Judging at Nationals

It’s no secret that I’m the lowest of the low in the world of Karate judging. I got my USA-NKF Judge D license just a few months ago. I would never have dared volunteer to judge at Nationals (2018) if it hadn’t been for one of my sensei(s) who, after coming home from judging the US Open, said, “It was the best judging experience ever!” I figured if I wasn’t wanted or needed at Nationals someone would let me know. I should’ve known I’m not the first rube to volunteer to judge at Nationals.

There was a lot of mentoring going on for anyone who needed it. I was very grateful for that. The more I learn, the better I become. I’ve heard stories about ring controllers who are mean, who chew officials out and deride them. I’m sure someday that will happen to me too, and I hope I’ll have the right attitude about it. I have been told that I can ask to be assigned to a different ring. I hope that will never be necessary. I feel badly enough when I make a mistake, and I feel a lot more confident if someone calmly teaches me how to perform better. If I’m treated with respect I’m a lot more willing to push myself out of my comfort zone.

The first day was incredible – the experience was so valuable that if I’d had to turn around and go home that night – missing out on competing, mind you – I’d have been happy to have had just that one day at Nationals. I was already somewhat familiar with judging kobudo (weapons) thanks to my online acquaintance, “The Stick Chick” Jackie Bradbury and a little prior “sink or swim” experience my first tournament judging. I spent most of the morning judging weapons and received a lot of valuable tips on what to look for. I must confess, though, that I abandoned ship rather than judge iado (sword).

I changed rings with someone who was familiar with iado, and lo and behold, I got to judge the very division I’d been hoping to judge: mentally disabled 18-34 year olds. My daughter’s division,  if she ever wants to compete at Nationals. I had to hold back tears as I watched these incredible people who have come so far and overcome so much. After judging them and the visually impaired adults, I was back in my “home” ring again. I was delighted to judge team kata, and found that came just as naturally to me as judging individual kata. With the exception of a little kobudo, I’ve never had the experience of judging these specialized divisions back home!

I skipped two days of judging because I knew I’d make a lousy judge on my competition days.  I didn’t judge for the Oregon state qualifier because I needed that competition in order to go to Nationals, and I was nervous. I can get away with both judging and competing in the fun tournaments. But facing a high-pressure competition later in the day is another thing altogether. While waiting for my division to be called to staging, I still worked on my judging skills by watching the elite divisions. I remembered how I’d prepared to earn my judging license by watching the judges and referees work together. This is still a valuable thing for me to do when I get the luxury. There’s still plenty more for me to learn!

Judging kumite (sparring) doesn’t come naturally for me. I approached the final day of Nationals with some trepidation. It took me awhile and some respectful feedback before I hit my stride. I also got a bit of a morale boost.

Officials are forbidden to work in the ring when there is a competitor from their home state. For one match I was swapped out with someone who had such a conflict of interest. The score ended up tied and the first-point advantage had been taken away due to a minor foul, so the referee signaled for us judges to vote on who should win. I threw the only flag for Red (competitors wear red or blue belts and judges have red and blue flags). I admit I had a little black storm cloud hovering over my head as I went back to my “home” ring, but I heard someone from my own organization call out a commendation for my call. The little black storm cloud evaporated and the sun came out.

I felt more confident. Good thing, too because next thing I knew, I was judging Advanced teenagers. GULP! The cream of that crop will be 2019’s elites. 2019’s elites will be representing the United States in 2020, when Karate will make its Olympic debut. I had to shove that pressure aside in order to focus on the other officials and the athletes. I was grateful that most communication among the officials is nonverbal because it was LOUD in that convention center. I was relieved whenever I got to sit in Judge 1 and Judge 4 positions because, while most coaches were wonderful, there were some who, uh, got a little excited. I don’t blame them, though – we all were well aware of what was at stake for these athletes.

Because there is so much at stake for the athletes, there are strict rules of etiquette that must be followed. I’ve already mentioned that one must not officiate when a competitor in your ring is from your own organization, state, or country. There’s more, and sometimes it’s hard. Many athletes and I are used to the nice little tradition of shaking hands after the division is finished. We had to stop that tradition in the name of objectivity. I recognize this helps prevent accusations of favoritism, but it made me a little sad to turn those kids away. When I was in a gi (karate uniform) for my competition, I couldn’t fraternize with the officials I’d worked with the day before (ironically, my kumite division ended up in the same ring I’d worked). When I was in an official’s uniform, I couldn’t chat with friends who were wearing gi(s) or track suits (which is what coaches wear). Even when I was just in shorts and T-shirt practicing kata in the areas set aside for that purpose, I had to be careful not to spend too much time chatting. It’s hard, because I truly do love networking, but I understand the need for judges to be beyond reproach in their objectivity.

During the gold/silver rounds for the elite groups on the last night, my fellow officials and I were rewarded for our hard work. The highest among us got to referee and judge these amazing athletes, and the rest of us officials got the best seats in the house to watch the action. I had a blast watching some excellent karate, and I was sad when it was all over. I said goodbye to old friends and new, and left knowing that I was a better judge than I was when I turned in my passbook at the pre-tournament officials’ meeting.

P. S. Most people ask me if I get paid for judging, so I’ll go ahead and address that. The answer is officials get free lunch and, usually, a small stipend. Since earning my credentials I’ve made back my license fee and what I paid for my uniform (mostly assembled from thrift stores and Black Friday sales). Local non-profit booster clubs often help officials with the costs of food and lodging for national and international events.  But we pay the vast majority of our expenses ourselves.  We’re not exactly the National Football League!

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

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