Talk about being in demand. If you are a figure skating judge, you are almost certainly a hot commodity.
“I have a total respect for the judging community,” Mock said. “They are the gatekeepers of our competitive structure. They have the incredible responsibility of moving skaters through the test system and determining when they’re ready to skate at the next level. It’s vital we keep it going on."
“There is something like 53,000 tests taken and around 400 non-qualifying competitions plus all of the qualifying events every year and there are 983 judges total,” coach Bob Mock estimates from his experience as a past chair of U.S. Figure Skating’s Coaches Committee. “You do the math.”
In a sport where judges are central to a skater’s success, the question is being asked: Are there enough upcoming judges, particularly at the local test and competition level, to keep up with the ongoing demand for their time?
“There is a tremendous lack of judges,” said Paula Maniago, a test judge with gold and international qualifications. “I think we’re dying. Two or three of us who were traveling around (for judging) have died recently. And that’s been happening.”
Traveling judges are a necessity in the sport, where rinks are sometimes spread out and judges in a particular area are slim.
“There’s a hard core group of judges who go around to invitationals and test sessions,” said Mock, who coaches in Pennsylvania. “They are very good judges and very dedicated to skating, but I’m seeing very few new judges. It really is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.”
It makes sense that where a club is located can mean a difference in the size of the pool of judges.
“I do see some new faces popping up on our panels, but we need to make sure we keep them going and on track and getting their appointments,” said Gerry Lane, Director of Skating for South Suburban Parks and Recreation in Colorado, “because we also have a lot of graying in our area.”
With this graying come the issues that one would expect as a group begins to age.
“Most of us who do it regularly - we love it,” said Maniago, who typically commits to leaving town two times a month for judging. “But the judging community is in trouble. I’m 78 and things happen when you’re 78 years old.”
Where the real need often lies is with the thousands of Dutch Waltzes and Pre-Juvenile Freestyles and Novice Moves in the Field tests taken every year.
“We are putting an exhaustive work load on many of our current judges,” Mock said. “What I am hearing is that the small group of up-and-coming accelerated candidates is not really interested in doing the street-level, everyday assignments like tests and invitationals. Their focus is on the bigger events like Regionals and Sectionals and Nationals.”
Perhaps the toughest challenge to get new blood in the mix is the system of trial judging, which often take very long periods of time before prospective judges can get their appointments for testing and competitions.
“This isn’t a new problem,” Lane said. “It isn’t easy for younger judges to do trialing. They have jobs and it can be expensive. I think it should be easier for test judging than for competition judging. With testing it’s more, ‘Does this skater have the competency to move on?’ Testing is about measuring up against a standard. Competition judging is different; it should be a harder target. And I do think in the competitive stream we are okay overall. Where I see the problem is more at the club level and at test sessions.
“Maybe there could be a judge’s school just for the test structure” Lane continued. “Maybe this would be a good point in time to really address the test structure and establish standards for what passes. I think we’d get some prospective judges that we really need interested in it.”
While there are some fresh faces working to get their time in for trialing, getting enough of what is needed is tough.
“I know a National-level judge that I really had to twist her arm to stick in there,” Lane said. “This person was hung up on certain dances and couldn’t get enough trialing of what she needed. She was ready to walk away.”
So it would seem that the undertaking of trialing can be, in itself, a trial. Although, like many things in skating, there is truth in the old saying that nothing worth having ever comes easy.
“After nine years of no trial judges, I have two I’m working with now,” Maniago said. “They’re just starting out and it’s hard for them to get appointments. You have to trial a certain number of tests and have a certain percentage of agreement with the panel. It’s not the best system in the world, but no one can come up with anything better and neither can I.”
With test sessions and portions of competitions often on weekdays, trial judges who have careers or families can find it takes years to get even their first appointment. Not to mention, that they have to foot the bill for travel, hotel, and food while trying to get their credits.
“One of the trial judges I am working with started in the sport as an adult skater and he is still a young adult,” Maniago said. “He will do anything in the sport; he is passionate about it. But he is working full-time, so he can only go on the weekends and a lot of skating happens during the week. Not that anyone is doing anything wrong. I just don’t know the answer where that is concerned.”
One hopeful solution that U.S. Figure Skating has recently offered up are appointment seminars, which are accelerated weekend training programs where it’s possible for a prospective judge to go from nothing to a gold appointment in about 26 hours over the course of three days.
“I do think we have younger judges coming up but they are doing it through the schools and not through traditional trial judging,” said Laura Murphy, who is a gold test judge for moves in the field, freestyle and dance, an international dance test judge and a sectional competition judge for singles, pairs and dance. “Traditional trial judging is time-consuming and expensive. This is a way for younger judges to get an appointment quickly.”
In addition to an online exam that correlates to the level a candidate wishes to attain, a peer evaluation is conducted by the Judges Committee.
“It’s very intense,” said Murphy, who, at 55 years old, has been judging for 11 years. “Candidates have to apply to go, they need references, and they need to take a pre-test. I happen to think that there’s a select group that it works for and for who it makes sense - those who have been competitive skaters so they understand the sport and how it works.”
Elyse Matsumoto was a nationally-competitive ice dancer and is a recent graduate of Drexel University. At 24, she is reportedly the youngest national ice dance judge in U.S. Figure Skating history and was on the ice dance panel in Greensboro, North Carolina, this past January.
“I started at 16,” Matsumoto said. “Instead of getting my driver’s license, I went to my first test session.”
Matsumoto has seen both sides of the appointment coin, getting her national dance appointment “the old fashioned way” two years ago, but doing the accelerated program for her Regional singles and pairs appointments as well as all of the gold test appointments.
“It’s mostly geared toward former National competitors who have knowledge of the sport - especially of IJS - to get going in it,” she said. “Of course, like with anything, there are positives and drawbacks, but they’re working the kinks out. It’s a great opportunity for judges to start out and get involved.”
Inarguably, however, judging takes more than just book smarts - it takes an extreme amount of social skills and certain personality traits.
“What I have always been impressed by in the past is the vetting process for judges by U.S. Figure Skating,” Mock said. “I have to wonder about the new express lane to the top. It would seem to me that the vetting process would have to be magnified over the weekend training to look for those candidates that have the proper mindset, decorum, maturity, and sophistication to represent the judging community and U.S. Figure Skating. While candidates may be able to display a solid working knowledge of technical evaluation, can they really handle the high level of sophistication and discretion needed to handle an angry coach, a hostile parent, or a crying young skater? How would anyone be able to evaluate this over a weekend?”
Undoubtedly, while the traditional path of trial judging can be a long, inconvenient and expensive journey, it is also viewed as a historically effective one.
“A lot can go on at test sessions and competitions,” said Rochelle Revor, who is 29 now and started trialing in 2007, receiving her first appointment in 2010. “There are so many little nuances and unusual situations that you can really learn how to handle if you are there and watching how the real judges handle it.”
Revor has her silver test appointments in singles and pairs, her regional competition appointment in singles and pairs and her silver test appointment in dance. She attended an accelerated seminar but is working through her future appointments by trial judging.
“Seminars are a great opportunity for those who need a second chance at their next appointment or those who would have to wait a while for Regionals to come back closer to them,” she said. “A lot has to do with where you’re located, but you can learn so much being able to trial judge and learn a wide range of thoughts and opinions of judges, as well as see a variety of skaters. Trialing is a lot of work but it is a great learning experience.”
A National adult champion as well, Revor began judging in Indiana and has continued after a move to California and has seen some shifts in judging up-and-comers.
“When I first started trialing in Indiana, I don’t recall anyone within a decade of my age trialing,” she said. “But then my fellow skaters would see me at test sessions and local competitions and they started asking me about it. Now I know people who are doing their trialing and who are at the beginning of their first appointments in Indiana.
“As far as California, there are a couple dozen of us who are finishing high school and college and are in our 20s who are working through our appointments,” Revor continued. “So I do think there are younger judges coming up.”
Whether in an area with more judges at the ready or in an area that is hurting for some fresh faces on the panels, judges are still busy people who volunteer their time - and the sentiment seems to be that that’s how things should stay.
“I’ve never been a proponent of getting paid to judge,” Murphy said. “I think that it raises huge issues about accountability. Who’s paying the judges? U.S. Figure Skating? Clubs? Parents? It would add expense to an already incredibly expensive sport. Judges, for the most part, do it for the love of the sport and not for the paycheck. I love figure skating and I love being at the rink. In any rink you instantly have something in common with someone there.”
It is pretty much universally agreed that paying judges is probably not a viable solution. But maybe the hitch in getting new judges in the door at all levels of judging, especially for test sessions, is in a change that has occurred way beyond the realms of the rink.
“There is a cultural shift at work to some degree here,” Mock said. “I have heard from judges that it’s frustrating - that they never seem to have enough of one thing or another. It’s like a moving target. I think it would help if the process had a more defined academic approach. When you go to college, you go for this many years and you need this amount of credits and you need to prove yourself and you come out with a degree. Those are well-defined parameters. That’s what today’s society is used to and I think the process to become a judge needs more of that.”
Maybe a marketing push that also taps into emotion might just bring former skaters back into the fold and be the boost that test session and local competition panels need.
“I’d like to see U.S Figure Skating work to bring former skaters who are established in their careers and families back into the fold,” said Murphy, who was a National competitor in the 1970s, but then left the sport for 25 years until the town she lived in built a rink. “This demographic has a working knowledge of skating and the time and disposable income to trial judge and then be available for test sessions and competitions. There has to be a way to identify the group that’s been away for a while and get them back. ‘Do you remember how much you loved it? You can feel that way again.’”
With even more avenues open to skaters as they get older - such as collegiate skating, competitive adult skating and, of course, coaching - it’s never too young to start putting the idea of judging in a young skater’s head.
“There’s no real payoff to judging other than we enjoy doing it, but that means a lot. We love the skaters and we’ve made good friends all over the country,” Maniago said. “I try to talk to the teenagers about trial judging so they know it’s out there. They might pick up on it. Canada used to have a boatload of 20-year-old judges. I asked my Canadian friend about it and she said Canada gets them going while they’re young and then they go to college and get married and have kids, but eventually they come back.”
Encouragement can be a more formal effort as well - and can possibly appeal to the skaters who want to stick with skating well into the future but don’t think coaching is a fit.
“For me, I realized I could have an impact on so many skaters and be in a real supporting role as they’re moving up without a lot of the same pressures that coaches have,” Matsumoto said. “Maybe a seminar at Nationals or at camps to encourage kids who are at the higher levels to give judging a try would be a step in the right direction. It would be good to reach out to kids in an organized setting so they know what’s out there and they can be encouraged to check it out.”
There are also opportunities for skaters to put pen to judge’s sheet at their local rinks.
“I think that getting the higher level, older teen skaters involved in judging Basic Skills events can give them a taste of judging,” Murphy said, “and hopefully they’ll want to explore it further.”
In the end, like most things in figure skating, important lessons can be learned at the grassroots level.
“I’m not saying coaches are the cause of the problem but I think we are in a position to help it,” Lane said. “We could really get out there and promote a lifelong career in skating.”
Inarguably, judges are a major cog in the wheel that keeps figure skating turning and it’s important that that wheel is well-oiled.