Biggest Differences between Competing and Judging

This is one of three posts on the differences between competing in and judging student conferences.  Be sure to check out the rest of the story by reading through the pros and cons of judging and advice for first time judges.

There are quite a few differences between being a student competitor and a professional judge.  I talked to five different professionals who have acted as competitors and judges to find out their opinions on the biggest difference between competing and judging. I was able to break these down into three main differences: enforcing the rules, real world experience, and perception.

Canoe 82
Judging concrete canoes at the national competition

The Rule Enforcer

As a judge, you’re there to enforce the rules.  To do that effectively, you have to know the rules better than the students (which can be challenging) and you need to be OK with handing out deductions for things that aren’t done correctly.  Renee Whittenberger draws a wonderful analogy to sports:

As a rugby player, I used to view the referee as the bad guy who was always looking for ways to discipline us. Penalties were his/her way of getting a power kick and stomping on my fun. Now that I am a referee also, I see it so much differently. The game is best when played by the rules and you have to have a referee there to ensure that happens for both teams. Their purpose truly is to ensure maximum enjoyment of the game, not to ruin our experience. Likewise, the biggest difference between competing and judging is how I view the judges. As a student, I often felt like the judges were the enemy. We were just students trying to have a good time while making something awesome and the judges would always rain on our parade. The competition is best when everyone plays by the rules and the judges are there to make sure that happens. It wouldn’t be fun if the rules were not fully enforced all the time and the judges are just adhering to that principle.

Real World Experience

Another major difference is the level of experience that you will have over the students.  Depending on how many years of work you have under your belt, you will have a much better understanding of the design procedure, material properties, and project scheduling.  This is the first time that many of these students have been exposed to these topics in an all-encompassing project, so go easy on them! Robert Coomes sums this up nicely:

As a judge, you are generally scrutinizing the students as peers and sometimes it is hard to take a step back and remember what it was like to be in the shoes of the students. You want to be critical, not the enemy, but if you let your professional instincts rule, you can become the enemy. On the flip side, it is really easy to swing the other way and be too loose in your judgment or even show favoritism.


On final difference is the perception of reality.  As a student, you’re focused at the micro level of the competition.  You need to pick an aggregate, place reinforcement, practice your presentation, and print the design papers.  You are busy looking at every line of the rule book trying to interpret how it applies to you. You’re doing your best to allocate time where it needs to be spent. And above all you’re striving to impress the judges.

When judging the competitions, the perception shifts to a macro level.  While each team spends nearly nine months making a specific product, you get 10-15 minutes to evaluate them.  You’re assessing the teams relative to each other and are focused on judging all of the competitors fairly.  Danielle Steinmetz has a unique perspective about the stress of being a judge:

Instead of stressing about deductions, presenting, and race times, you are stressing about coming up with thoughtful and challenging questions, analyzing how and why each decision was made for each team, and ultimately selecting a deserving winner.

Do you have something to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!  Or continue reading about the pros and cons of judging and advice for first times judges.

3 thoughts on “Biggest Differences between Competing and Judging

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