Lessons From Refereeing

This weekend, a handful of us from Mid-America Martial Arts headed down to Kansas to help referee their state games. It was the first time I had refereed a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament. I had ref’d some little league soccer back when I was high school, so the concept of being the guy people looked to wasn’t new. But the action of a BJJ match is quite a bit different from kids playing soccer in a herd mentality.

Overall, the tournament went pretty well. I started by refereeing kids under 7 in both gi and no-gi. Wrapped that up pretty quickly so I took another 3 or 4 brackets of older kids and ran through those in gi and no-gi.  All-in-all, I think we ran through something like 8 or 9 kids brackets in about 1.5 hours. I was pretty tired, and didn’t realize how much energy refereeing kids would take. I got about a 45 minute break as the no-gi adult matches were finishing.

We then moved on to adult gi, and I took about 1/2 of the whitebelts. I didn’t pay attention to the divisions I had, but if I had to guess, I had under 181 and below, maybe even the weight class below that. Again, I think I had another 4 or 5 brackets at my table. We were able to run through all of those in under 90 minutes. As I asked for more brackets, I found out there weren’t any more to take. The other mats were just a couple matches away from finishing.

It was a very fun experience. I commented at one point, that it was nice because I didn’t have the pre-tournament anxiety nor did I have the post-match adrenaline dump, yet I was still able to be involved in a tournament.

I wasn’t perfect. However, I only had one coach ask me about a scoring decision I made. It was in kids, they were on the edge of going out of bounds, so I stopped them and restarted them in open guard. He told me afterwards that his kid was in knee-mount and asked me why I didn’t restart them in knee-mount. I told him, “Honestly, I didn’t see that.” He was okay with that explanation. It really did look like he was in open-guard from my vantage point.

Another time that I know I messed up was in the white-belt division. A guy was working for an Americana and his opponent wound up out of bounds, I restarted them in the middle in the same position. I should have awarded the guy attempting the submission 2 points and had them start standing. But I realized that afterwards.

I’m sure other errors were made. In neither of those situations did it materially change the outcome of the match, so I got lucky there 🙂

I learned a few things, though, that I never noticed from just watching tournament matches.  First, it’s okay to be patient. In fact, I’d guess the majority of the adults I ref’d were pretty patient on their feet. I had a couple guys come out and just attack instantly, but of the 30 or so matches I ref’d in the adult division, it was not uncommon for a minute or so to go by before it wound up on the ground.  I’m not usually that patient. I try for a quick takedown and if that doesn’t work, I instantly pull guard. It doesn’t always work out for me. Watching these guys compete I realized that it’s okay for me to not rush.

The next thing I learned was that it’s probably a good idea to listen to the coach that is sitting mat side. I know it’s easy to prep for a tournament thinking about some moves you want to do, or positions you want to gain. But you don’t get to control everything and so you might wind up with your back taken. The coaches there can see things you can’t. For example, where his hands are, or what his feet are doing. One match stands out in particular. A competitor lost by 3 points. On 3 separate times, he had side control and could have gone to mount. His coaches told him to go to mount. He never even attempted to. Had he been successful on just 1 of those 3 mount attempts, he would have gotten 4 points and won by 1 point. He lost the match and was eliminated.

Another area that coaches by the mat are helpful is not just position, but encouragement and reassurance. I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe one guy was right in front of his coach and his opponent was attempting a rear-naked choke. When you’re competing, your mind is racing and there are all sorts of things you’re thinking. This competitor’s coach said calmly and matter-of-factly “Don’t worry about that yet, he doesn’t have it in position. You’re safe. You’re not in danger.” In the end, he lost. But he didn’t get submitted. I don’t know for sure that had his coach not told him that, that he would have tapped. But I’m sure hearing someone tell him that he was safe gave him courage to keep fighting.

The final thing I learned was specific to competition BJJ. I have had coaches tell me this before, and even competing I didn’t realize the truth of their words. But most matches go something like this: There’s a takedown to guard or half-guard. There’s a guard pass to side-control and then to mount. In white belt there was a little too much turtling once the guy was in mount, giving up their back. But that was it. I did not ref a single match that involved spider guard, de La Riva, nor butterfly. I saw a lot of knee mounts and mounts. I saw one triangle choke, and a few arm-bars finish a match. All-in-all, the match was pretty basic.

There’s all sorts of fun stuff to play around in the gym, and to train, but when it came down to it on Saturday, if you had a decent take down, a decent guard pass, and a decent mount, you probably would have won all (or almost all) of your matches.