The Road Less Traveled - Becoming A Judge
For several years now, the number of U.S. judges certified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (international parachuting’s governing body) has been declining. The U.S. skydiving community faces a very real challenge—it needs more judges, plain and simple. USPA has been planning courses to offer opportunities to existing national and regional judges who may want to upgrade to FAI ratings and to new judge candidates who may want to start on the path. Skydiving needs more people to step up: Are you in?
Why Are Judges So Important?
Imagine that you and your team spent thousands of dollars on coaching, training, gear, tunnel time, jumps and more coaching. You put in hundreds—or more likely, thousands—of man-hours to become the best you could be. Then in a single round at a meet, the perfect storm of draw, team, mindset and conditions happened. You and your team left the bird and burned through the single best skydive you ever had! The event organizers posted the score, and it was huge … bigger than the current world record! But it couldn’t be recognized as such. What the #@%*?
This happens. Ask the members of the French 2-way canopy formation guest team VC2 about their world-class performance at the 2011 USPA National Championships. Or talk to the members of DeLand Fire, who achieved what would have been a world record in 4-way formation skydiving at the 2006 Shamrock Showdown at Skydive DeLand in Florida. Neither of these teams’ achievements is official, in part because there were not enough FAI judges present to ratify them. Additionally, certification of a world competition record requires at least five discipline-rated judges to be present (performance records have slightly different rules), and unlike U.S. state records, these judges must be on-site during the record-setting performance. In other words, without official judges, there can be no official records.
Skills and Motivation
The reasons people become judges are as numerous and varied as skydivers: A judge could be an avid competitor who is injured, an older jumper who is semi- or completely retired but wants to stay involved, a young jumper who wants to learn more about competition or an active competitor who wants to understand the rules better to improve the performance of his team. And there are hundreds of other reasons.
It is not unusual for judges to work up to 12 hours a day during a major competition, with most of that time spent sitting in front of video screens or baking in the sun at an accuracy target. With up to seven people squeezed into a 12-by-12-foot space along with video and computer equipment, interpersonal skills are a necessity. So is a robust sense of humor … and perhaps some measure of masochism. Other desirable traits include self-confidence (to make hard calls), humility (for when you are in the minority), teamwork, attention to detail and patience.
The sense of community and teamwork among the judges and competitors is an undeniable benefit of the job. A judge gets to enjoy the feeling of being a professional working within a team to provide competitors with the most accurate scores possible. Judges tend to be the types of people who are concerned that each competitor or team gets the score they earned. The best judges are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to practice their craft and improve their skills. A lot of the satisfaction comes from a job well done.
At the local level, a judge can be a mentor, as well. Helping a young 4-way team learn and improve is a seriously cool experience. It’s satisfying for a judge to see the light come on in a young competitor’s eyes after finding a way to explain a rule that finally makes sense. And then there is the infectious feeling of accomplishment that comes with certifying a new world, national or state record.
Another plus is that a judge’s rating is the only rating USPA offers that does not have a renewal fee. Once you have the rating, all you have to do to maintain currency is go judge and maintain your USPA membership.
Last, but far from least, especially for the FAI judge rating, is the ability to travel the world while someone else pays at least some of the bill. China, the Czech Republic, Dubai, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, Russia and South Africa have hosted recent international events, and that’s just in the last three years! Many judges will choose to extend their stays in the host country for at least a few days to see the sights. Often, friendships formed at the meet will make the travel experience far richer than it would be for a mere tourist.
Judging is a labor of love. Unlike with instructional skydiving, don’t expect to be able to make a living at it. For a major competition, compensation usually includes travel, lodging, two meals and $100 per day. That can be less than minimum wage. For local meets, compensation varies widely and can sometimes be in trade. Many judges take time off from a regular job to make it to a meet, often using vacation time. And some travel reimbursements are capped and won’t cover the entire cost of the trip. You have to have a real passion for competition!
There are three levels of judges in the United States: Regional judge is the entry-level rating. These judges can serve at local meets and can certify state records. Then there is the national judge rating; these judges can officiate at the USPA National Skydiving Championships and National Collegiate Parachuting Championships, certify U.S. national records and train regional judges. The pinnacle of judging is the FAI judge, who must have years of experience. These judges can score the world championships and other international events, certify world records and train national judges. Current statistics indicate that only about one percent of regional judges will go all the way to an FAI judge rating.
Additionally, all levels of judges are rated by discipline. The disciplines are: accuracy landing, artistic events, canopy formation, canopy piloting, formation skydiving and freefall style. It is possible to be an FAI judge in one discipline and a regional judge in another. However, FAI judges in one discipline usually upgrade their lower ratings as soon as possible.
After you’ve become a regional judge (and if you’ve been a USPA member for at least a year), you are eligible to train to be a national judge. It is common for the chief judge at a national championships to conduct or arrange a National Judge Training Program prior to or concurrent with the meet. When a regional judge is ready to move up, all he needs to do is reach out to the chief judge at a championship event—it’s pretty much guaranteed that the query will generate a very positive response.
The ratings themselves do not denote who fills the roles of chief judge, event judge or principal judge at an event. These titles simply define exactly what the judge is doing at a given meet. The chief judge is essentially the boss and is responsible for certifying all scores, recruiting other judges for a meet and ensuring that they are trained and ready to do their jobs. The event judge is middle management; he is responsible for supervising the panel of principal judges who score the skydives in a particular event (e.g., 4-way FS, 8-way FS, vertical formation skydiving).
- So you think you’ve got what it takes? Awesome!
To become a regional judge, you must be a USPA member and complete the Judge Rating Proficiency Card. To complete the proficiency card, you’ll need to find a national or FAI judge who is willing to work with you. You’ll then need to help him conduct a meet in the discipline in which you wish to be rated. Given the number of local meets conducted annually, finding one where you can assist should not be a problem.
It’s best to find a judge who is active, as those who are not may not feel qualified to train someone new. If you call the director of a local meet, he can tell you who is judging, and you can contact that person through USPA’s judges list. If you can’t find a nearby judge, some may be willing to work with you remotely by phone or email.
If all this sounds interesting, go find a national or FAI judge in your area to begin working on your regional judge rating. Do it now—you won’t regret it!
For a detailed explanation on the ins and outs of becoming a judge, see the Skydiver’s Competition Manual Section 8.
About the Author
Randy Connell, D-19133, has 2,200 jumps and is a national judge rated in accuracy, canopy formation and formation skydiving. A former 4-way FS competitor, he is passionate about all forms of skydiving competition.