I was stressed because, as the referee, you’re out there on the mat along with both of the competitors, so it’s easy to be self-conscious.  However, as my daughter continued to remind me, “Nobody’s looking at you, they’re watching the athletes.  They don’t care about the ref!”.  The more experience you gain as a referee allows you to progress through the various levels, and you can then be a referee at tournaments in other provinces, or at the national level.  Of course, if one had started refereeing early enough, you can gain enough experience to referee at international competitions in other countries, up to and including the Olympics.  However, for myself I’m content with staying at the provincial level for now, but who knows what will happen in the future.

In most sports there are various roles available in which a person can participate, whether it’s as an athlete, a coach, or a referee. Of course, as one gets older it becomes more difficult to be a competitor so the natural progression from there is to be a coach or a referee, if the sport requires one.  As you progress through your sporting career I hope that you remain involved even after you can no longer compete, since the experience and knowledge that you’ve gained would be invaluable input for the next generation of athletes.  Let them learn from your experience and give back to the community that helped form you to be the person you are today.  Since I find it exciting to watch competitive judo, refereeing gives me the opportunity to stay involved in the matches at an intimate level.  Also, I get the best seat in the house!