The above video is from the popular Comedy Central show Tosh.0. It features two young grapplers at the PA State Grappling Championships, held annually at Keystone Oaks high school in Pittsburgh. The video is standard Daniel Tosh irreverence, but yours truly (me) happened to be refereeing this particular match. I am nothing more than a background figure in the video--even family members said to me, "I wasn't sure if that was you"--but this video reminds me of two very important facts:
1. Jiu-Jitsu can be a safe sport if trained properly. Education, respect, and maturity are important qualities to foster on the mat. Kids will be kids, but as adults and coaches we need to make sure that children understand the potential dangers and the competition rules.
2. Refereeing children's matches sucks. Hard.
Santino Achille, one of my instructors, perfectly described why refereeing kids can be a miserable experience. He said, "If an adult doesn't tap and gets his arm broken, big deal. It's his fault. I don't feel bad. But if a kid gets hurt, that's terrible. I feel responsible. I'd rather ref two heavyweights that want to kill each other than two five year olds that can't tie their own belts."
And it's true. Young children often don't fully grasp the idea of a jiu-jitsu match, and skill levels often vary dramatically. A child can get hurt as a result of pure innocent ignorance. They just don't know any better. Pre-teens and teens often know better but neglect to apply that knowledge. Testosterone is this great new thing to them, and they will ride that raging bull no matter how loud their rodeo clown conscience is screaming for them to jump off.
Coaches and parents also become a problem. As a rule, I stop a children's match when I believe that a child should be tapping. Don't tell me that your kid is flexible. Don't tell me that he is good at escaping. And definitely don't yell "don't tap!" to your child from the sidelines. As the only legal adult on the mat, health and safety is my primary concern. If the armbar or kimura looks dangerous, we're done. Both are winners: one gets a plastic medal while the other gets to avoid having reconstructive surgery before he figures out that Santa Claus isn't real.
The match featured on Tosh.0 was part of one of the first tournaments I ever refereed. I was confident in my knowledge of jiu-jitsu and of the rules, but I am a shy person by nature. Being out on the mat with parents and coaches and my coaches critiquing my every call terrified me. When the slam happened, I felt guilty for the blonde boy's pain (thankfully he was not hurt), and I had to make a tough call: was the slam legal, and do I disqualify the other boy? At the time, I could not decide if the slam constituted excessive force. It happened quickly, and I did not have the benefit of reviewing any video (seeing it now, the slam is clearly illegal, but my interaction with the child and coach afterward make me believe that it was not malicious). Two coaches stared at me, each expecting the call to be in their favor.
I looked to my head instructor, Sonny Achille, for input. He said to me, "Listen, kid, I didn't see it happen. Even if I did, it's your call. You're the referee. You wouldn't be out there if you didn't know what you're doing."
So I called for a disqualification. And the world didn't end.
Be nice to your referees, please, especially if children are involved.