Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Be a Referee Who Gives a Damn

I like being a taekwon-do referee. And I’ve been told more than once that I’m good at it—by parents, competitors and other instructors. Trust me that I don’t say this to toot my own horn. You’ll see my point in a minute.

At first, I took it as the compliment it’s meant to be. And it does feel great to hear from others that I’m doing a good job as a taekwon-do referee. But after a while I realized that something isn’t quite right with the whole picture.

The referee is an important part of the match, but no one comes to a tournament to watch the refs. They should essentially be part of the background action: there to keep the competitors in line, but not part of the real show. Ideally, they should be almost invisible. So what does it say about the state of taekwon-do officiating that a referee can stand out enough that people feel the need to pay compliments?

I’ve seen a few great taekwon-do referees over the years (because I’ve been looking), as well as some bad ones. But I don’t believe that most refs are bad. Instead, I get the impression—justified or not—that they just don’t care.

Several people have told me that they don’t like to referee. That’s fair. It’s not for everybody. These people tend to avoid refereeing as much as they can. And shame on tournament organizers for using referees who don’t want to be in the ring. But I’ve seen others who regularly referee while doing a mediocre job. Do they think they’re doing a great job? Are they reffing out of a sense of obligation? Are they just passing the time? I don’t know. But what I can see is that they aren’t consistently enforcing the rules, aren’t in firm charge of their rings, aren’t doing all they can to keep their competitors safe and sometimes even look kind of lazy.

I think this is why people feel the need to compliment a good referee when they see one.

What makes a good taekwon-do referee?

A good ref is in charge of the ring. They’re the boss, but they let people have fun. They watch the action closely. They don’t call trivial, borderline penalties, but do call every genuine infraction of the rules. They know the rules inside and out.

A good ref follows the proper procedures and uses all the correct hand signals. But they aren’t so caught up in the procedures that they can’t put the competitors at ease. They’re loud enough to be heard but not so loud as to be obnoxious. They make sure both the judges and competitors know what calls have been made, and they won’t take more time than necessary to do it. They stay far enough away to give the competitors space, but close enough to break up the action if need be.

A good referee will stand firm when a tough call has to be made. They will disqualify a competitor, tell a coach to shut up or kick a master out of a ring, if the situation calls for it. They help the judges and the competitors with any questions and make sure the rules are clear. When there is no ring umpire at the head table, they keep the judges accountable.

A good referee enjoys their work.

Most importantly, a good taekwon-do referee keeps things safe, fun and fair.

Why do they do this? Because they respect the sport.

Let me ask you a question: if you or your child were competing, would you want the matches to be fun? Would you want them to be safe? Would you want them to be fair? Yes? Then if you ever find yourself in the position of referee, show your competitors respect by giving them the same thing. Be a referee who gives a damn.

How? Take a referee’s course. And pay attention. Study your referee’s manual before every tournament. Know the rules. Practice refereeing. And genuinely try to be a good referee.