Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Tournaments: An Exercise in Zen, pt. 5: Judges

Every Taekwon-Do tournament host ends up with a thorn in their side: a lack of knowledgeable, consistent judges and referees.

Or a lack of judges and referees, period.

For a tournament to run smoothly, judges have to be at the rings. And it also helps if those judges know what they’re doing.

I’m sure you’ve seen it before: the tournament starts out great, and everything is running well. Judges have been assigned to all the rings, so everyone knows where they’re supposed to be. But as the day drags on the judges get tired and need breaks. Suddenly, all those black belts and red belts you had seen earlier that morning have now magically disappeared and the host is left scrambling to fill the corners.

It’s almost inevitable. Most people are there to compete, not to be a judge. Most people don’t like doing it. And god knows, barely anyone wants to be a referee and be in charge of a ring. That’s a lot of responsibility. People want to duck out of their duties if they can, and I can’t really blame them. Personally, I enjoy being in the middle of the action like that, but I know I’m in the minority.

It puts the tournament host in a tough position. How do you get people to do something that not everyone wants to do?

The usual plan: forced volunteers

The usual solution is to put the red and black belt divisions last. That way, even if you have to scramble to find judges, at least you know that they’re going to be around somewhere. But you’ll still have to scramble to find people.

Also, while most people are there to either compete or to watch their kids compete, colour belts and parents still think it’s cool to be able to watch the black belts. Black belts have dedicated years to their art, and it’s fun to be able to watch them showcase their skills. But if their divisions are at the end of the day, most people will have left by the time the black belts take to the rings.

Judging and refereeing are also surprisingly taxing on the body. I don’t know about you, but sitting in a chair scoring patterns and sparring matches all day sucks the will to compete right out of me.

With that being said, though, it’s extremely hard to find a good solution that doesn’t involve making the black belts compete last. In fact, I’ve only seen it done once.

One year, the national championships were hosted by a school with 600-700 students. With that many students, the club had close to a hundred black belts, most of whom were competing. The instructor told his black belts that if they were competing, they had to be available to judge all day. At the venue he set up a special area for on-call judges to sit and mingle. On the day of the tournament, when all the other schools arrived, he told their students that if they would like to volunteer to be judges, it would be appreciated. But if they would prefer to just relax at the tournament, or even to take in the sights of the city, they were free to do so. The host school had enough black belts on call that extras weren’t required.

Because the host club was able to arrange things this way, the black belts were able to compete first. There was no pressure on the visiting students to hang around and judge matches all day so that they could compete later.

Most clubs aren’t big enough to have this luxury. The majority of schools out there rely on the black belts from other clubs to make their tournaments run. Plus, having a mix of schools will reduce the possibility of bias toward one particular club. So we have to find other options.

The next best option that I’ve seen so far was a sort of buddy system. Judges were assigned to rings in pairs. One “buddy” was in a ring at a time, and the other was free to do as he or she pleased. If we went anywhere, we were supposed to let our buddies know where we were going, and we were supposed to check in every so often to see if they needed a break.

This worked beautifully for the first part of the day. As people had different places to be, though, it started to break down a little bit by the end. Even so, it still worked quite well.

Carrots and sticks

Ideally, competing black belts shouldn’t be judging at all. They paid to compete, not to be volunteered. But in reality, this usually isn’t feasible. We typically just don’t have the numbers to be able to depend on having enough non-competitor black belts.

Failing having plenty of dedicated judges, perhaps the best option I’ve ever heard of was on Rob Redmond’s sadly-defunct blog, 24 Fighting Chickens: why not pay the judges?

Each black belt would be given a card at the beginning of the day. For each division that you judge, the referee for the ring would sign or stamp your card. For each stamp, you would earn back a portion of your entry fee. If you judge enough divisions, you could end up competing for free.

Depending on the revenues and expenses of a tournament it may not be possible to offer back 100% of the black belts’ entry fees, but even a 50% rebate would be an incentive.

Yes, tournament organizers would lose a little money this way. But I think that providing an excellent tournament experience with happy judges would make it well worth it.

If you can’t or don’t want to do this, I think there’s still another way, but it will require more work and the black belts will definitely have to compete last.

Before the tournament, organize a list of all attending judges. When a judge is needed at a ring a name will be announced over the PA. If the person doesn’t show up ASAP, the next name on the list will be called. Keep meticulous track of who is working in what ring, when, and for how long. This is important so that the workload can be spread out as much as possible. Now, here’s the important part: all attending black belts will have to spend a specified amount of time judging or they will not be allowed to compete.

I don’t think this will work nearly as well as paying the judges, but it would still have to provide more of an incentive than the other alternatives.

Option #3 is to overhaul the system entirely. In Judo, for example, students need to earn points to get black belt ranks. Most people get their points by competing, but they can also get them by judging or doing other activities that contribute to the world of Judo.

Do the job well, whether you like it or not

Finally, I have a note for the judges themselves: even if you don’t particularly like it, please try your best to do your job well. Everyone at that tournament paid to compete and have fun. It isn’t fair to take that away from them by not being as competent as you could be.

Learn the rules. Study the rules. Know them like the back of your hand. Attend referee’s seminars. Practice judging and refereeing sparring matches at your dojang. Get comfortable with it. If your instructor is good at judging and refereeing, ask him or her questions. If you notice particularly good referees at a tournament, ask them lots of questions. Pick their brains.

Even if you don’t like being a judge, it’s going to happen. So you might as well get used to it.

More “Tournaments: An Exercise in Zen”