Tournament Judging

Tournament Judging


Acting as judge or referee at tournaments is a function some consider a chore while others welcome the opportunity to be involved in competition while not as a competitor.

Personally, I would rather be competing than judging. But for a variety of reasons, I have not competed for over 10 years and have ended up as a center ref at almost every tournament I have attended in recent years.

While it can be argued that successful competitors are more likely to become good referees – just as skilled Karate students are more likely to become good instructors – this is not always the case. One does need a good eye and sound judgement to be a good judge. And these skills are greatly enhanced by a solid foundation of years of training. But even the most experienced, talented Karateka is not very valuable as a judge if he/she is not familiar with the rules, hand-signals or protocol of the tournament. Although I prefer competing to judging, I do welcome the opportunity to use my experience and approach this “duty” with enthusiasm. And, as with teaching, showing a passion for what you are doing tends to result in others also showing enthusiasm.

Roles of Officials:

Chief Arbitrator = Judge
Chief Judge/Referee = Sheriff / Chief of Police
Judges = Police / Deputies
Scorekeepers/Timekeepers = Administrative staff at the Police Station
Remember that the moto of many police forces is “to serve and protect.” That is also the purpose of the tournament officials.


  • Corner Judges should always have an opinion. There is no shame in admitting you could not see or you do not think anything qualified for a score or warning. When the center ref stops the action, your flags should be showing your opinion, not just sitting on your lap/legs.
  • Safety First. Stop violence or bad control at first sign. Give warnings, or even disqualification, if someone is risking serious injury, even if no contact has been made.
  • Center ref should speak loudly and clearly. Don’t know the Japanese? Using correct and clear terminology in English is better than using Japanese incorrectly or unclearly. Make sure scoring table can see, hear and understand the signals and verbal calls.

Kumite-specific tips:

  • Long sleeves may hide poor technique.
  • Quick/large withdrawal of punching hand does not contribute to value of punch.
  • Flashy kicks are worth little more than their entertainment value if the hip is not properly engaged. This is the same as for punches and strikes.
  • Base scoring on technical abilities/performance, not raw strength or athletic ability.
  • Center ref should move where he can see and where corner judges can see.
  • Center ref should make sure all corner judges have whistle in mouth, back straight, eyes center and are alert, before match (re)starts.

Kata-specific tips:

  • Long belt hanging down near the floor gives the illusion of a low stance.
  •  Shorter people appear to have lower stances.
  • Know the scoring range. If you are in charge of the ring, make sure all corner judges know the range and that they should use this entire range instead of clustering all the scores within just a few tenths of a point.
  • Kata should be scored on technique, etc. Higher scores should not be given for a poor rendition of Unsu than a fantastic Heian Shodan.

The value of good scorekeepers & timekeepers

These people are in charge of scoring, etc. Judges have much to think about. Competent people at the table can make a huge difference. Do not underestimate nor underappreciate the efforts and worth of these people.

Organizing a tournament

It is a lot of work. If you are organizing a large tournament or camp, delegating duties is important, often absolutely necessary. Find competent people to help and remind them how much you appreciate their assistance.
For more on tournaments, please see:
Value of Tournament Competition

Training for Team Competition

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published August 2009)