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  • Writer's pictureDavid ‘Silverfox’ Karchmer

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.

bjj referee
Referees coaching and competing? A bad idea!

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.

Distracted referee
Referees that have coaching duties are likewise distracted.

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

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