Do We Need To Change The Way Matches are Refereed? Maybe a Step Backwards is Progress!

by Joshua Hagen

Having real conversations about sensitive subjects is necessary in order to make progress.  If you don’t have actual conversations between two groups with differing views, you create sides, like two warring tribes.  This is clearly what has happened with identity politics, for example.

Let me first say that this blog is not designed to pit coaches and/or athletes against referees.  If you’ve read my other blogs, you can see that I try to use the same objective eye in all cases, be it towards rule changes, training methods, or coaching techniques.

It is with what I hope is an objective eye that I say I see a systemic issue in the way that judo matches are currently refereed.  Now, I want to be clear: I am in no way putting the blame on the referees themselves here. Referees make mistakes, sure, but we would all make mistakes in those shoes.  As a coach, I’m not without fault either. I get frustrated sometimes, or make stupid decisions.

Below, I have posted a video to show an obviously missed call at a major Canadian National Competition, the Pacific International Championships.  I have edited out the the referee so you can’t see them, and I believe that detail to be unimportant anyway. The issue is not the referee, in my opinion, but rather the system in which they’re forced to operate.

The video shows that this was clearly not an ippon. More to the point, the call was not reviewed, which, given the way things are currently being done, is not surprising. If that match occurred when we had 3 referees on the tatami (two judges in the chair and one referee in the centre) I believe the call would have been overturned.  

Under the older system, the judges at the corner of the mat were very engaged in the match because they simply had to be.  If they got distracted, the athletes may literally have landed right in their laps.  Having one judge in each corner virtually ensured that at least one of them would have had a very good angle on any throw or infraction taking place on the mat.

There is an inherent issue with the refs watching the match from the same angle, seated, and side by side.  The screen is there for clarification, yes, but if two people are both looking from the same angle, and don’t notice anything, will they bother looking at the screen?

I also believe that having two referees so distanced from the action, sitting in chairs behind a table and a screen is just begging for them to lose focus.  If I were one of those referees in a chair I would probably be on my phone writing my next blog, so I get it (and no, I am in no way implying that referees are playing on their phones while at the table!) There are people walking around and chatting or warming up all around the judges during a match. It’s in our nature to be distracted or bored when sitting for longs periods of time. Every year in the U.S., almost a half million people are injured or killed in traffic accidents attributed to distracted driving. I don’t believe that the referees are unprofessional: they’re just human.

Referees today are more educated on how to handle a match than they’ve ever been. They regularly attend refereeing seminars to keep up-to-date on the (now annual) rule changes.  I often speak to high-ranking referees at events to clarify rules for me, as I know they have a better grasp on them than I do. The current system works against referees by distancing them from the action. Refs are stuck in a terrible position while trying to do a tough job, meaning that for all their information and ability, they are actually less effective than ever, however well-informed they may be.

In addition, I feel that judges’ shifts are too long under the current system. The maximum time that one group currently works the mat is 6 matches.  At first glance, this seems like a reasonably brief amount of time. However, 6 matches can easily take 45 minutes to an hour. This is not an insignificant amount of time for someone to be giving their full attention to any one thing, no matter how many short breaks may naturally occur during a set of 6 matches.

Finally, there is no coach-initiated mechanism in place to have a video reviewed.  If a coach asks for a review, they are treated as just some knucklehead who is complaining, rather than a professional coach with a legitimate claim.  If the judges at the table are slightly distracted, or, more likely, if the two judges see the same thing from a near identical angle, they will not raise a concern.  If from that angle the call looks accurate, no flags are raised, and the ref on the tatami won’t ask for a second look.

In the NFL, every single touchdown is quickly reviewed due to their impact on the outcome of a game.  In judo it is infinitely more important to employ video review, as an ippon ends a match, and often means the end of an athlete’s tournament.  

I really believe that no one wants to make the correct call more than the referee, which is why they’re volunteering their time to do it. So what’s the solution? I suggest that we put the referees back at the corners of the tatami, with a volunteer at the table to one side.  When the referees meet over a call and decide that they require a second look, the three of them walk to the table and the volunteer pulls up the required moment in the match.  This is very much how the NHL operates. They have two referees on the ice, and two linesmen. When there is uncertainty on a play, the referees go to the video area, watch the replay, and come to a consensus.  They then clarify the call, and adjust accordingly.

Most of the judo community believes that judges on the mat are unlikely to come back, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be hopeful.  Maybe one step back is actually two steps forward in this case.


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John Fairhall

I totally agree with your comments. I have had many disagreements with many people regarding the changes that seem to me that the rules are being changed for change sake. The changes also seem to be made for a narrow range of players and does not take into consideration every group of players (ie Heavyweights and Junior players).

Amath Kane

Josh this is a great article. I believe if you ask every single Judoka in the world they will agree with what has been said on this article .
Judo refereeing and rules has changed a lot over the years. I am a supporter of the referees back on the mat and just the video as a verification tool .
The other 2 things I would realy like to see changed are :
1- I personally think they should bring back the Yuko call . Calling all the old yuko Score wazari and the Wazari Calls Wazari is one of the most ridiculous decision on Judo specially now that 2 Wazari ends the fight.
2- Given the strength , the athletic abilities of the fighters to construct and work on the kumikata before coming on offense , the kumikata fights is taking more and more a huge place in a judo match hence the risk of conceding à Shido ( penalty) is greater . With the referees having the possibility to double Hansukuma both fighters and end up not having a winner it is a ridiculous call ; It happened at the last Paris tournament during which we did not have a Gold medal winner on the heavy weight category instead we had 2 silver winners. It was a terrible and poor image of our sport seeing the gold medal spot empty and no anthem were heard . Can you imagine that scenario on a final of an Olympic game Judo match , our sport would be the only sport where you can potentially risk not having a winner . When the rules don’t make sense and the system they put in place does not help our sport it is our responsibility to call it out as coaches , referees and athletes.
Well done Josh again great blog .
Amath Kane

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