I don't know how many times I have heard from a parent or a coach that a referee had somehow made a bad call and inexplicably cost their child 1st place.
What's even worse is that I myself have been one of those coaches questioning the referee's decision and I have been positive that I was right and they were wrong. That is not to say that judging errors don't happen, but to hear most parents or coaches tell it, their competitor was completely ripped off and the judges should be taken to the parking lot and run over a few dozen times. I have been tempted to use the response I heard one official use years ago when approached by a parent. The judge simply stated that he was sorry but when he had walked in the door that morning, he had decided he was going to rip one child off that day and her child just happened to be the first one he had seen. While the judge was joking it does illustrate a point that needs to be made. Most judges show up to volunteer their time at tournaments and are not there to make sure that your child or student doesn't win, they are simply doing the best job they can without a lot of thanks from many people. In my experience there are three areas that in most cases can be the source for most controversies in the ring; Experience, Judgment Calls, and Angles.
Above: ProMAC Judges following an Official's Certification Course
While it would be preferable to have the most experienced referees in every ring at every tournament the fact of the matter is that with the time demands of home, dojo, and life it doesn't always allow every tournament promoter to have the best referees all of the time. In fact, most tournaments don't even know who their referees will be until thirty minutes before the tournament starts. This is horrible for the competitors who spend their hard earned money to compete and end up getting judged by people who have not seen the inside of a dojo for almost a decade. What is even worse is when I have seen promoters desperate to fill a ring with judges start enlisting the help of karate parents who themselves have never trained to sit in a ring. Just because they are at tournaments a lot and have watched their child train does not mean they are qualified to be a judge. Just as bad are the judges who pop out of the woodwork when a big tournament comes to town. They seem to show up to help with eight, nine, or ten stripes on their belt and nobody either knows them or they have not seen them at a tournament in over twenty years.
This is probably the hardest thing about judging to explain to parents and coaches. The word judge actually describes the job that we as officials are required to do. Our judgment of a form or fight is based on our own unique experiences as martial artist growing up. While as an official I try not to bias myself to one form of thinking, I know that my experiences as a student and instructor do have an impact on me when I am judging. Having these opinions is not wrong, they are what make each and every one of us unique as people and officials. Basically it comes down to my opinion of what happened in the competitors form or sparring match. But, I alone don't make that decision. All tournaments have at least three to five judges in the ring so hopefully between all of the combined experience in the ring the correct judgment will be made.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been judging and I have had a parent or a coach wonder how I didn't see the point their competitor scored. Most of the time it comes down to angles. Sometimes the judges have a better angle on one technique than another. A good example of this would be years ago when I was attending a tournament in Omaha, NE. I had one of my students I was coaching during a sparring match. Every time he would attack he would hit the other kid with a clean back fist, but the judges would point to the other kid for the point. I knew two of the judges had almost as much national experience judging as I do and I could not believe they were missing that many calls. I was so mad when I left the ring that I immediately got the video tape from one of the parents and was preparing to show it to the tournament promoter. It was a good thing I looked at it first. The video was shot from the other side of the ring and what I found out when watching it was that my student was getting hit cleanly with reverse punch every time he threw his back fist. This really helped me to understand why there are so many questions about calls from parents and coaches. The old adage is call what you see. Sometimes that means that the judges have a bad angle on the fight but it can also mean that the coaches and parents have a bad angle also.
David Clifton has refereed over 1,500 MMA, Kickboxing, and boxing matches. He has also been the center official and training official for WAKO USA, NBL Super Grands, World Sport Karate Federation, World Karate Commission (WKC), and many NASKA national events.