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Welcome to the Big League, Rookie

By Tim Pierson, USWOA Board of Directors, 04/29/16, 9:45AM MDT


So you want to be a mat chairman. Are you prepared?


27 April 2016

The year was 2014.  I was reffing my first world championship, the CISM (Military) World Championships in Ft Dix, NJ.  I had a couple of months to prepare, hone my referee and judge skills, review videos, and study the rule book.  I was determined to be the best referee and judge I could possibly be.   Well the big day came and as I walked around the venue, I kept saying to myself, “dude, how cool is this?”  We started the competition and like I planned, I was a referee and judge; living like a rock-star.  Things were going great for me and I was having the time of my life.  What the heck could go wrong?  Yep, you guessed it, my fun-filled-rock-star world exploded right in front of me.  What happened you ask?  Let me tell you, my mat chairman/leader got caught cheating.  I’m thinking; oh, this is really bad.  I quickly sat myself in a chair so I could watch and not get caught in the frag pattern.  Sitting there, I’m thinking, this is really going to get interesting; little did I know how interesting.  Our delegate was very angry.   After the delegate disqualified my mat chairman/leader from the competition, I hear, “Tim, come here.”  Who did he say?  ME?!!!  I walked over to the delegate and reported in.  “Yes Sir?”  “Tim, you are now the mat chairman/leader of mat two.”  Before I could utter a word, the delegate turned and walked back to his table.  Hold the phone!!!!  Did you just say I am now the mat chairman/leader for mat two?  ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!!  I’m only a category-3 and there are other category-1’s on my mat. Besides, I’ve only prepared to be a referee and judge, I’m not ready to sit in the chair let alone lead a mat.  So I sit down, take out a blank piece of paper and stare at it like a crystal ball hoping the answers to all my questions will appear.  No such luck, I had a broken piece of paper.  What do I do now?  I was so over-whelmed, I didn’t know where to start.  Then, a friendly voice broke my trance and asked if I was ok.  That friendly voice was John Heyman.  John was managing the table on my mat.  I looked at John and said, “I’m fine, but can you help me, I don’t want to screw this up John.”  For the next two days, John welcomed this rookie to the big leagues and quietly put me through a crash course on mat chairmanship, all while I was chairing world championship bouts.  No one ever knew what was occurring, until now.  So why did I share that story with you?  Because I don’t want you to get caught off guard and unprepared like I did.  I want you to be ready when you are called upon. 

Now I’d “sat in the chair” at various tournaments and had the misconception being a chairman was the easiest position of the three.  During my crash course at the world championships that ridiculous thought was eliminated in a nanosecond; I quickly learned being a true mat chairman is way more complex and difficult than I had ever imagined.  A chairman must not only pay attention to the action on the mat, the referee team and the table; a true chairman must pay attention to both coaches corners; what’s occurring behind the coaches; and with whom; what’s occurring with the off-duty referees; what wrestlers are on-deck; and resolve conflict without making matters worse.  I think most believe, like I did, the chairman just sits there, makes sure the score keeper puts up the correct score, watches the time, settles referee/judge scoring disagreements and confirms passivity and that’s it.  How little they really know. 

So who is the chairman/leader and how do you become one?  The chairman is the referee that is in charge of the bout and the mat leader is in charge of the mat.  A mat chairman/leader must know the rules, and procedures very well.   Essentially, a chairman is a jack-of-all-trades, and a master-of-everything.  The very first step towards chairmanship is having fundamentally sound referee and judge skills. If you’re not fundamentally sound, your weaknesses as a referee and judge will be exposed when you become a chairman.  So let’s start our journey to becoming a chairman. We’re going to take a building block approach toward chairmanship. First, you build your foundation as a referee by developing and refining your mat mechanics, philosophies, and thought processes.  As a judge, you’ll build upon your referee foundation and develop and refine your decision-making skills; your understanding of what’s occurring in a bout, and your ability to assess how passivity, cautions, white paddle and options affect the bout.  All of these critical skills are essential to becoming a true chairman. 

Ok, so you’re a fundamentally sound referee and judge, now what? That’s a great question.  Trust me when I tell you, there is a huge difference between “sitting as the mat chairman” and “being the mat chairman”.   Sitting in the chair entails nothing more than keeping score, making sure the correct score is on the score board and watching the clock to ensure accuracy. Folks, you are adding no value to the bout or the referee team.  Now being a true mat chairman, you will have things to think about you hadn’t had to be aware of as a referee or judge.  Yes, you’ll keep score, watch the time, and resolve conflict between the referee and judge.  But now you’ll have to deal with the coaches, understand why a call was made, even if you don’t agree with it, and provide an answer; resolve conflict without making things worse; be aware of who’s on-deck and what high level coaches are in your area.  A high level bout will have high level coaches, have the ability to work with multiple personalities on your team effectively (sometimes the multiple personalities are in the same person), know when a conference is needed and when it’s not; have the ability to see mistakes that others did not.  Decide if you should rotate your people or assign each bout.  Decide if you should let everyone work as a chairman on your mat or only a select few.  Have you properly completed your evaluations?  Have you provided mentoring to the young referees on your mat? Do you fully understand any problems on your mat will fall directly on you?  

While you’re thinking about all of those items above and are fully engaged in a bout, don’t lose sight of your judge.  The judge may be trying to communicate with you or be giving you an option.  It’s very easy to get lost in thought and forget about the judge.  One of your responsibilities as a chairman is to ensure the par terre starts are fair.  If you see one of the wrestlers not setting up correctly, stop the bout and announce, “Red is not correct.”  Inform the referee to correct the situation.  The referee may not have seen what you are seeing.  Do not blindly let the wrestlers get an unfair advantage and sit there and think, that silly referee doesn’t know how to start them in par terre.  As a chairman, you will be involved with passivity and fleeing the hold.  One small trick I use as a chairman, I use a shot counter.  I simply put tick-marks on my bout sheet to indicate when a wrestler has made a legitimate scoring attempt.  This helps me when passivity offers are made.  It’s very simple, yet effective, especially late in a bout when fleeing the hold starts creeping into the bout.  I can quickly assess the entire bout through the score and my tick marks.

In my opinion, the two most important traits of being a true chairman are respect and professionalism; I cannot over-emphasize these two traits enough.  If you want to be respected, you must be respectful and professional.  Believe me I know, dealing with coaches can be difficult at times, however, use proper protocol and be respectful.   One key point, coaches are not the enemy.  We want to improve our working relationships with the coaches.  We’re all working toward the same goal, helping our wrestlers achieve the maximum of their ability.  Wrestling is a very emotional sport and coaches are emotionally invested in their wrestlers, we are not.  Coaches are going to talk, yell, clap, cheer, etc.  They are going to try and help their wrestler, it’s not personal; we’d do the same thing if we were a coach, so don’t over react to everything a coach says or does.  If a coach begins to direct his/her focus on you verses the wrestlers, you have the ability to deal with this issue; maintain your professionalism and be respectful.  Your ability to professionally deal with coaches will determine where you go nationally.  If a coach approaches the table respectfully, listen to their question.  If you can’t answer their question; DO NOT MAKE SOMETHING UP; period, end of story!  Coaches are pretty smart and making something up to appease them is disrespectful toward the coach and a knock on your professionalism.  If a mistake was made, own it.  A coach may not be happy, but they will respect your honesty.  Look, no one can take your professionalism, only you can give it away. 

Chairman skills, like our referee and judge skills, are not learned over night.  They will take time, mentoring, and education to properly develop.  Hopefully, you can appreciate why being a fundamentally sound referee and judge is so important.  Will you make mistakes as a chairman?  I’m fairly confident you will; we all have.  A great educational opportunity for all referees is the Officials Education Program (OEP), specifically the M1C OEP conducted in Fargo.  This forum is specifically designed to help M1C’s make the transition into chairmanship.  A host of chairman topics are discussed in order to help you take the next step toward becoming a chairman, I highly encourage you to attend this OEP.

So we’ve discussed being a chairman on the national level.  Let’s take it up one more level to international chairmanship.  Internationally, the mat chairman is a highly respected position.  When you are at an international tournament, you should always respect who is in that position.  Yes, I have been to international tournaments where my mat chairman couldn’t lead a silent prayer, but he was the mat chairman and I showed him the respect his position deserved.  As a category 1 or 2, don’t be surprised if you are identified as a mat chairman.  Depending on the UWW delegate in charge and the size pf the tournament, you could quickly find yourself as the chairman.  Additionally, when it comes to making assignments, it will depend on the UWW delegate and the tournament.  The larger the tournament; more than likely, the UWW delegate will assign bouts.  If you are a chairman, and the UWW delegate assigns bouts, DO NOT CHANGE THE ASSIGNMENT.  That’s a quick way to get sat down and possibly downgraded.  Smaller tournaments, you may be the one assigning bouts. 

Earlier we discussed our increased responsibilities as a mat chairman.  In addition to our national responsibilities, an international chairman/leader has an additional set of items to be aware of.  First, you must show confidence – be in control of the mat.  If you are put in charge; take charge; but be fair and call what you think.  You need to be very mindful of who is wrestling and what country you’re in.  Be aware of country politics, who’s at war with who (e.g. Russia and Ukraine); are there religious implications (e.g.Iran and Israel); do countries have a long standing hatred of each other (e.g. Armenia and Turkey).  You need to be mindful of these things so you can anticipate potential problem bouts, and don’t assign a referee team that will add to a potential conflict on the mat. Can you imagine, in Fargo, if we had to consider which states were at war with each other or which states had long standing hatred of each other or which states had religious differences that could affect competition.  Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it.   

As a mat chairman/leader, you have observation responsibilities; pay attention to who’s palling around with whom (coaches, and referee interactions).  Some other things to looks for; are the referees from the same continent as wrestlers?  You may want to rethink that assignment.  Are any of the referees looking hard at the brackets?  Be aware, they may be trying to game the system to help their countrymen.  Are any of your referees closely associating with other country referees; continental allegiance.  This can and will manifest itself during a bout. Be very observant of things going on around the venue with other referees. Similar to number three, continental allegiances will sometimes trump fairness.  When you are assigning bouts, don’t assign a referee and a judge from the same continent to the same bout.  Two of the three referees should be from different continents.  As a mat chairman you need to recognize this, so when things are not happening as you think they should, it could be due continental allegiance; yes it does and will happen.  You must be observant. 

What a ride we’ve taken.  We started our journey “sitting in the chair” and ended it with “being the mat chairman.”  Hopefully, you can appreciate some of the things that you need to be aware of should you strive to achieve the mat chairman position.  It will take time, mentoring, education, and much effort on your part to become a true mat chairman.  Achieving a mat chairman designation is not an end state or final destination. This is when the learning process really begins.  The more you work as a mat chairman, the more you will learn and refine your skills.  You will be in a continual state of refinement.  In closing, when you ask me, “Tim, I got it, but when should I start training to become a mat chairman?”  I’ll simply say to you, “My friend, you’ve already started; it began the first day you stepped on the mat as a referee, welcome to the big leagues rookie.”