I have reffed at in-house tournaments briefly, but this past weekend I got to experience "real" refereeing at a "real" tournament for the first time. And, by real I mean "really stressed out about making mistakes" and "REALLY worried about being yelled at."
I'm happy to report it went smoothly and I feel like I kept mistakes to a minimum. Here's what I learned...
Random quick notes: wear layers, it will be cold in the morning and by afternoon you'll be roasting hot. Also bring a sandwich or two and fruit, unless you don't mind waiting for lukewarm pizza.
I couldn't have done it had I not competed before, and attended many tournaments, and worked many many tournament matches as a scorer/ring coordinator. I feel like that level and depth of experience filtered into my subconscious and I was able to better communicate with my scorer/timekeeper and table staff, how to predict the action, understand how the score was being earned, and how to carry myself professionally.
What does that mean? First I should say that as a relatively new (1 year) purple belt I am just now edging in to being qualified to ref. The most challenging aspects of scoring are kids' matches, takedown scrambles, and sweeps, for me. I feel like being a purple belt is a bare minimum, to really grasp when you are in someone's guard and when you have passed or when you get a takedown or when they've pulled guard at the optimal moment and whether you've maintained a dominant position.
I think having been a scorer/timekeeper gave me a better appreciation for how to ref as well-- how to make sure hand signals are clear and held for long enough, how to communicate "oops" and how to get peoples' attention without making too big a deal out of the fact that you caught them woolgathering... I know on occasion when it happened to me as a scorer, I was so grateful not to be called out on the carpet, and I tripled my efforts to be alert and attentive and not get distracted just watching all that jiu jitsu.
I feel like having been a ring coordinator gave me essential skills to help my (at times, less-experienced and at times brand-new) table staff figure out how to run brackets, how to follow complex arrangements for loser brackets and running multiple divisions at once, and how to handle questions from the audience and competitors.
(I did get frustrated with a guy who was trying his best to figure out how to do the bracket, and eventually replaced him with someone else more meticulous. Advice for all table workers: DO NOT MESS WITH THE BRACKET. Do not change competitors around, do not add names in "blank spots" and do not alter anything except the order in which prearranged matches happen, as is necessary when competitors are not present on time.)
You wouldn't believe how much it helped me to tell myself "Ok, red is in green's guard, so if there's a pass that's 3 points for red. If there's a sweep it's 2 points for green." In the adrenaline of the moment, knowing ahead of time whether you'll use right or left hand to hold up the score really helped me be smooth and clear for my table people.
More importantly, I was always worried about the safety of my competitors, spectators, and people on neighboring mats. I kept my body in the best place where I could watch for scoring positions (such as being able to see whether they got both hooks in) and illegal grips and near-submissions (less a concern with adults because I won't tap for a grownup absent crazy circumstances, though I did worry about chokes a bit). I also focused on using my body to visually cue the rolls to stay on the mat, to protect the table, to protect other competitors or spectators, and to keep other refs with their backs turned safe.
I tried very hard to carry myself professionally. I have learned from watching many many tournament matches that sometimes refs let their eyes stray to the next mat. I tried very hard to focus only on my mat and my current match. I tried to have good posture, silly as that sounds, though the one photograph with me in it looks like I have an enormous spare tire around my waist, thank you dumb tournament tshirt. I always visibly counted out the 3 seconds of dominance before giving points, by holding a hand with the fingers extended (like 2 for a sweep) low along my leg and swinging it distinctly to measure the beats before putting my arm up straight and holding it up until I saw that the score was adjusted properly. I didn't get on my cell phone except for when I was on a break and someone else reffed. (I did, however, stuff my face with pizza between matches, and I feel like that was kind of pushing it to start a match with a mouthful.)
OMG KIDS' MATCHES... In my first four kids' matches I had 3 little ones crying because they got armbarred. I tapped for them, but not quickly enough apparently, and I FELT LIKE CRAP. After that I jumped in much faster, and fortunately only one parent complained. That's a good complaint to me-- it means I acted to put myself in the way of danger and injury. I'm fine with that. Afterwards, I had some kids crying-- but they were crying from feeling overwhelmed halfway through the match and not from being hurt. Or they were crying from anger -- "But I didn't tap!" Look, your arm was locked out all the way... it's my job to keep you safe. And part of that was being willing to be face-down-to-the-mat so I could see what the grips were and whether little arms were in danger.
The thing I loved about kids' matches, though, was I felt a real opportunity to help make their tournament experience a kinder, gentler, more fun one. I could clown around a little before things got started, especially when I saw little lower lips trembling and big eyes looking scared or sad. I often got down to their level for hugs, before and after the matches, and more than once I picked up a little baby and held them while they cried for a second before passing them off to mom/dad/coach.
So... that was my day on Saturday, 8am-4pm, and I couldn't praise Seth Daniels and Fight to Win more thoroughly for running a nice, professional, prompt tournament. I am excited about being able to ref again :)