Beyond the Comfort Zone

About a month ago I was invited to help with a small tournament about half an hour’s drive from my house. Another karate organization was hosting this tournament in the gym of a private school. The little tournament, held this past weekend (5/19/18) was for children to learn about what a tournament is like in hopes of generating more interest in competing in regional, maybe even National, tournaments. I thought it was a great opportunity to get more experience with judging, especially because I didn’t judge for the Oregon State Qualifier in favor of focusing on competing.  Yes, I got the judging time that I was after, but it turned out I got so much more. It was a much-needed kick out of my comfort zone.

I earned my USA-NKF Judge D license in February  and so far I’ve been declining opportunities to do more than what I’m actually licensed to do. At local tournaments it’s OK for a Judge D to do more than just throw flags. I have to confess I didn’t study all the things a referee needs to know. I had not practiced the hand signals and calls that a referee uses. Up until this little tournament I was coasting along, worrying more about developing an eye for good points than anything else.

I arrived early and helped out with a few last minute chores. During a break I was informed of my duties. I was to referee as much as possible. My dismay at the prospect of refereeing was quite obvious.

“I haven’t studied how to be a referee!” I whined at the tournament organizer.

“I read your blog. I know how much you value learning. This is a time for you and others to learn. You will make mistakes. We all will make mistakes. That’s OK. This is not a high-stakes tournament. I wanted this to not only be a learning experience for our children, but also for you and the others who will help out today. Now, do you know how to start a match?”


“Do you know how to stop a match?”


“Do you know how to call points?”


“Do you know how to resume a match?”


“Do you know how to close a match?”


The tournament director assured me those calls and signals were enough to start with. I was assured that the kansa (who oversees the judges and referee) would prompt me when needed. Most of all, I was told that nobody was expecting me to be perfect – in fact, it was a given that I would make mistakes. This was a time and a place for me to do exactly that, and to learn and grow in my skills. Both gentlemen who were serving as kansa(s) for the two rings were kind enough to walk through a match between imaginary contestants with me for a few minutes. They gave me some much-needed feedback and then went back to overseeing the final preparations for the day. I spent time rehearsing some things on my own until the start of the tournament.

I was surprised when I learned that one of my fellow students from my own dojo would be refereeing for the first time that day too. She has worn a judge/referee uniform more often than I have, so I had always assumed that she had refereed at least a few times at local tournaments. Nope – like me she had only ever thrown flags and had declined opportunities to referee.  I was glad someone else was in the same boat I was. We reassured one other and cracked jokes. I felt much better.

Competitors were divided into age groups. Kata (forms) are performed first. Judging kata is coming much more naturally to me than judging kumite (sparring). For kata competitions there are five judges. One sits front and center, the other four sit at the corners of the mats. After two competitors complete their kata(s) the front and center judge calls for a decision, gives two blasts of the whistle, and all five judges lift either a red or blue flag to indicate which competitor they are voting for. This sounds simple, but… The front and center judge has to be aware of when the four judges have taken their flags off their laps and are ready to signal their votes. The front and center judge has to lift his or her flag at the same time as the other judges – which means delaying a little after blowing the whistle. I’d had a little practice with this at a tournament last month and got more this time around.

Refereeing sparring matches is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. The section for kumite rules in the WKF rulebook  is a heck of a lot longer than for kata. There are quite a few calls and hand signals that a referee needs to know, most of these are for calling warnings and penalties However, we were using modified rules – we simply gave a verbal warning on the first offense. I personally didn’t need to use signals for warnings because none of the competitors I refereed repeated their fouls. Overall, the number of actual warnings were rare owing to the good sportsmanship exhibited by the children.

The ideal situation for sparring competitions is to have four judges sitting at the corners of the mats and the referee moves freely around the mat – and, of course, there will be a kansa to oversee the officials. At one point we had only a kansa and three judges/referees. I’ve seen this situation in every tournament. Some officials get sick. Some leave to coach their students. Some officials go on break (especially lunch break). Some have other places to be in the afternoon. Crazy people like me both work in the ring and compete. When there are four corner judges, the referee does not get to vote on which competitor has scored a point. I was thrown for a loop when, later in the tournament, we were down to two judges and me. Suddenly, I, as referee, had a vote.  There’s a hand signal to go with it that I most definitely hadn’t practiced. I still need more practice with this situation. I was grateful for the feedback and tips I received.

The growing and stretching and moving beyond my comfort zone didn’t stop at refereeing. No indeed. The dojo(s) (karate schools) these kids are from also teach a form of Sumo wrestling. I backed out of judging Sumo at first, but after watching a division, I understood what merited a score and how to signal it. So – yeah, suddenly I was judging a form of fighting that I’d never even watched before. I have to say that watching those nimble young kids grapple was fun. No, they didn’t wear, um, whatever that’s called around their loins – they simply wore their gi(s) (uniforms) and head protection. It looked like fun and a lot of hard work. I never in a million years would’ve guessed that someday I’d judge Sumo bouts!

I also learned about giving the athletes their medals. I hadn’t thought about it or noticed it before, but there are little things that make this ceremony go smoothly. After one division had done their kata, kumite, and sumo, I had the honor of actually hanging medals around the athletes’ necks as their parents looked on proudly. I hope we succeeded in getting these children and their parents more interested in tournaments.

Sure I was a little nervous, but I grew more confident as the day went on. I knew my kansa had my back. And yes, I messed up. But so did everyone who stepped into the role of referee that day. No harm was done, and we all learned and grew in skill. That was the whole point. I was very impressed that most of the judges were children. They were good judges and they were every bit as mature as us adults when it came to gracefully accepting feedback and learning from mistakes.  My friend from my own dojo did very well too.  She was working in the other ring, but from what I saw she refereed most of the matches – even the Sumo matches.  I think all of us were more confident at the end of the day than we were at the beginning.

Because this was a tiny tournament, we were done in the early afternoon. The two karateka from my own dojo had places to be and so took their leave. After cleanup I was the only representative of my organization to go out to lunch. Having fun trying new types of food, discussing the competitions, and talking shop was a good way for us to strengthen ties with one another. We have been and will be working together for a lot of tournaments to come.

This time that I invested went way beyond just myself. Of course there were personal takeaways. Yes, there was growth in my skill. I experienced far more growth than I originally anticipated. But so much more was accomplished that day by everyone, not just myself.  The children were happy, their parents were proud. Those of us who were officials invested in one another and reinforced the ties between our organizations. We’ll see the effects of that day for years to come. Who knows? Maybe this was the first tournament for a future Olympic athlete.  It was an honor to be a part of this event.

Author: Joelle White

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

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