I have a lot to catch up on. Big O was a HUGE success. I’m about to leave for another tournament this Friday, come home, then leave again Thursday to Tournament Head Assist Besterns in Denver. But, so many people have asked me about goal setting and how to tournament lately, I wanted to smash out a rough outline of what it has looked like for me and what it might look like to dive into the tournament circuit for a new official.

Some words: These are MY thoughts, opinions, experiences etc. This is not definitive and I’m hoping some people will, in fact, add their voices to this post and we can do a second round with quotes from them in a week or so. I work almost exclusively on the West Coast for financial reasons and what works on the West Coast, may not be what works if you’re on the East Coast. This is also a United States perspective and I have NO idea what it’s like if you are an international official. I’m sorry. I’m just giving some rough ideas here that might be a jumping off point for anyone who is looking to get into their first event.

Quickly: why tournaments? Because you will not get as much experience condensed into one event as an official as you will at a tournament. Tournaments are a place for officials of all skill level to come together and share their knowledge, ask questions, get feedback and work multiple games in one weekend (more or less). So, if you are looking to do something slightly outside your comfort zone with a lot of feedback and people who know a lot more than you, tournaments are where it’s at. Did I also mention there are usually patches and cool swag? I mean…

How do you know if you’re ready? Unfortunately this is what I cannot answer for you. So here are a few things you MIGHT ask yourself:

  • Are you feeling ready for a new challenge?
  • Are peers telling you you are ready for a new challenge?
  • Do you want to travel and meet some new officials and learn new perspectives?
  • Do you often do the same role at home because it is the one you are the best at (IE, HR, because you’re most experienced, meaning you never get to OPR or JR, if you’re a ref)?
  • Are you feeling “stuck”?
  • Do you have goals that your home level of play will not get you to (perhaps you’d like to work post season someday and your home league is low D3)
  • Do you have limited access to multiple events at home (derby “poor” areas geographically that don’t host many sanctioned events annually meet this criteria)

If you look at this list and say, yea, some of this is me, you may be ready to start looking for a tournament. That doesn’t mean you are ready for ANY tournament. There area lot of types of tournaments, this list is not exhaustive by any means:

  • One day
  • Two day
  • Three or more day
  • “Learnaments”
  • Divisional play, non-sanctioned
  • Divisional play, sanctioned or mixed
  • Invitational non-sanctioned or mixed sanctioned
  • Mixers/Mashups
  • Post-season
  • Single Track
  • Multi-Track

Tournaments can be one, two or three days long, but are typically two or three. They can be sanctioned or non-sanctioned, recognized by an organization or not (this just means they’ve met certain standards set forth by their parent org for that status), they can be Divisional (D1, D2, D3) or Invitational (multiple teams of a variety of levels or of just certain weights/divisions) which are similar in how they are run, it just means team applications happen a bit differently. There are mixers and mashups just like we see in single game events. They can happen on one track or multiple tracks. Post Season events are the highest ranks teams playing for the highest rankings in our sport and we aren’t going to talk about those here. If this is your first rodeo, you aren’t likely going for post-season, so I won’t cover that right now.

So, what’s right for your first event? Look at what you are doing currently and try to find an event that would be similar in that style of play. Something that really helped me when I was starting out was to look at the teams that were invited and to see if I had ever officiated them or a team at a similar level to them who was going to be playing at that tournament. It gave me a good idea as to what skill level would be required from the officials at the event. If the play was similar to what I was used to, I knew I could reasonably apply and perform to that level of play.

How far are you willing to travel? Maybe you don’t have any tournaments close to you. How far are you willing to go? I limit mine to either a 10 hour drive or, for ones I know will be very beneficial experiences, a reasonable flight. You may want to shrink your distance for your first tournament and look around in your region for things that will be a good chance to get your feet wet.

For your first event, I recommend something small, no more than two days and single track. Unless you are working locally with a high level, D1 league with a deep pool of experienced officials mentoring you (which is pretty much only a handful of folks), then you want something that is going to give you a positive experience and that will leave the leadership with a positive memory of you. Smaller tournaments allow you to be more visible, and therefore more memorable. This goes both ways though. If you are a huge dick, or don’t take feedback well, that’s gonna stick out too and word travels FAST between staffers. Nothing says “yuck” like someone who can’t take criticism their first day on the job, so to speak.

My first tournament was a single day event in Colorado with teams that I had reffed before. It was a good experience*, but more on that in a bit. The next tournament I did was a two day “home teams” Superbowl type event. It had attracted a high level official from California with family in the local town, also a great opportunity. From there I did a State Championship event (essentially home/b team level). Once I had those three events under my belt, I branched into some events with multiple tracks that were a bit longer but were still very matched to my skill level and the level of play I consistently saw at home, these events were ones that I knew I could do, but were also events that challenged me and put me in contact with a variety of skill and prepared me for the higher level events I went to in the coming years.

Picking a tournament with a good reputation is ALSO important. There are several nationwide “learnaments” known for staffing strong mentors for those who are up and coming in the derby officiating world. A learnament is a tournament at which it is decided and known that a portion of the staff will be there for “stretch” placement or goals. Mentoring can happen at these events and people can be put into challenging or first time roles in a safe environment.

It can be tempting to go to that tournament that’s in the neighboring town that is desperate for officials and that the SKATERS love attending. Get some feedback on why they are desperate for officials first. My experience with some of these has been hit or miss and I’ve seen new officials at their first tournament at some of these sorts of things never come back on the circuit because the experience is…well, it’s a shit show and it sets people up for failure. It is one thing to staff anyone and everyone to ‘give them a break’. But what can, and often does, end up happening is that leaves very inexperienced people in charge of something they’ve never done before with no guidance or leadership. Skaters are frustrated, officials are tired and frustrated and it’s not a good example of what tournaments can and should be. I am not saying don’t work a tournament like this. Perhaps your emotional and physical make up allows you to be in an environment like this and still thrive, mine does not.

Make sure there is a good foundation and leadership at whichever tournament you choose for your first. Ask around. We all talk. If you know someone went to the touranment you are looking at in previous years, ask what was good about it and what they didn’t like. Get multiple perspectives. If you are an on-skates officials, ask your NSO friends how they felt at the event and vice versa. How was safety and diversity at the event? Get the opinions of people you value to have objective takes as well as people you are closet to. Someone can have an off weekend and that can color there experience. Someone can have a great weekend and it may mean they don’t see the mistreatment of others around them. Make sure the tournament heads are people with good experience and leadership and that their reputations for mentoring and providing safe spaces for learning are well-known.

*That first tournament I went to? I worked 7 of the eight games that day; 5 on skates and two as an NSO. I have NEVER been so tired after a tournament and it made me question applying to any more thinking there was something wrong with me and I wasn’t cut out for it. The “jerkied” officials there were all about how “this is how it is on the tournament circuit” I assure you, it is not. A good, well-staffed, heavily mentored tournament will not exhaust it’s officials, will consider their needs and their health (and their emotional safety and well-being) and you should do as much research into the tournaments you consider officiating as the skaters would research the potential rankings outcomes of any they consider skating in. This tournament was staffed by people I know and respect and had they not been there to keep me going, it would have turned out very badly.

Okay, so you think you’re ready, you’ve researched a good starting point, you’ve talked to some people and you want to apply. Now what? Well, first you have to find the application. That’s always a blast! There’s also this handy dandy document that some amazing folks update on the reg. it lists all the known events of this type with great descriptions so you can get an idea if the event is for you. So find one, grab the app and get going. Oh wait, what’s this reference bit….

References are the trickiest bit in derby, especially if you are just starting out, are really isolated geographically or YOU happen to be the most experienced person you regularly work with (this happens). Here’s my advice. Someone, somewhere wants to be your reference. Someone from a game you have worked thinks you were special in some way, you’d be surprised who will shout out for you if you JUST ASK.

Applications are going to ask for anywhere from one to three. If it is just one, I try to pick someone who can really attest to my skill and growth. When I was first starting out, this was one of the two Head Refs I regularly worked with at home. As I got more travel under my belt, I would ask (ALWAYS ASK YOUR REFERENCE IF THEY WILL BE YOUR REFERENCE AND I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH) if a CH from a similarly leveled event would be willing to give me a reference. If they asked for two references, I would try to include an NSO I had worked closely with if I was applying as an HR or JR especially. Those relationships are vital on game day and knowing you’ll work well with your NSO crew goes a long way. If they ask for three I’ll pick a combination of the above and then someone I feel may be able to expand on that even more and possibly speak to my character or special strengths they’ve seen. It can be hard to get references if you haven’t been to a tournament and if you don’t feel you have more than 1-2 strong ones, put a note in the notes section of the application explaining why (geographic isolation is a real bitch).

YOU NEED A GAMES HISTORY DOCUMENT. No, really, you do. I don’t care if you think you will never work a tournament and you’re just reading this long-winded post for fun. You are going to reach a point where you are going to change your mind and want to get into a tournament. You need the games history document. My first “break out” tournament was JRDA champs in 2017. My document was SHALLOW. I was an unknown, I had very few sanctioned games. I didn’t know anyone that could give me a solid reference for that level of play and was still using my local references. The Tournament Head Ref for that event looked at my document and saw that someone from that first tournament (that one with all the games that I nearly quit tournaments over?) was someone they knew well and trusted and had also been my tournament head at that event. I would NEVER have listed that person as a reference because we just didn’t interact that much. however, they really had been impressed by me at that event and gave me a good reference and THAT is what got me in to JRDA champs. That event opened the door to working with this TH again at Big O in 2018. YOU NEED A GAMES HISTORY DOCUMENT.

If you have any footage of a game you have worked, add that in to the notes section of your application. This helps if staffers don’t know you are your references. No room on the app? Use that email the staffers provide.

Here comes the hardest paragraph. You are going to get turned down from multiple events. DON’T STOP APPLYING. Every time you apply, you are showing the staffers you mean business. They see your name again and again and they go, huh, this person really wants this. We had to pass them up last year, but we have room this year. It is the hardest part, especially for those of us in isolation, to put ourselves out there like that. But if you reach for smaller things on your level first, build that network up and keep pushing for higher content, you will see results. Derby officiating is in a really great time. I believe that. We are seeing a lot of things change as staffers realize that not everyone can come in with 100 games on their resume, that isolation is limiting a lot of people in what they can do with their time and that the “grind”, while right for some and worthy of its own rewards, is not the only way to identify good officiating.

So, wrapping up:

  • Find a tournament with a good rep, at or near your skill level
  • Apply
  • Use references that can speak to your skill and character
  • Keep a games history doc
  • Apply and apply again.

This ended up being so much more winded than I intended, but it’s very personal and I’d love to hear from others as to THEIR tournament experiences and how they got into their first. It’s so individualized and I got VERY LUCKY, very early with the contacts I made as referenced above. But I’m also pretty isolated with no local mentors and tournaments are what I do, so it was a very important part of my derby journey. Let’s chat about them more and I’ll make a second post in a week or two with other people’s ideas and feedback that’s more diverse than mine. This is a jumping off point and I’ll take questions on Twitter and FB. Happy Tuesday!

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