Wrestling Officials are Keeping Up with Today’s Action & Rules

Updated: December 3, 2020

Photo: Mike McCormick (right), who like his father Pat is a Hall of Fame official, has raised winners’ hands at the past 25 NCAA Championships.

(Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the late-November issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN and enjoy the holiday offer.)

By John Johnson

Over the past five years, we have seen a huge change in many of the wrestling rules to help keep the action flowing; with the out-of-bounds rule having the biggest impact on keeping action flowing on the mat. But there have been other rule changes that many feel have hindered the flow of wrestling matches and the fan experience, such as the video review and other new rules that require match stoppage.

Let’s drill down even deeper and look at wrestling rule changes at the collegiate level and how the changes have impacted the world of an official. When you stop and think of a wrestling match and terms from 10 years ago, you would not have heard terms such as the drop-down rule and count, video challenge, control of mat, clasping, hands-to-the-face, neutral danger zone, one-supporting-point takedowns, hand-touch takedown, neutral stalling, takedown rule changes (hand touch, reaction time, out of bounds), overtime procedures, video challenges, third-party independent reviewer, four-point near-fall, concussion protocol and much more!

One of the nation’s top collegiate wrestling officials is Dr. Mike McCormick, who graduated from The Medical College of Virginia School of Dentistry in 1997, and has been practicing general dentistry in Hampton, Va., since then.

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McCormick has officiated every Pac 12 tournament since 1996 and every Big Ten tournament since 1997. He was also selected to officiate at every NCAA Division I tournament since 1995 and the cancelled NCAAs in Minneapolis last March would have been No. 26. He was selected as the liaison by the NCAA to the NCAA Rules Committee in 2007 and 2008 and is an active member of the National Wrestling Officials Association, and has been the president of the NWOA since 2014.

Mike, along with his father, Dr. Pat McCormick, are members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in officiating. Mike and his dad are the first father-son combo to be in the NWHOF. In addition to his impressive career as a referee, McCormick has numerous other accomplishments. He has been the college director of the prestigious Virginia Duals tournament since 1993.

“I have been officiating for a very long time, but I would say in the last five years it has been as tough as it has ever been to be a good official at a high level,” Mike McCormick said. “The amount of rule changes and technical skills associated with wrestling officiating can take away from what I think is important. But to stay at a high level of officiating and to be considered for post-season, I do what they (NCAA, evaluators and coordinator of officials) tell me to do.

“Besides the job of scoring a match, I am now having to look at multiple scoring opportunities in a single move as well as numerous possible infractions on the mat and in the coaches’ corners. Then, I have to interpret what has transpired, make a decision, many times in a matter of seconds and there are times I feel like I’m a computer or a robot. Additionally, there have been a lot of procedural and sequencing changes on infractions that have also made it difficult to officiate.

“Another thing that has made officiating harder, than it has been in the past, is the scrutiny officials take through social media, message boards and other on-line modes. 10 or 15 years ago, you may have had to wait over two weeks for people to criticize a call you made in a match or tournament.

“Now, with many institutions broadcasting many of their events on-line or (on) cable, you receive criticism instantly on social media, in message boards, or other types of posts. Many times, you are making split-second decisions, and many critics have time to slow down the video and dissect all your calls. Many times, people are upset with calls and they are relying on old rules and are not up on current rules and interpretations.”

Some officials stated that many times people are confusing high school rules and college rules, which definitely have differences.

In combining all of the new rules and regulations, one thing that has made wrestling officiating more difficult in the last 20 years is the fact that many of the wrestlers are well coached in numerous techniques as well as “gumby” or scramble-style wrestling.

“Then add in the fact that the kids are bigger, better, faster, stronger and quicker,” McCormick said. “Given all the factors mentioned earlier, an official really needs to be more patient and let the wrestling action play out before making too quick of a call. By being patient, many times you avoid having a call questioned and you get the call right for the wrestlers.”

Many of the officials also agreed the addition of video review has helped to reaffirm officials’ calls or to correct any officiating errors. But many also said that sometimes the video review takes away from the action or momentum from a wrestler, and can have a huge impact on the outcome of a close match.

Several officials commented that there are a number of things needed to be at the top of their game each year because of the rule changes, saying it is very important to keep up on rule interpretations, read the rule book, study rule updates that happened during the season, practice good mechanics and verbal signals during difficult situations or visual counts when needed, stay in good position and anticipate the action.

Also, it is important to network with fellow officials and the national coordinator on constructive feedback of ways to improve as an official. To continue to improve as officials, it’s important officials constantly review the rule book, attend clinics, watch video of their officiating, and participate in officials’ update meetings conducted by various officials associations.

“I feel the new rules have increased scoring and the excitement for the sport,” said Tim Shiels, the NCAA Wrestling National Coordinator of Officials. “Because of the new rules, wrestling and wrestling officiating is in a good place!

Tim Shiels serves as the the NCAA Wrestling National Coordinator of Officials.

“Do I think officiating is more difficult than when I stepped down five years ago? Absolutely! The scrutiny from social media is relentless. Definitely, there is a lot more to process in a short period of time, making it difficult to be a wrestling official. But again, the sport is in a better place and we are getting the calls right for the student-athletes.

“Many of the changes have ensured that the calls are made correctly. The work we have done with the NCAA, coaches and officials has helped increase the consistency in wrestling officiating.”

There are many things that officials do to be in consideration for post-season assignments. Great officials will work on the finer aspects such as personal fitness and nutrition to impart a clean and fit image on the mat, having clean and updated uniforms and equipment, knowing your responsibilities for arena and mat area inspections, visiting with your table workers, practicing high moral standards and professionalism.

“There will always be people who will criticize officials,” McCormick said. “But when you throw the stripes on, you are going to take criticism from coaches, fans and student-athletes. If you have thin skin or you let outside forces influence your call and decision, officiating is probably not for you. Knowing your duties as an official and how to conduct yourself in a professional manner is important. You also need to be aware of your conduct not only on the mat and while at a venue, but also in your daily life. At any given event, it is important as an official to know when your responsibilities start up and when they end.”

Of course, officials must learn to deal with upset difficult coaches.

“Having thick skin, not letting coaches get into your head, knowing the rules and making solid calls with proper mechanics is key in handling a difficult coach,” McCormick said.

Many officials agree that being proactive by listening to a coach, when approached in the proper manner, can help with a difficult coach.

Shiels said his goal is to insure a consistency of officials’ calls, the application and interpretations of rules, and officials’ “mechanics”. A call and rule application, and mechanics you would see in Iowa or Minnesota, should be consistent with the calls and mechanics you would see in Oklahoma, New York, Ohio, or Arizona.

All officials interviewed agree that Shiels has helped move the sport and officiating forward in a positive and progressive way. He was recently elected to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in officiating.

McCormick said another key variable in officiating is the second official. He said the second ref can play a vital role in a wrestling match and they are a second set of eyes to help in critical situations, and again, helping to make the right call.

“There are some individual conferences and coaches that may not see the value in the second official because some of them feel they are not needed,” he said. “When you are dealing with high-level athletes like you do in college competitions, the second official is vital. When you walk out on the mat and see a second official that you know well and is competent, it helps in elevating officiating and confidence.

“When you build a good rapport with your fellow officials, you find that many times they can anticipate your movements and positioning on the mat and can help you make the correct call.”

There are five key responsibilities of the second official as prescribed by the NCAA. First, the second official is responsible for verifying that riding time is correct at all times throughout the regulation match, and during overtime tie-breakers. Additionally when a challenge brick is tossed, the second official should immediately check the clock to see the time remaining in the period. The rationale for this is that if the call on the mat is overturned, wrestling can resume with the correct time reset on the clock without taking additional video review time.

Thirdly, when dealing with a “hands to the face” call, the second official should step in when seeing a deliberate or intentional strike, forceful or non-forceful, by a wrestler to the triangular portion of his opponent’s face (eyes, nose, mouth region).

“The second official shall immediately indicate the unnecessary roughness signal to the lead official, who will verbally announce and visually signal unnecessary roughness and award one point to the offended wrestler,” Shiels said. “Incidental contact by wrestlers will not be penalized.”

Fourth, if the lead official goes to the head table for any reason, the second official should remain in the center of the mat with both wrestlers. If the lead official’s conference at the head table is prolonged, wrestlers may go to their respective corners, but must stay on the mat.

“As a second official, if you disagree with the lead official, discuss the situation in a calm, rational manner, away from the coaches and student-athletes,” Shiels said. “If both officials agree to go to video review, do so “open minded”. Remember, it’s always about making the right call!”