Tommy Morris

The Rules, Tactics, and the Referee

Sensei Tommy Morris
WKF Referee Council Chair 

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The purpose of this paper is to enhance the understanding of referees and coaches of the Rules of Karate Competition. Technical manuals are notoriously difficult to follow and since the World Karate Federation Rules Book has to be translated into many different languages there are, inevitably, misunderstandings. It is my earnest hope that this paper will address some of the common areas of difficulty.

It may not be surprising to learn that many competitors have little idea of the rules under which they compete. However, what is of even more concern is that this same fact extends to many coaches even at international level. It should be self‑evident, that without a thorough knowledge of the rules, the coach will be unable to devise a sound training strategy for his athletes. However, in addition to a knowledge of the opposing athlete's strengths and weaknesses, a knowledge of the referee's capabilities, although perhaps more difficult to obtain, can also be of considerable significance. Some of the world’s top teams have camera crews following the best competitors in the early stages of important championships and then the coaches have a meeting to discuss the findings and decide on tactics. They also film the referees. Ask yourself why.

The judgement of karate competition is not an exact science. We cannot measure the athlete's performance by electronic timers, measuring devices, or other means such as nets, targets or obstacles. Instead we rely on the subjective judgement of the referees and judges. Good judgement is dependent on the knowledge, experience, and decision-making processes of the officials, and may be adversely affected by stress, fatigue, and lack of concentration. Heckling a referee can have an undesirable effect on his concentration and is a tactic which can misfire badly. The good coach will be aware of these factors and will advise his competitor accordingly.

For instance, is the referee a strong individual, who frequently overrules or even ignores the judges, or does he constantly refer to them for an opinion? What techniques does he give points for? Can he see and assess jodan punches adequately, because if he cannot, what is the point of making them? Is he over‑sensitive to grabbing and throwing techniques, because if he is, the athlete can easily lose without the opponent so much as scoring with a single technique? Is the referee easily influenced? If he is, the strategic positioning of assistant coaches and other members of the squad can lead to a weak referee awarding scores through having his opinion reinforced. If on the other hand he is a strong individual, this tactic could lead to the athlete or coach being penalised.
It is the coach's job to see that the competitor is properly dressed for competition. It is the referee's job to send the competitor off, if he or she is not properly attired. Read Article 2 “Contestants”. In paragraph 6, it states that in kata a “discreet hair clip is permitted”. Many are now wearing ribbons, earrings and hair‑bands. All of these are prohibited. Look at the regulations concerning the karate gi. It is the referee’s job to enforce the regulations if coaches and competitors do not comply. They have no authority to alter the rules and must apply them consistently throughout the competition, not just on the first day. Coaches and competitors will try to take every advantage, either through ignorance or design, but it is the referee’s job to apply the rules of the WKF to all contestants equally and impartially. Article 2 also states that Coaches shall at all times during the tournament, wear the official tracksuit of their National Federation and display their official identification. Coaches not conforming must be sent off.

There is also a dress code for referees, you are required to wear, black, slip‑on shoes on the tatami, laced up trainers or shoes designed for basketball, are not acceptable.

Article 6. Read it again, it is very clear and not difficult to understand. It is important to realise that we no longer have waza‑ari which was 90% or more of an ippon. A waza-ari was described as a technique slightly deficient in one of the six criteria. Now in order to be scored a technique must have all six criteria. In other words the level of technique required in order to receive a score is much higher than before. Referees and Judges should not give the scores too easily!

The criteria are:

  • Good Form
    Good form relates to good karate technique in the traditional sense such as stance, posture, etc. The explanations say that “Good Form is said to have characteristics conferring probable effectiveness within the framework of traditional Karate concepts”.
  • Sporting Attitude
    A non‑malicious, i.e. sporting attitude. This is a sport not a street fight; goading the opponent, playing to the crowd etc., are all actions which may be penalised.
  • Vigorous Application
    This relates to controlled but powerful blows which have the potential to incapacitate an opponent in a real fight. Some referees give scores for very weak techniques which in reality would probably go unnoticed in a real situation (until the next day). This also weakens our sport in the eyes of the public.
  • Awareness (Zanshin)
    Zanshin is described as a state of continued commitment in which the contestant maintains total concentration, observation, and awareness of the opponent's potentiality to counter-attack. Zanshin in very broad terms relates to a condition of awareness of the opponent's potential to continue fighting. In a real life situation it describes a state of readiness while assessing whether the opponent needs to be struck again in order to finish the fight.

The competitor must not turn their head away during delivery of the technique and must remain facing the opponent afterwards, all the while maintaining concentration and not dropping their guard. Some contestants after delivering a technique will turn their body partially away from the opponent but are still watching and ready to continue the action. The Referee Panel must be able to distinguish between this continued state of readiness and one where the contestant has turned away, dropped their guard and concentration, and in effect has ceased fighting momentarily. If a competitor does turn away, dropping their guard after delivering a technique, then all six criteria have not been met and a score should not be given.

  • Good Timing
    Meaning delivery of the technique at the appropriate moment in time when it would have the most effect. For example hitting an opponent as they rush towards you has a greater potential effectiveness than hitting an opponent who is rapidly moving away from you.
  • Proper Distance
    Proper distance and good timing go hand in hand; you will not have one without the other. Catching the opponent off-guard, off-balance, on the wrong foot, moving into the attack with a good counter-attack or manoeuvering the opponent into the technique where it would be at its most effective are all examples of good timing. Correct Distance similarly means delivering a technique at the precise distance where it will have the greatest potential effect. For example if the contestant is stretching to reach the opponent or leans back too far to deliver a punch then the distance and timing is wrong.However proper distance also refers to a punch or kick that comes somewhere between skin touch and 2—5 centimetres from the face.Do not forget, and many referees do, that jodan punches, which come within a reasonable distance of the target and which the opponent makes no attempt to block or avoid will be scored, provided the technique meets the other criteria. This means exactly what it says and yet many referees and judges seem to be unaware or unable to recognise this particular situation when it occurs.

Many of the injuries in competition are preventable. Good competitors and good referees together help make a safe tournament, and with the ever-increasing numbers of children participating in karate, safety is paramount. Over the years there have been many experiments with safety equipment, but well controlled techniques and good refereeing, still seem to be the best safeguards. It is important for the referee to keep the match under control and to be able to anticipate the actions of the contestants.

Impact injuries to the face and head are the most common, and kicks to the face are often the most serious. The referee must be able to assess the result on an athlete’s performance of a foul blow, and be able to give the proper penalty. Above all though, he must be able to see the valid technique and score it properly.

Most of us have at some time or another tested the strength of our abdominal muscles, by inviting another to punch us in the stomach while we stood muscles tensed. How many of us would be willing to receive the same punch in the face? And yet as referees, we often ignore strong punches to the face, and award ippon for comparatively weak and potentially ineffective punches to the body! What are we thinking about?

Even senior referees, time after time seem unable to evaluate good well controlled jodan punches, then when the competitor is finally hit in the face they decide to take action and stop the match and give a penalty. By contrast when there is a punch to the body they stop the match and award a score. Of course it is much easier to assess chudan techniques, both punches and kicks, because there is usually quite a strong contact and the sound of the impact. On the other hand jodan techniques must make little or no contact at all and without the added benefit of audible confirmation are therefore much more difficult to evaluate.

The referee must show awareness of the problems and realise that if they do not give points for valid jodan techniques then sooner or later there will be contact and injury. It is also important to understand the difference in degrees of contact allowed for Seniors and Juniors and the Cadets. If you allow repeated contact to the face, the competitors will accept it as the norm, and you will have an escalation of face contact and injuries. It is very important, especially in the case of Cadets that the rules governing contact are understood and strictly observed by the referee panel.
Take another look at Article 8. You must be aware of all prohibited behaviour not only face contact and penalise the competitor who breaks the rules. Powerful kicks to the chest, groin, knees and hips can be much more serious and the debilitating effects more long lasting than a punch in the mouth.
Since grabbing hold of the opponent and throwing is allowed under certain conditions it is incumbent upon all coaches to ensure that their competitors are trained in and are able to use break-fall/safe landing techniques.
A competitor who attempts a throwing technique must comply with the conditions imposed in the Explanations in Article 6 and Article 8. If a competitor throws their opponent in full compliance with the stated requirements and an injury results due to the opponent failing to make a proper break-fall, then the injured party is responsible and the thrower should not be penalised. Self-caused injury can result when a contestant being thrown, instead of making a break-fall, lands on an extended arm or elbow, or holds onto the thrower and pulls them down on top of themselves.
A potentially dangerous situation occurs when a contestant grabs both legs to throw the opponent on their back. The Article 8, Explanations X states that “…and the opponent must be held onto throughout, so that a safe landing can be made.” Since it is difficult to ensure a safe landing, a throw such as this may fall into the prohibited category. If an injury results this would be dealt with under Category 1. If there is no injury or the throwing process is interrupted by the Referee then a Category 2 warning or penalty could be imposed under Article 8, Category 2, Paragraph 6. It should be emphasised that this kind of throwing technique is not prohibited per se; it is the manner in which it is executed that will be the deciding factor.
A warning or penalty for Mubobi is given only when a competitor is hit or injured through their own fault or negligence. Explanation XVI of Article 8 states: “Should the offender receive an excessive contact and/or sustain an injury and the fault is considered to be the recipient’s, the referee will issue a Category 2 warning or penalty and may decline to give a penalty to the opponent".”

A contestant who is hit through their own fault and exaggerates the effect in order to mislead the Referee Panel may receive a warning or penalty for Mubobi as well as an additional penalty for exaggeration, since two offences have been committed. It should be noted that there are no circumstances in which a technique that has made excessive contact can be given a score.
Some referees allow competitors not only to grab each other with both hands, but also to push and wrestle with each other without any attempt at a technique and without stopping them. Others penalise competitors immediately for holding or attempting to make a throw. The fighters have to fight, try to understand what they are trying to do and apply the rules intelligently and consistently.
Sometimes experienced referees are the worst offenders, making sloppy gestures and unauthorised signals. Remember that the scoring table personnel at a Continental or World Championship may be, and often are, very inexperienced people. We have had some quite serious problems because referees gestures were careless and unclear. Check yourself; it may be time to smarten up! With the present scoring system it is important for referees to give clear and precise signals.
When a competitor pretends to be injured and the referee panel decides the technique was valid and to award a score, it is not enough to just give the score; the competitor feigning injury must be penalised. If a score is valid, it means it was well controlled and therefore could not cause injury, so the competitor is exaggerating or faking. If not, then the referee panel is wrong in their assessment. See Article 8 and paragraphs VI, VII, and VIII of the explanations.
The coach may not distract, or put pressure on the referee. If he does—warn him. If he persists, you should give the fighter a Category 2 warning or penalty. In extreme cases or persistent misbehaviour the correct penalty is Shikkaku. Note that there is no actual requirement to give a warning, Shikakku can be imposed directly. See article 9, paragraph VIII of the explanations. If you allow the coaches to harass you, you will make bad decisions, you will not do your job properly and you will then be in trouble with the Referee Committee. Do not allow it; you will get no respect from the coaches or competitors for doing so.
On of the most misunderstood rules is the ten-second rule. In fact it is actually quite simple to understand and apply if one reads the rule carefully. It states, “Any competitor who falls, is thrown, or knocked down, and does not fully regain his or her feet within ten seconds, is considered unfit to continue fighting, and will be automatically withdrawn from the tournament.”

The key words refer to three conditions; at least one of which must occur or the rule does not apply. These are—FALLS, THROWN, KNOCKED DOWN. If the competitor does not fall to the floor, is not thrown to the floor, or is not knocked down, then the rule does not apply, and the clock is not started. “Knocked Down” refers to a situation where a competitor is hit hard and literally knocked to the floor. It is not meant to apply to a competitor who is “winded” and slowly sinks to their knees and is then unable to straighten up due to muscle spasm. This rule was devised for two reasons, to stop competitors winning by cheating, and for the safety of injured competitors; it was not meant to be used as an additional form of punishment for competitors injured or uninjured.

If one of the conditions is met and the clock is started, the competitor is not required to return to their original starting line, they are required only to fully regain their feet (stand fully upright) when the referee will signal for the clock to be stopped.

Above all remember that a competitor who has been injured will require the services of the doctor. Do not wait until the ten seconds is up before calling the doctor, your first responsibility is to get medical attention when it is needed. You can call for the doctor whilst reaching for your whistle.
The Match Area Controller’s job is to ensure that the referees and judges are rotated and assigned to their places, and to supervise their performance. They are also required to give a daily report on al1 officials under their control to the Referee Committee. An adverse report may result in a referee or judge being suspended or having to re‑qualify. Take heed.
What are we judging? Martial Art or Theatre? The rules quite clearly state that we are judging traditional martial art, Kata as performed by the four major schools of Japan. That power, speed, correct breathing and understanding of the kata meaning are all demonstrated. Article 5 paragraph I of the explanations states: Kata is not a dance or theatrical performance. It must adhere to the traditional values and principles. It must be realistic in fighting terms and display concentration, power, and potential impact in its techniques. It must demonstrate strength, power, and speed — as well as grace, rhythm, and balance. Is that what we are seeing?

Article 6 states that the judges will look for;

a. A realistic demonstration of the Kata meaning.
b. Understanding of the techniques being used (BUNKAI).
c. Good timing, rhythm, speed, balance, and focus of power (KIME).
d. Correct and proper use of breathing as an aid to KIME.
e. Correct focus of attention (CHAKUGAN) and concentration.
f. Correct stances (DACHI) with proper tension in the legs, and feet flat on the floor.
g. Proper tension in the abdomen (HARA) and no bobbing up and down of the hips when moving.
h. Correct form (KIHON) of the style being demonstrated.
i. The performance should also be evaluated with a view to discerning other points such as the difficulty of the kata presented.

These are the actual criteria which you must use to judge kata competition. You are not judging one style against another; rather you are judging the technical expertise of the competitor according the stated criteria. In my experience the most neglected, misunderstood, or ignored criteria are in paragraphs a, b, g, h, and Explanations paragraph 1.
There must be no external cues. Incorrect, coarse, audible breathing is used by many teams as an aid to synchronisation. External cues also includes stamping of the feet and slapping of gis The kata must begin and end in unison. The team leader who says “Yoi, hajime” and “Yamae” is using external cues too.
The rules state that the finalist Teams; “will then perform a demonstration of the meaning of the Kata (BUNKAI)”. That means exactly what it says; the meaning of the kata! Whilst it was my intention in writing the new rules that we should encourage innovation and the spectacle of kata competition, some teams have gone completely overboard. It cannot be denied that we have seen some wonderful demonstrations but they have completely lost sight of what they are supposed to be doing. This has been compounded by kata judges who choose theatrical and melodramatic demonstrations over those teams which try to give actual realistic interpretations of the kata bunkai. The result is that we see a proliferation of Judo throws (I never realised that the Shotokan kata Unsu had so many tomoe nagaes in it!) and athletic jumps and somersaults which really have nothing to do with the kata being presented. Of course many meanings of kata technique were designed to be hidden and so the kata Bunkai can have many different interpretations but there is a difference between interpretation and pure fantasy!

Mixed style competition is very difficult to judge, but kata judges must not be prejudiced in favour of their own style and must judge according to the criteria and apply the rules of competition. The rules are not open to individual interpretation or wishful thinking. There are many new additions to the kata rules. Read them, understand them, and apply them.


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