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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The ref's perspective

I've refereed at competitions since I was a purple belt and have found that it's given me great experience and insight which has helped me when I've competed myself, when I've been coaching students in competition and even as an instructor teaching classes.

The most amazing thing that I have found out from refereeing is how many coaches and fighters don't know the rules; from not knowing more minor points to seemingly having no idea of the basic scoring system. I find it hard to believe that people compete in other sports without reading the rules first... maybe this is because most of the sports people compete in they have been involved in from childhood though? Still, there is no reason not to read the rules and I remember doing it before the first time I competed. The IBJJF rules can be found here (pdf file) and any competitions not following those rules should state them on their website. Now there are many things in those rules which are not fully explained to cover all eventualities but all the basic rules are clear, yet there are still people who are totally ignorant of them. Worse still is that the people who are ignorant of the rules then berate the referees who have made correct decisions. They scream at you to score points which shouldn't be scored and chase you around even after the fight has finished to tell you over and over that you were wrong. I have experienced this many times, from brown and black belt instructors. They should learn the rules!!

So what are some of the most commonly misunderstood rules?

1. Side control doesn't score points.
A lot of people seem to think the position itself scores, but it is the act of passing the guard which scores. So that means if you get to side control any other way, you don't get three points. A takedown to side control only scores two for the takedown. Going from top of turtle position to side control doesn't score anything. A reversal from bottom to top side control scores nothing. All of these things have resulted in a coach screaming at me to score the three points... and once to score two points (an even worse knowledge of the rules!).

2. Advantages for submission attempts or sweeps
An advantage is only scored for a submission attempt if the opponent is in danger of being submitted. Whether they defend it or not doesn't matter, only that there must be a danger of submission. A joint lock must be close to being locked out, or fully locked out, a choke must be tight and fully sunk in. This means some submission are difficult to give advantages for... ankle locks and guillotines in particular can be very difficult to judge whether there was a submission danger.
For sweeps the advantage only scores if the person sweeping tries to go to the top and is prevented by their opponent. Just off-balancing your opponent or making them base does not score and even if you land them on their side or back, if you don't attempt to go to the top it does not score.

3. If one person has a blue gi they are always indicated by the green and yellow wrist band
It's actually table staff and referees which I have seen get this wrong the most. There have been times when I have missed the start of my students fights and looking at the scoreboard I ended up incorrectly thinking they were winning or losing. This means that when I am coaching them I am giving them bad advice; maybe saying they just need to close the guard and attack chokes when really they need to score points, or telling them to open up because they need to score when they really don't.

4. A sweep is going from a guard position to top
A lot of people think you need to put your opponent on their back for it to be a sweep, but an armdrag to top turtle scores the two points. The move has to start in either guard or half guard and you have to end up on top (if it's turtle position then you must be behind them), that's it.

5. There is only one count to score for two positions/movements if they happen at the same time
If you sweep to mount and maintain position for three seconds you score 6 points. Passing the guard straight to mount scores 7 after three seconds. This can mean that when reffing I count the three seconds then while indicating the first point score the position changes, but the second point score has already been achieved and will still be awarded.

Those are the main points of regular contention which come to mind. There are others, but those 5 seem to be problematic for a lot of people. It really only needs coaches and competitors to read the rules properly as all those points are clearly covered.

The worst thing about rules misunderstandings are how a lot of coaches act toward referees. I have officiated many matches where coaches have wrongly thought I have made an incorrect decision and they shout about it non-stop until the match ends, while you're raising the hand of the winner, after the match has finished, after the fighters have left the mat and I have even been followed around by a coach later in the day, just so he could repeatedly tell me I was wrong (which I wasn't). I have never experienced it myself but I have seen times when coaches try to physically intimidate the ref, going as far to encroach onto the competition area during a fight. There are obviously going to be times I have made mistakes, every ref will have, but even then, there is no excuse to constantly berate the ref and definitely not to intimidate them. Some decisions will be made incorrectly against you and some incorrectly in your favour... over the course of many competitions it evens out.

Another aspect similar to aggressive coaches is that of unsporting competitors. I've lost count of the number of slams I have seen, and many times the person performing the slam clearly knows it's illegal but doesn't care. I've also seen times when a person losing the fight has performed an illegal submission, trying to show superiority over their opponent and ignoring the fact that people won't be ready to defend a submission which is illegal. These people show that not only are they not skilled enough to win in competition but they are mentally weak and unable to deal with that fact. They are the sort of people who will find it hard to stick out jiu-jitsu in the long run. Although... some gyms have a much greater percentage of people like this, obviously due to a bad environment encouraged by the coaches. I have even seen a coach encourage overtly aggressive behaviour by a child competitor, which speaks volumes about the character and mental maturity of that coach.

The final issue which causes a lot of abuse and disagreement is when you have to make a decision as to who wins a contest. Sometimes it is easy to make a decision, one person will have been attacking the whole time but just didn't manage to score a point, but a lot of the time the fight will be very close (as you'd expect if points and advantages are equal). It's most difficult when both fighters have scored, especially if they have both scored more than once. As a ref, during the fight I am watching for so many things it's impossible to judge who was attacking for most of the fight when it's been back and forth so personally, I try to think of one moment which tips the balance toward one of the fighters (maybe a sweep or pass attempt which wasn't enough to score even an advantage, or maybe one fighter got closer to a submission attempt). But sometimes there isn't anything clear and the rules say you must pick a winner. In these cases I tend to just go with the fighter I think was working hardest at the end because I don't see any other way to do it. When coaches or fighters complain about decisions going against them they would do well to remember that they only had to score one more advantage point during the contest time to have won outright.

Even with all the bad stuff that gets thrown my way during refereeing I always enjoy it. As I said when I began, the experience has helped me in many ways. But I do think my ability to not care what people think about me or what abuse they throw my way really helps. I know a lot of people who refuse to referee because of the issues I've mentioned... and without referees there would be no competition. So think hard the next time you want to shout at a ref; do you know for sure you are right, and have you never made a mistake in your life?

(due to having been really busy these last few days, this blog entry has been written over a few nights at past midnight... apologies if it's a bit rambling or disjointed, and I haven't proof read it. It is what it is!)


  1. I enjoyed reading your post, and going into my second gi tournament this Saturday, will definitely take it into account. That being said, I think the ibjjf rules are overly complicated, and with 'a fight being a fight', I think a lot of competitors are more focused on crushing their opponents than making sure they maximize the number of points awarded for their actions.
    I personally favour the less restricting ruleset of the no-gi tournaments I participate in, where dominant positions are heavily rewarded, regardless of transition order.

    1. I never fight with a maximising points attitude myself (but I advise my students to, so that the club wins more medals!) and there are quite a lot of rules for sure. I don't think that they're over-complicated though, more under-explained in a lot of cases.

      Just go for the sub, the only definitive method of winning :)

    2. I never fight with a maximising points attitude myself (but I advise my students to, so that the club wins more medals!) and there are quite a lot of rules for sure. I don't think that they're over-complicated though, more under-explained in a lot of cases.

      Just go for the sub, the only definitive method of winning :)