Officiating is helping Hernandez of Texas open more opportunities for women in wrestling

Updated: August 18, 2022

Photo: Kim Hernandez, a former high school wrestler, became an official in 2017 and has worked many wrestling events.

Note: Kim Hernandez of Converse, Texas, has been a wrestling official for the past six years and was named a Rookie Official of the Year by Rocky Mountain Nationals this past year. Hernandez spoke to Bill Barron of RMN about her experiences. This is an expanded version of the story that appeared in the July issue of WIN Magazine.

Q: How and when did you decide to become an official? What is your view of an official’s role and responsibility as it relates to your interaction with the athletes, coaches, and spectators?

A: I decided to become an official in 2017. I wrestled in high school; since graduating in 2004, I had not stayed involved in the wrestling community. However, in 2017 I was recruited to officiate high school football. I enjoyed it and thought: “I never played football in high school and was able to officiate. I wrestled in high school, so I should give officiating wrestling a shot.”

As an official, my role is to be professional on and off the mat. As a female official, one of my goals to be a role model for the young ladies who are growing in the sport and let them know that there are ways to stay involved in wrestling, whether it is participating, coaching, or officiating. On the mat, my top priority is to ensure the safety of the wrestlers. Wrestling is one of the most physical sports for athletes, which is why prioritizing safety is imperative.

This story appeared in the latest issue of WIN Magazine. Click on cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Q: What’s most important in your mind for an official of youth sports? What are their most important areas of responsibility?

A: Education. In youth sports, many of the kids are learning the sport and a lot about themselves mentally and physically. It is important that we have interactions that promote good sportsmanship and educate the young ones on what they did wrong, so they learn. When wrestling at any level, it is the responsibility of the wrestler to be professional to the officials and/or adults, demonstrate good sportsmanship (it’s good to be humble), and absorb all the feedback/teaching points.

Q: What do you value about doing RMN Events? What makes an RMN tournament unique and special? Why would you recommend RMN to other officials seeking to grow in knowledge and experience?

A: I value the mat time I get when I encounter distinctive styles of wrestling. RMN gives me the opportunity and trust to work higher caliber matches of wrestlers from across the country. The opportunities I get to network with officials from other states and feedback to improve my mechanics and application of the rules are sconed to none. Working for RMN also gave me the opportunity to be evaluated (and eventually selected) for one of the longest and largest folkstyle events in the country, the 2022 Disney Duals, where I received recognition as Rookie Official of the Year.

RMN events are unique because of the various locations events are held. Changing locations gives wrestlers the opportunity to travel or stay close, as time and budgets permit. Another unique/exciting feature of RMN is the opening show before the matches begin. This celebration of the sport hypes up the kids, parents, coaches, and officials.

I would recommend RMN Events to those officials who are not looking to make a quick buck, but those who are interested in learning and growing as an official. Those who have tenure and experience also can use this opportunity to share their knowledge and help develop those officials with potential for the future.

Q: How do you mesh your various careers and responsibilities with the schedule and demands of being a national caliber official? What aspects of your roles outside of wrestling do you bring to your job as an official?

A: I am fortunate to have a flexible work schedule that allows me to take time off for events as needed. Without support from my leadership, it would be much more difficult to make some of the assigned events. It also helps that many of the leadership staff have ties to the wrestling community and promote/support when they can.

As a sales professional, I have meetings throughout the week that help me prepare on presentation and dialogue. This translates into officiating by having high professionalism skills as well as being able to confidently “sell” the calls being made.

I was in the Marines from 2004-2008. This experience prepared me to officiate, especially when making difficult judgement calls. It’s important to have thick skin, to be able to deescalate tense situations, and ultimately to understand the dynamics involved when working in a male-dominated environment.

Q: What changes would you suggest for wrestling in terms of rules and protocol to best protect the athletes and grow the sport? In your mind, what are the most important rule changes and emphases that have helped keep wrestling safe as well as exciting?

A: I would like to see some (not all) of the college rules applied when discussing in/out of bounds situations. The longer we can keep the action going without having to stop the clock, the better.

Q: What you have learned about yourself, the sport, and the athletes/coaches. Personalize this experience for your readers, so they can see it through your eyes. 

A: Officiating has taught me to step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve officiated other sports before. In a “crew” environment, you have other officials to help back up a call. In folkstyle wrestling, you usually do not have this advantage. We use assistant officials, when possible, but most of the time, it’s just one official.

It was very uncomfortable at first. It hasn’t happened very often, but in the past comments were made alluding to “women should officiate women’s matches only” or that I am “good for a female official.” I don’t want to be good “for a female;” I want to be a good official regardless of my gender. I don’t want to call just girls, just boys, or just kids. I want to call all matches at all levels.

Q: Which aspects have made officiating as a female an advantage? 

A: Being a female has given me an opportunity to promote women in wrestling and grow the sport. There are ways to stay involved in the sport that doesn’t involve competing. Coaching is a wonderful way to stay involved, but it can also be time-consuming with year-long commitments that need to be made for a program to be successful. Officiating gives me the opportunity to be a role model and mentor for the current and next generation of officials, regardless of gender.

Q: In what situations might a female official be preferred?

A: To promote the sport, a female official may be preferred when there are situations that some male officials may feel uncomfortable addressing. For example, helping when a female is not wearing suitable undergarments or when feminine health issues arise.

Q: What recommendations do you have for female officials on how to be successful and remain focused despite others who may be less supportive.

A: Find a mentor. There are many seasoned officials out there who are willing to share their wealth of knowledge. Ask questions and never stop learning. Take the negativity like a grain of salt. When negativity is experienced one can slow from it or grow from it. Always choose the latter.

Be humble. While it is important to be firm, it is just as important to be approachable. Do not expect preferential treatment. We are officials. Not female, not male. When asked to work, work hard, and leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that you are qualified.

Know your limits. It’s okay to feel the pressure of a hot match or high-level tournament. Taking a breather when you’ve reached a limit is respectable. It shows self-awareness and commitment to being the best official you can be.

Q: Why is it important for wrestling to have female representation at all levels of the sport?

A: Female representation is necessary at all levels to promote sports (of any kind) to the youth. Children emulate what they see. If they see female representation in all sports, it encourages them to participate in and, maybe down the road, explore the officiating route. In addition, it is important to have women in leadership roles within organizations. As President for my local Texas chapter of high school officials, we have increased our female official count by helping women empower each other.

Q: What is your background in the sport of wrestling? How does being an official augment and relate to your other experiences in the sport? What lessons did the sport teach you that you would like to impart to the athletes you now officiate?

A: In Texas high school competition as a sophomore, junior and senior, I qualified for state twice: runner-up my junior year and medically DQed my senior year to finish fourth.

As a prior wrestler, I can relate to some of the positions or moves that some wrestlers may execute and understand the potential for injury. This allows be me to be proactive in identifying potentially dangerous or illegal situations and address them immediately.

Wrestling has been foundational to my development into a Marine and working professional. The hours spent training, the joys of winning and the tears of losing played into the character development I now have that has carried me through demanding situations.

Wrestling is one of the few sports that is both individual and team. If you lose a match, can’t blame your teammates, but if you lose or don’t pin a kid it could impact the team score in a dual/tournament. Wrestling is for everyone, regardless of gender, height, weight – there is a spot for you on the team.

Q: As you travel the country, what differences do you observe in technique and emphasis from state to state?

A: States interpret the rules differently from coaches and officials. For the wrestlers, in the Midwest, you see some whizzers that are so deep that there’s no option but to call in potentially dangerous to protect a shoulder. In the West, you have a lot of scramble situations where you just need to let the situation settle. In the East, you see risky but effective maneuvers with high success probabilities. It is exciting to see the unique styles go at it and watch how each wrestler reacts to an unfamiliar style.

Q: What experiences and opportunities would you recommend to an official seeking to develop his or her mastery of officiating?

A: Read the rulebook … know the rules, then apply them properly. Doing so reduces the probability of being called to the table. When you are called to the table, you can provide a rule-based explanation of the call you made. You also have a rule-informed opportunity to change your call based on your knowledge of the rulebook. The coaches will know you understand the rules and are applying them as you saw the situation. This builds credibility and respect. Nothing does more to reduce gender distinction than knowledge of the rules.

Admit when you are wrong. We are not perfect, and we make mistakes. Owning up to your mistake won’t fix the situation. But it will allow you to earn the self-respect to learn from it and move on. If you find yourself making the wrong call, don’t have an ego. Change the call to get it right. Do it for the wrestlers and for your own integrity.

Seek feedback, then apply it. Learn not just from officials but from coaches as well.

Q: How does an official maintain a positive perspective in the face of criticism or those who question their fairness and knowledge? What have you found to be most effective in creating a positive perception of your role as an official?

A: At the end of the day, I find relief knowing that I called the matches to the best of my ability without bias and applying the rules based on the situation I saw on the mat. Knowing the rules, staying professional, and being transparent is key. Building rapport with fellow officials and coaches has been fundamental in the positive perception in my role as an official.

Q: What are some common teaching areas which you emphasize with less experienced refs?

A: Call what you see. Kids, coaches, or parents may try to shout things that they see, but unless YOU see it, don’t call it. Many times, the kids, coaches, or parents don’t know the rules and are baiting you to make a call that may not be there.  Stick with officiating. You will notice the improvements event after event.

Q: An official is seen as an enforcer of the rules. With RMN Events, we also stress that an official is an educator helping teach athletes and coaches how best to approach the sport with effort, sportsmanship, and appropriate demeanor.

A: I concur wholeheartedly with RMN’s focus on getting it right. In this light, as an official, we are sometimes called upon to have the humility to accept a head official’s interpretation even when it changes a call or score, or the review process calls for a period to be re-wrestled.

Q: Share a few of your most rewarding experiences as an official in your work with the athletes, coaches, tournaments, and venues across the country. What made these special for you?

A: I love seeing the kids mature in their wrestling and as young adults. They are the future NCAA champions, All-Americans, coaches, and officials. It is extremely rewarding and heart-warming to see all the arduous work pay off. Through wins and losses, humility is taught at such an early age. It is also very enlightening to see how they bounce back after a tough loss.

As I enter my sixth year of officiating, I’ve witnessed a full cycle of wrestlers who started out as freshmen and who are now exceling at the national, collegiate, and international level. It is amazing to see the dedication and improvement of these wrestlers year after year.