Judo writing


Referee Culture of Tolerated Incompetence

By Lincoln Han
First written 2011, updated Jan. 2015


Judo competition has long suffered a very uneven level of refereeing. At the international A-level, the referees tend to be competent as a whole, with the occasional mistakes made, sometimes even glaring mistakes. At the national level, outside of countries such as Japan, France, and China where exists a professional referee culture, the refereeing standard can be sometimes appalling. The lower level event, the lower level standard one could expect. I will use the U. S. and Italy as particular examples which I am familiar.

Judo as a sport has rules like all other sports, as well as time limit. Gone are the old day of thirty-minute-long matches that are only decided by ippon or wazari. Today’s matches are five minutes long, plus over time if the two players are even. One could say, “take the referee out of the game”, but it’s not practical because many matches will simply end up as draw after the time limit and the tournament cannot advance. The rules are designed to prevent stalling, and encourage active attacks on both sides. A referee is necessary. When people play within a set of rules, some of which are subject to referee interpretation, and in a highly dynamic sport like judo, even experienced referees can make errors. This is one of the most significant variables outside the two players in deciding the outcome of a match.

Being a referee seems like a very passive role in comparison to the two players fighting each other. However, it is passive only in a physical sense. The referee has to be very attentive every second of a match to make sure he does not miss a valid or invalid action. It is not easy to be on the mats all day, match after match, even after considering breaks and rotations, the mind can get tired and less focused. As a referee becomes tired, bored or unfocused, he begins to make more mistakes. This problem is compounded by two things: not having enough referees and referees not being competent enough. As a result, the overall error rate at local, regional, and national events are appalling to any experienced observer of judo.

To understand these two problems we need to understand how the referee system works. Unfortunately, in the U. S. referees are volunteers. They work normal jobs, and go at their own expenses to the occasional tournaments on the weekend to volunteer as unpaid referees. This situation is similar in Italy, except in Italy, the referees are reimbursed a small daily amount for their time (usually 40 ~ 50 euros a day). So, unless one is dedicated to the journey of becoming a higher level continental or international B- or A-level referee, or enjoys staying involved in judo as a referee, it’s hard to find many people in judo who are willing to spend a day or two on the mat. The majority people in judo who go to competition prefer to either be part of the action as competitors or coaches, the ones who referee are the small minority. Many competitors who retire from competition do not see refereeing as a viable path for various reasons from prejudice to lack of interest. Whereas these recently retired competitors are some of the best resources to draw for referee talents as they have competition fresh in mind and know what makes a good or bad referee. The lack of incentive discourages more people from taking up refereeing.

The second problem is limited to those who chose to be volunteers but simply do not have the right background, experience, character, or continuous training to function consistently as competent referees. Most of the referees, even those who work at the national level, simply do not have the competition background to understand some of the dynamics and tactics of the game. This can be rectified by continuous study of the game. On top of this, many do not have frequent training in video review; regional referee meeting to analyze recent past competition mistakes; or take their own initiative to study the application of rules in simple and complex situation during a match. Furthermore, the expectation toward them is generally very lax, and there is no real consequence for making many errors at competition. You find the same people in the next year’s competition. When combining a lack of competence and consequence, because they are volunteers who are not met with a high expectation, a culture of tolerated incompetence is created and permeated. This is exactly what happened in the U. S., Italy and other countries. Initially, I was surprised at the similarity, but after examining the underlying causes, the conclusion is not as surprising anymore.

This essay is not aimed to attack the incompetent referees, who volunteer their time on the mat, but to put things in perspective and help them to improve and motivate themselves to a higher standard. If there is one most important thing for the referees to understand, it is volunteering does not necessarily mean inevitable incompetence or low standard. The referee standard at the national level became so bad, from 2012 to 2014, my division (-73kg) alone, many matches had a questionable call. Ippons were given for clearly yuko or wazari throws, no score given for what was clearly a successful throw, penalties given where not deserved, etc.

Take the 2008 Olympic Champion from Japan, Satoshi Ishii as another example. Before the U. S. National Championships, USA Judo used him as a big name in their promotion. If USA Judo uses someone like Olympic champion Satoshi Ishii to promote their event, at least they should give him a fair fight by having a well-qualified and attentive referee on the mat. In 2013, he got disqualified for incidental touch of his opponent’s leg, which is something that the IJF emphasized not to penalize under their new bulletin (no disqualification for incidental touch, as oppose to intentional grab); in 2014, within the first three minutes he got disqualified again for four penalties where clearly it was not the case.

When I spoke to the head of USA Judo Referee Committee at the 2014 U. S. National Championships, where some appalling bad calls were bad, Mr. Chi, he was very sympathetic with me and agreed with me about most of what I said. He and other higher level referees saw the problem and could not do much about it for the reason that most referees are volunteers, and they are short of referees as it is, and there are insufficient funding to train the referees. 

Lack of funding makes things difficult, but when someone is motivated, that person can still reach a level of excellence. Example, from a poor neighborhood of Scampia in Naples, Italy, they produced an Olympic champion among several national and international champions. In the U. S. judo athletes are volunteers. They volunteer at their own expense to show up at competitions. Outside the competition, the elite athletes train regularly to reach their highest potentials. They approach the sport with professional attitude, or at least, serious attitude. At the national level, the athletes don’t just train once a month and show up and expect to perform great judo. Even though they pay to compete, they don’t have this attitude of “I come to competition so however I perform is fine”. They are held accountable if they performed badly, if to no one else, at lease to themselves. Then why should the referee be tolerated for consistently making bad judgment on the mats? Unlike athletes, who pay for their own mistakes, the bad calls of referees can alter the outcome of a match, penalizing the wronged athletes.

Some solutions

What can be done to improve this bleak situation? First would be a change in mentality. Referees must respect the athletes and the sport to the same degree as the athletes who come to participate. This is the first thing the volunteers need to understand when they sign up to be referees. They are not there just for the participation; they have to do all the preparation just as an athlete in anticipation for their role. Insufficient funding and being volunteers can contribute to the low level standard of referees, but it does not cause that. Athletes have the same problem, but out of desire to reach their best, they train regularly, study videos and go to competitions to gain experience and hold themselves to certain standard. It is the culture and mentality of the volunteer referee that has to change. They need to stop seeing themselves as unpaid volunteers who cannot be held responsible for their lack of training, experience, and knowledge. Instead they need to see themselves like how athletes see themselves - learn as much as they can and review their own matches to study their calls, both good and bad. It is a disservice to the national judo community when one pushes the blame on external factors without even attempting to improve one’s competence, because it affects the athletes. An athlete at most affects one other athlete, but a referee’s mistakes can affect many athletes at a tournament. They have even a higher responsibility toward themselves and their athletes.

From talking to Mr. Chi, USA Judo has a referee fund. I never even knew its existence all these years of competing. Hence, they must promote donation to the referee fund and explain why it is in the judo community’s interest to do so. They could phrase it such as “Do you not like the referee level? Make a difference by supporting more referees in their training, travel, education by contributing to the referee fund.” Make it clear that being a good referee can be nearly as involved as being an athlete, the referee needs to study match videos, attend clinics, attend tournaments, and even compete at least one or two himself.

Since the transition in 2012 to the C. A. R. E. video play back system, people in the judo community thought that this would lead to far fewer errors. It clearly was not the case in the U. S. and Italy. What good do cameras do if table referees are not paying attention all the time to the monitor or the mat? If there is a wrong call and no one else sees it, it is even worse than not having the video at all.
It’s already a problem that under the new system, the on-mat referees were reduced from three to one, which means the one referee has to be constantly moving and predicting the possible attack and fall to have a good view of the action. It often happens the referee cannot see the real impact from the correct perspective of an action. It is even more important the table referees responsible for the video play are constantly paying attention to the matches. The system is there, use it.

Another issue that affects the development of judo is applying the highly restrictive IJF rule set that is meant for A-level competitions to national level or even more absurdly at the regional level. As a result of the post-2008 IJF rule changes, most of the rules have trickled down in the U. S. to even local level tournaments. It is completely unnecessary as these are developmental tournaments where the players should be exposed to the full sport-safe Kodokan judo techniques and tactics. The referee commission cannot make argument such as “because certain thing is done or not done at the IJF level, so we must adhere to that.” Well, at B- or A-level events, the IJF referees are far more qualified than the average referee on the mat at our domestic tournament. If the referee commission wants to adhere to IJF procedures and rules, it must be done also to its spirit and applies both ways. What standard they want to impose on the athlete and coaches, they must impose it on themselves. Unless our domestic event is staffed full of real attentive and competent referees, they cannot ask the domestic events to be treated at the same standard for the players and coaches.

On the other hand, the judo community needs to understand what is involved in becoming a competent referee so that they can feel the need to support referee’s effort to become better. Just as there is “adopt an athlete” type of financial support, why not give the judo community an option to “adopt a referee”.

Coach objection system
Two things about the referees that really impressed when from my participation at the National Club Cup in China (national championships) are: first, every single referee is a retired competitor who has extensive experience being on the receiving end of referee decisions. They are very professional in their approach to refereeing: they have regular training in refereeing, self-study to update and improve their knowledge, and travel often to competitions. Second, and the most innovative part, China Judo uses a coach objection system for all domestic events. This is not in line with the IJF’s current practice, but it is a far more advanced. Essentially, it allows the coach to protest a referee’s call, at least once per match. This is used in conjunction with the video playback system and it helped to improve the quality of the event for everyone.

The U. S. should be familiar with this practice as it is also used in baseball and American football. If a coach makes a protest, the referee and jury must review the video and decide if the referee’s call is correct. If the referee made a mistake, he must correct it and the coach gets another chance to make an objection for that match. If the coach is wrong, then for the remainder of the match, he does not have another chance to protest. This alone, applied in the U. S., will reduce and correct bad calls in competitions. As an additional benefit it gives the referee immediate feedback on something missed or was wrong about. With the reality of the U. S. and countries like it, this practice is a must.

Computer-aided feedback system
With the cost of wireless network connection and computer hardware extremely affordable today compared to even fifteen years ago, why not have a computer-based simple survey after each match for the players to rate the referee? Of course, the losing party may be less objective, but the referee and the commission can study the feedback and check the match video to see if there is any discrepancy between the perceived and real situation. If a referee receives certain percentage of negative feedback, then the commission must order a review of the referee and his matches. If it is determined that the referee is indeed poor, then they need to take actions to suspend and educate the referee. If the referee improves in the future, then he will be allowed back on the mat, otherwise, he will not advance or go to any national level events.

Once the national referee committee decides they will no longer tolerate incompetence for the sake of protecting the feeling of the volunteers and implement the above changes, they will see a real improvement in the referee standard and satisfaction from competitors and coaches, which will lead to a higher participation rate and performance level at domestic tournaments.


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