The Unwinnable Job of Being A Referee

Reffing, it seems glamorous in principle. You get paid to watch BJJ, get to wear one of those fancy wrist band things and most importantly shout commands in Portuguese… even when you’re at an event where people barely have a grasp on English, never mind another language (*cough Liverpool UK).

In reality it’s very different. The going rate for a referee in the UK is £120-150. Sounds good right? Deduct travel costs, uniform and divide it by the hours you’re there and you’re barely earning minimum wage. Now add being stood up all day, stress of not messing up and the inevitability of somebody giving you grief… not to mention having to concentrate for hours and hours at a time. So you still wanna be a referee right?

I started reffing in 2014/5 as a blue belt after completing a UKBJJA accredited course and test. Since then I’ve refereed 1000s of matches, from tiny competitions in a gym all the way up to reefing main events of submission only matches on Flo Grappling. Over that time there are a couple of things I’ve figured out;

  • The white belt who starts on top or ends up on top in the first 30 seconds usually wins the match
  • Fat guys and white belts seem to gravitate towards americanas
  • Belt level doesn’t dictate refereeing ability. Some of the best refs I know were blue belts (with a lot of experience)… the worst I’ve seen are Brazilian black belts
  • If you’re drawing with like a minute left look busy! After 4-5hours of reffing recalling what happened at the start of a match can often be hard to remember
  • Heel hooks are now trendy, but sweeping yourself to go for a footlock when you aren’t good at them is now even trendier
  • Every kids match is the world championship finals to parents, regardless of the fact you’re likely in a school gymnasium in the arse end of nowhere
  • By far the most stressful thing in the world is reffing kids. You risk serious injury to a child if you get it wrong and won’t even get thanked from the parents… in fact you’ll likely get screamed at by parents for ‘saving’ their kid from harm
  • On that note, don’t expect parents or even coaches for that matter to know the rules. I’ve had black belt coaches screaming for sweep points for a reversal from side control and parents argue that there kid should have had 2 points and won when they lost by submission
  • Watching someone’s recording on their phone is pointless. You’re either going to get into an argument about who is right, or spot a mistake that you can’t change after the fact
  • You’re going to make mistakes… the marker of a good ref is how many you make and the severity of them. It’s for this exact reason IBJJF have the 3 ref system for world championship finals

After my glowing recommendation of being a ref you might be wondering why the hell anyone does it. For some its money, others do it as a kind of sacrifice for the greater good. I personally ref because it makes me a better competitor and I get to speak to friends from the BJJ community I don’t see that often and make some new pals along the way. In all, if you’re a competitor, coach, parent or spectator do me a favour and try to remember everything I’ve listed above.

Reffing isn’t an easy, or a particularly rewarding endeavour but without refs competitions would struggle to function and you’d be relying on organisers (who likely won’t be any better) officiating matches.

Lee Herbert

BJJ Purple belt, hobbyist competitor and referee. I write words about grappling / BJJ as a creative outlet from my day job where my focus is on coverage of mainstream sporting, entertainment and news events

Lee Herbert has 17 posts and counting. See all posts by Lee Herbert