Referees coaching and competing? A bad idea!
For those new to competition or might be unaware, referees are commonly
permitted to pause during their day and allowed to compete or coach at the
same tournament they are officiating. This is something that regularly
occurs at many levels of grappling competition and goes relatively
unnoticed despite having a negative potential impact. Based on my
experience, this is not something worthwhile for any organization to permit.
But first, let’s discuss the reasons why it is permitted or why referees would
want to be allowed to serve multiple roles at a given tournament.
From the tournament organization’s perspective, naturally they want to
attract the right quality and quantity of referees to work at their events.
They do so by offering incentives to work their event, primarily with the pay,
but often with the additional benefit of being allowed to compete for free.
Sometimes this option allows organizations to offer sub-par pay. Since
many refs are competitors too, and often there’s substantial travel and
expenses related to working tournaments, it can make financial sense to
optimize a trip by working and competing. So, tournaments save a few
bucks and only have to sacrifice the loss of a competitor’s fee, which really
has no inherent cost.
Additionally, many referees are also school owners and instructors, so they
often bundle their trips to tournaments with the notion they can bring a
team of students that they can coach and also make a few bucks reffing.
Sometimes referees try to leverage this fact, claiming that ‘Well then I won’t
bring students to compete if I can’t coach them’, which further complicates
the situation by adding another financial consideration for the tournament.
So the quid pro quo reasons that organizations permit this practice and the
reasons referees accept this multi-task role of ref, coach, and competitor
are that they want to compete and coach their students yet offset the costs
of attending tournaments by getting paid to officiate; likewise, tournaments
benefit by maximizing competitor headcount, attracting a wider group of
referee candidates, and saving a few bucks on officiating.
But as the head referee for multiple organizations, I can tell you that the
practice is generally disruptive and an overall negative to the tournament’s
success. Now let me explain why. Referees that are competing are distracted. Any competition anxiety or needed preparation hampers their ability to focus on their main task.
Sometimes, referees are injured during competition which can impact their
ability to perform referee duties the rest of the day. So, it is both mentally
and physically risky to permit.
For any referee, pressures and concerns on your mind absolutely do not
help you be consistent and fair throughout the day. Referees that have
coaching duties are likewise distracted. If they have to cater to the needs of
students during the day, their questions, their concerns, their anxiety, their
disappointment, all prevent the main focus of the referee – enforcing the
rules in a consistent and fair manner during the hours of employment.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario is a referee during a match spending
more time watching his student in the ring next to him than the ring he is
officiating. It’s very unprofessional yet is a something that really does
Also, refs that compete and/or coach also face the very real potential of
conflicts of interest. How does it look for one referee to argue with another
referee working for the same tournament? It can be disruptive, and create
a negative atmosphere. Diminishing the credibility of the officiating staff is
perfect recipe for upsetting your customers and having them question
whether they’d come back. In the age of social media, incidents can literally
be streamed and overshadow an entire event by the next day.
Coaches are advocates for their students, and coaches argue or disagree
with referees frequently. It’s often very hard for referees who are coaching
to bite their lip if they observe something that they consider unfair even
from a peer, and few take into account how it looks on the tournament itself
for two referees to be seen arguing. In tournaments that I worked that
permitted the practice, I always made sure that referees at least took off
their ref shirt and wristbands and made an effort to undertake the physical
appearance of a neutral coach, rather than referee peer.
Competitors are their own vocal advocates, particularly black belts, so the
frequency of disagreements with these referees that are competing also
can stain the tournament’s appearance of a maintaining a qualified staff.
As a referee who many times has officiated the matches of colleagues as
they compete, I can tell you it can create animosity and tension between
peers, which can permeate the day.
An additional concern is how others perceive a scenario where one referee
is officiating a fellow referee in competition. It’s easy for other competitors
and spectators to believe that referees are now favoring their colleagues as
they compete, or for that matter, favoring their students that they coach.
This is frequently not a legitimate concern ( based on the integrity of the
referees ), but it gives excuses for losses and decisions potential merit for
being based on favoritism or bias. Maintaining the appearance of fair
competition should be a priority of any tournament and officiating team, so
this practice decreases the ability to maintain that appearance.
Then, there’s the issue of logistics. Having a referee leave his ring every
hour to coach, or have to step away to warm-up and compete can wreak
havoc on tournament scheduling as they scramble to substitute referees as
they randomly leave their ring. I can confirm it creates staffing challenges
that make tournaments run long. The largest organizations have double-
sized referee teams that allow greater logistical flexibility, but most
tournaments have the same number of referees as available rings. They
simply can’t spare the manpower and leave rings empty while they try and
meet time constraints.
So what’s the solution to these potentially negative challenges brought on
by allowing referees to play multiple roles at tournament? Easy. Hire
referees to do one job, and one job only…and pay them an above average
wage to do it well. Invest in good employees, not just knowledgeable
referees. And, if they don’t like it or can’t perform well under the best of
circumstances, then don’t hire them or hire them back.
Author David ‘Silverfox’ Karchmer was awarded his black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in
June 2012 and has been training for more than 20 years. In addition to training and
instructing, David has focused the last twelve years on officiating grappling competitions
and has officiated more than 4000 gi and no-gi matches at over 85 events for multiple
organizations. He was a previous head referee at Grapplers Quest, Tap Cancer Out,
FIVE Grappling, UAEJJF New York Open, Copa NoVA, and Rollmore SuperComp
tournaments, and routinely officiates events in North America. For more about David, go