Gumby’s Column: Refereeing

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been to as many Grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments as anybody at this point, and I’ve played the role as a media representative, a competitor and even as a promoter.I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been to as many Grappling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu tournaments as anybody at this point, and I’ve played the role as a media representative, a competitor and even as a promoter. Each tournament I’ve been to has had its shares of high points and low points but no matter how smoothly things might have gone, invariably someone will complain about the officiating. Perhaps a call simply didn’t go there way, or there was one referee they thought was unfair, but I ALWAYS here at least one complaint every tournament -justified or not. Let me begin my discourse on by stating this:


Why anybody would want to be a referee is beyond me. Most of the time the referees are volunteers, they originally intended on attending the tournament to coach, watch, or even compete. The only reason why anyone would referee then is to help out, whether that is to help promote the sport itself, help out the competitors who obvious invested quite a bit previous to even attending the tournament or to help out a friend (in this case the promoter).

It is obviously an imperfect system, but I firstly wanted to take the time to acknowledge the referee and thank them for their task, and acknowledge the fact that they are only human. The question then is what can we do to improve things? Let’s take a look at the key players first:

The Promoter:

Securing competent referees should be among your FIRST priorities, not your last. Having secured a quality officiating staff should be as fundamental as securing a venue and mats, a referee can make or break the event and people’s perceptions of you. Referees should be compensated for their time in some way; although the concept of a paid referee is not viable in every tournament’s case it does greatly enhance the level of your tournament, and I certainly feel that at this point many promoters could and should afford to do this. In exchange for compensation, the promoter has the right to demand certain responsibilities from the referee, such as the hours the referees are expected to work, which mats, etc…and this should be scheduled well in advance of the tournament date.

How many referees do you need? Take how many mats you have out, and then add one. Granted all mats won’t be in use at any given time, but as the boy scouts say, always be prepared. Besides you will need to schedule breaks and rotations among your officiating staff.

Make sure all of your rules are made very clear to your officiating staff. These rules should be explained to the staff before they are demonstrated to the tournament attendees (although the rules and your own particular variations should be made widely known prior to your event). The officials are to be the EXPERT level of enforcing the rules at your tournament, it is expected that they should have knowledge above everyone else there. If they don’t have at a bare minimum that level of authority, the system falls apart.

Once you’re confident in your referee’s make sure you stand by them. The head referee should have final say on any match in a tournament, if they feel you can second guess or overrule them it will greatly undermine their ability to officiate. If you’ve done your homework properly this shouldn’t be an issue anyway. Reviewing an official’s conduct may be done afterwards and you can decide upon an action, but during your event you had better present a unified front or you won’t be holding very many tournaments.

One point I here being made often is that only higher belts should be allowed to officiate. I personally believe that is ludicrous, I have personally witnessed many lower belts do a fine job of officiating and many higher belts to an awful job. Pretty much as your ability to fight doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher, it also doesn’t make a good referee either. A higher belt could indicate a higher degree of potential to referee, but as stated before you should personally prepare the entire staff well before hand anyway so that every official is handling things as YOU would see fit, and not based on their own interpretations.

One more, seemingly obvious thing: make sure the referee in your high profile matches has as little vested interest in the competitors as possible. Otherwise you are simply begging for controversy.

The Referee

First of all, much thanks to agreeing to referee at the tournament. You’ve got a hell of a job ahead of you.

Firstly, be completely familiar to the rules and variations of the tournament you are coaching at. Attend all meetings and if you have questions, ask. By the time the tournament takes place you are being relied on to be the expert witness.

The match at hand should be your primary and only focus. For safety and respect reasons the competitors deserve nothing less. If there is something going on that makes this difficult or impossible please make arrangements to have someone else referee the match.

Do what you feel is correct, and expect and demand the backing of the promoter. Don’t be intimidated by the competitors, coaches, spectators or whoever. There will be room to improve and discuss, but during the match is not that time.

Again, if for any reason you feel like you can’t fulfill your duties, please discuss with the promoter and arrange an alternate. Because of bias, a student competing, fatigue, whatever you may find it impossible to perform your best job, and that should be understood. Do what you need to do, and return when you can perform your best.

The Competitor

Assuming the Promoter did their job beforehand, and your referee is a competent one, you still have a number of responsibilities;

Firstly PROTECT YOURSELF AT ALL TIMES. I can’t emphasize this enough. The person most responsible for looking out for your safety, knowing your limitations, is you! Until the referee calls time out, assume that action is still taking place.

Show good sportsmanship. That means good sportsmanship to your competitor, the referee, the spectators, and the venue. Things happen, to be sure, but your reaction to unfortunate events will alter people’s perception of you as much as your talents will.

Familiarize yourself with the rules for the particular tournament (even if it means insisting that the promoter hand you a printed copy of all of the rules) and know that the official has the final word on the enforcement of the rules.

Play to win, not just survive. If you finish or tap out your opponent, you should have to worry as much about judge’s decisions, eh? If it goes to a judge’s decision, I can guarantee that one person will be happy and one won’t, but don’t blame the referee. Deal and move on.

The Spectators

While I’m well aware that in most major sports jeering the official is somewhat expected, even traditional in cases of BJJ and Grappling tournaments it definitely doesn’t help matters. As stated before, none of these guys HAVE to be here. Similar to the fact as there is usually only one coach allowed on the mat at a given time, there should only be one voice (the coaches) used to interact with the officials. If you have a problem consult with the coach and let them convey things. Twenty voices trying to explain what happened simultaneously isn’t going to do anything other than aggravate matters. Kick back and enjoy the show, support the fighters. It’s what you came here for.

A More Radical Solution

All right, so we’ve discussed ways of sorting things out and what everyone’s responsibility is to ensure the officiating goes smoothly at any given tournament. What about taking it to the next level? And by next level, of course, I mean about presenting it in such a format that we can actively take the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Submission Grappling as an Olympic presentable event.

I have yet to see an event in either Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Submission Grappling that I would consider to be 100% certifiable and presentable as an Olympic caliber event.

Mind you that I realize that this is a bold statement to make. Mind you as many tournaments as I have attended, I certainly haven’t covered everything (for example, I have not yet attended Kip Kollar’s NAGA sponsored events) and I certainly think certain promoters (such as Brian Cimins’ Grappler’s Quest or Rickson Gracie’s Association Tournaments) do an excellent job. However the major difference between the grappling and BJJ events I have attended and the sports (Judo, wrestling, boxing, etc) that are represented in the Olympics stands in the number and professionalism of the referees.

Olympic caliber sports would never rely on the basis of one individual to determine the outcome of a match. Instead you have an in ring referee, and a number of secondary referees or judges positioned along the action who can comment on the action and award points. It doesn’t seem unreasonable then that if BJJ and grappling wants the same level of prestige that it should offer this as well. This would greatly reduce the human error factor.

As of right now, most BJJ and Grappling tournaments I have been to employ three people per mat: 1 referee, 1 score keeper and 1 timekeeper. I would suggest that at the very least, the position of scorekeeper and timekeeper could be combined (no offense to anyone but the act of watching a stop watch and flipping numbers over are not so complicated as they can’t be achieved simultaneously). The act of keeping the action and matches moving on each of the mats should be coordinated by the promoter or an assistant anyways, keeping that information centralized will keep an event running smoothly and on schedule.

With one person freed up from the traditional three person rotation, that person could then be a line referee or judge, someone who could provide an additional angle in order to ensure proper scoring and enforcement of the rules are taking place. While the head referee would always have final say, the secondary referee could be called upon on questionable calls to quickly give his perspective and action continues unabated.

Obviously up until a point, more eyes on the match is ideal. I believe judo and wrestling actually involves up to three referees and judges. Judo has gone as far as to have a ranking system for judges and referees, and it is these people that form the governing body and how or if a modification to the rules is needed. Naturally each referee or judge at an event would have to be as well versed in the rules and regulations as the first referee, and should be assigned well in advance of the actual tournament.

I would also like to state for the record that I DO NOT support the use of video cameras or instant replay in determining match outcomes. Having logged hundreds if not thousands of hours behind the camera I can tell you that while the camera may give another view, it should be secondary to the officials eyes anyway. Assuming that all other things are in place, even with multiple angled judges I am sure human error will occur every now and again and it must be allowed, but the arguing and use of video on every call will certainly bog down a tournament.

Your Feedback

So I’ve said my piece on officiating, but I don’t consider this the final word on the subject by any means. I invite anyone involved in the sport to sound off with an opinion or comment to me at, I’m only honestly very interested in promoting our sport in the best possible light and making things better for everyone. Thank you for your time, next column (due whenever) I will discuss certain and specific rules.

TechGasp Comments Master

About the author


Gumby is the co-founder of back in 1997 with Scotty Nelson.