As with any job or task, there are pros and cons. Some have more pros than others, some have more cons, and in my experience the role of BJJ referee can very easily fall into the latter.
I have varied experience in terms of being on the other side of the BJJ competition process. I have been a “ring co-ordinator”, for IBJJF events, I have refereed for competitions, albeit not worlds or anything like pro level (London Warriors Cup / Southend Open / EBI style local events and inter-clubs), and I have been “table ref / timekeeper”, so I have seen many aspects of the machine. All of which can be very stressful, but none carry quite the same level as the referee. I am in no way an authority on ruleset, best practice, governance or anything like that, but what follows are just some of my thoughts on what makes a good referee.
The key roles of the ref as I see it are as follows, in order of importance;
1. Ensure safety of the competitors,
3. Overall organiser of their mat
4. Points giver / match decider
As I see it, above all else the safety of competitors is paramount. This is of even higher importance with children, however it is still vital to be as focused with adults / masters. I am quite well known as an “animated ref” in the sense that I am all over the place, getting close to the roll, watching as closely as I can. I can never quite understand refs who like to stand tall (ie look cool, or worse, not care) arms folded and watch from the other side of the tatami. This is never going to give rise to the clearest view, and may mean safety (or worse of all for the competitors, their points) may be compromised. It may feel awesome to be granted a high level of responsibility within a competitive match, but that ego needs trimming if the safety of those under your supervision is not of the utmost importance!
Communication is a vital skill as well – taking a moment to set the competitors, shake their hand, remind them of the round time and that the fight is EBI / IBJJF / prison jits only / whatever ruleset can take a few seconds, but just maintains good practice. It negates any possibility of the “I didn’t know the rules” argument that I hear from time to time. That of course opens its own separate discussion… its YOU that registered, YOU that got changed and walked onto the mat, so ultimately its up to YOU to know the rules… not run through the entire rulebook with the ref just before you “slap, bump, simulate murder”! I cannot say I fully agree with the traditional view of a referee saying very little… (in my best Brazilian accent, spelling is atrocious mind you) “combatch” / “pareu” / “lurtch” … a little bit of extra communication goes a long way. I’ve had several events where I have needed to remind people of a ruleset, even mid match there may be an illegal move – however as long as safety is not compromised, and the ref acknowledges the upcoming infringement, it’s better to look to educate the competitor rather than deliver instant DQ. In the heat of the moment, (especially nowadays where academies can be quite open in what they allow during free rolling,) ruleset may be forgotten, so giving the benefit of the doubt is often best in my mind. Especially so for smaller events, and for less experienced competitors.
Overall organisation has a lot to do with experience, as does a thorough understanding of the rules, and the competition process. Last of all is to award points / call a winner. Often this focus, in the minds of the competitor is flipped 180*, and this can lead to confrontation and non-appreciative behaviour, when a call may go the “wrong way”. Referees are all human and as such prone to making mistakes, especially in a fast-paced event like a bjj match, (notice I say match, and not fight, another distinction to discuss later perhaps). I myself have been the victim of a poor call on many occasions, but it’s important that concerns are raised in the correct way – remember that as competitors, you represent yourself and the sport overall, so getting heated and escalating things will never get the best response.
Although many referees are paid, it is often on the back of a very long day, and more often than not, it is done as a means of assisting an event to run, rather than being a moneymaking opportunity for the ref. It is unlikely the individual will be a career ref, and so their main drive is a desire to improve the sport and facilitate the event to run. I’ve been at events before that have taken some 12 hours from start to finish, meaning that “pay” received is far less than any minimum wage, so its rarely about money. Those of us who do decide to referee have all of the above, as well as other factors to consider, in what is a relatively short space and time to make decisions, so cut us a bit of slack from time to time.
Ref courses are a fantastic resource, and I encourage everyone who does wish to referee to attend at least one! It very much depends on the competition organiser whether they will insist on qualified referees, but all of the above can still apply – even those who attend courses can still get calls wrong from time to time. As competitors, it is important to realise that ultimately that person is a second line of decision and defence to keeping you, and others safe. YOU are the first line, and ultimately when competing it is down to you to make clear who the victor is. Get the sub, make your dominance in the round clear, leave no doubt in anyone’s mind which way the arm raise should be. However, if there is doubt, if there are mistakes, if you do fall foul of a bad call, chill out! We are all in this to make ourselves better, and learning occurs for us all along the way. Use it as experience, and be civil and friendly to everyone – we are all on the same path, we are all engaged in the same sport, and we all deserve each other’s respect. Good refs always do the best they can; good competitors will always behave their best too.
Luke Spencer is a BJJ black belt under Eduardo Carriello, GB Oval, currently teaching put of Southend Combat Academy, and 1-2-1’s, guest instructor at Leicester Shootfighters. Likes dogs, anything Canadian, pina coladas and getting caught in the rain!