My competitive Brazilian Jiu Jitsu pedigree is as follows (Major tournaments):
- I won the IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation) Master-Senior World Championship in Brazil.
- I placed third in the IBJJF Pan American Games.
- I won the NAGA (North American Grappling Association) World Championship.
- I won the NAGA North American Championship 3X.
- I won the NAGA Pennsylvania Championship.
- I won NAGA Battle At The Beach 3x.
The above does not include championships I’ve won in smaller local tournaments.
Great competitor does NOT = Great referee!
I’ve probably competed in and coached in over 50 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments and absolutely none of that was relevant this weekend when I had my first stint as a NAGA apprentice referee. I will say adroitly and succinctly that refereeing was without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I’ve done many things in the 52 years I’ve been alive.
As a competitor my goal is simple; get the takedown, dominate from the top position, defend my lead and manage the clock. It’s a simple formula that’s allowed me to win nearly every tournament that I’ve entered. That being said, understanding the rules as a coach and competitor is drastically different than understanding and applying the rules as a referee.
Before I actually referred matches live at this past weekend’s NAGA Philadelphia I had to study the 2013 NAGA rules (60 pages) yes you read that correctly 60 pages of rules which covered everything from Gi/No Gi rules, penalties, time limits, legal and illegal techniques etc… I also had to read the NAGA Table Worker & Referee Study Guide and the NAGA Certified Referee guidelines. The NAGA Gi rules are structured around the IBJJF rules so I also had to read the IBJJF rules (42 pages). That is volumes of information. I took the NAGA Certified Referee test which was 50 questions. Many of the questions had multiple answers so in some regards the test may actually be around 100 questions. The test was very difficult and took me about an hour to complete.
Not only is a NAGA referee responsible for adjudicating matches, he/she is also responsible for supervising the ring table and table workers which is an entirely different set of responsibilities including bracketing the competitors and running the time clock. Competitors are bracketed based on age, weight, gender and skill level. There may be many sub divisions of competitors at each ring. The rule sets can vary depending on the age and experience of the competitors. The referee is responsible for everything that takes place at his/her ring and ring table… That’s allot of responsibility!
Saturday was the first day of the tournament and my initial responsibilities were to help at the table. I basically ran the time clock and watched how the divisions were set up and bracketed. I was apprenticing under NAGA’s head referee which was intimidating because he literally wrote NAGA’s no gi rules. Running the time clock was confusing because I had never run one before. Its bit more complicated then starting and stopping the time (which I failed to do in two separate matches). The time clock has two sides corresponding to both competitors. One is red the other green. I had to make sure that I added points or advantage points to the competitor that was earning them and not to his opponent. While I was working the time clock I was also watching the matches that were being refereed in my ring. Watching the head ref at work was pretty amazing because his refereeing was smooth, unobtrusive and flawless. Understanding the rules is crucial for a referee for obvious reasons. When a coach, competitor or parent complains to the referee, the ref must be able to defend his call based upon his concise and clear understanding of the rules. I actually saw this happen twice in my ring when a coach and competitor were complaining about the head Ref’s decision. The head read calmly and politely listened, then succinctly explained his call based upon a specific NAGA rule…no argument, no controversy…case closed!
The inevitable moment came when the head ref asked me if I’d like to ref some matches. To say that I was nervous is an understatement. I referred several matches in the men’s intermediate gi and no gi division. As I refereed, the head referee ran the time clock and corrected any mistakes I made (which were several) like missing points or awarding points that were not earned. Believe it or not the thing that really confused me was remembering which competitor was which. I had a green wrist band on my right wrist and a red wrist band on my left wrist. The athlete to my right is green, to my left is red. That makes perfect sense when the athletes are standing immobile facing each other waiting to start, even a dunce can’t mess that up. The fun starts when they start grappling and rolling all over the mat. For the most part I could see the points as they happened but blew several calls because I became confused about which competitor was green and which was red. When I compete the last thing I want to worry about is bad officiating. If I lose a match because I’ve been beaten fair and square that’s ok. To lose a match however because of a bad call is an entirely different thing. That was always in the back of my mind as I was calling matches. A voice in my head kept saying “don’t mess up, don’t blow this call.” The fact that I was so concerned about making a mistake slowed my decision making process down and made me doubt myself. The head ref was really cool when I messed up and all of my matches ended without anyone flipping out and trying to kill me. I wish I was a good enough writer to convey to you how stressful and difficult referring those matches was.
When I got home Saturday night I was completely demoralized and dejected. I felt as though I had proven myself to be the worst referee in NAGA history. The fact that every one of my mistakes was witnessed live by NAGA’s head referee did nothing but increase my state of depression. I actually thought about not going back to referee the kids divisions on Sunday (which I was told was even harder than the adults). As I lay on my couch thinking about not going back on Sunday, an incident came to mind of a rock climbing experience I had last summer. I had rappelled down a 150’ cliff. Rappelling is not like what you see on TV, it’s very dangerous because if a piece of equipment or gear fails…well you die. Anyway, I had finished the rappel and was using my mechanical ascenders to climb back up the cliff. Using ascenders the way I do is very dangerous as well for the same reasons as rappelling. At about 90’ above the ground I looked over my left shoulder and could see the tree tops way below me and became terrified. I actually became frozen on the rope. I was unable to climb up because I was paralyzed from fear. I could have switched back to rappel and gone down but the gear change from climb to rappel while on a rope is very technical and risky to say the least. I said to myself “God please get me off this rope alive and I swear I’ll never do this again.” As my panic began to rise I started to focus and calm myself. I knew unless I wanted to live the rest of my life stuck on a rope 90’ above the ground there was only one way to go…up. So up I went. I finished the climb and have gone back several times to the same cliff and done the exact same climb. I never quit especially when things get tuff or scary. You can gauge the measure of a man by how he deals with adversity. Does he quit or does he muster up?
Muster up is exactly what I did Sunday at the tournament. I worked the table on Sunday and repeated none of the buffoonish mistakes I had made the day before. I refereed one kid’s match which went off flawlessly. I had a fantastic time Sunday working with the kids. In fact I’d rather referee the kids divisions than the adults. As a parent and coach I understand the mindset of each which helped me when I refereed and worked the table on Sunday. Every time a kid would lose I’d say a kind word or give them a pat on the shoulder. I was actually a bit disappointed when the tournament ended on Sunday because I was having so much fun!
Am I a good referee? Not right now. Will I be a good referee? I can only answer that question this way; I absolutely love being terrible at something when I start it. Being good at something does absolutely nothing for me. What excites and motivates me is the challenge of becoming good at something. When I started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu I would watch the purple, brown and black belts sparring. I knew that I was awful but I determined that I would become very good and I have. When I started rock climbing I was the worst climber at my rock gym and I say this emphatically-one day I will climb Mount Everest.
“Dream Big, Dare Big…Achieve Big”~Jim