Judging – Can we ever be unbiased

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us
Robert Burns

Regular readers of my musings will know that I often referred to the psychological pressures to which a judge is subject when they go into the ring and I will return to this later but first I want to discuss the immediate difficulties faced by any judge at the beginning of their career.
I have used all sorts of metaphors to indicate that what looks straightforward and easy from the ringside is in fact more difficult and complex when you are on your own in the centre of the ring.  When you are giving Challenge Certificates for the first time in your own or a new breed you are faced with a whole new series of decisions which you never have to consider when you were looking in from the outside.  It is easy to be dismissive of a dog you consider to be lame and you can say so without any problem at a distance from the ring side but if you are assessing it as the judge are you confident that it is actually favouring one leg?  Might it be the markings on the dog or the uneven ground?  You have to be sure.
I have used the analogy of singing along with a song that you know well in the car or in the shower and it remains a valid comparison.  You know that you are in tune and it sounds terrific – but if you are on the stage in front of an audience and you have a live accompaniment, it is not like karaoke where the tune is part of the track and the words appear on screen at the right time.    If you listen to backing tracks they are sometimes quite unrecognisable because the ‘tune’ is not present – it is the singer that has total responsibility for the melody and has to hold it.  This is much more difficult than you might think because none of the usual cues are present.
So you, the judge, are in the ring, alone and you are concentrating on trying to do the workmanlike and quality job that you have always promised you would and at this level there is almost always a larger entry than you have had in the past.  A class of 15 or 20 requires much more concentration and although there are many experienced judges who can hold that information in their minds from the beginning of the class to the end, for most people, particularly at the beginning of their career, this is extraordinarily difficult.  Which one was it that had the level bite?  Which one had eyes that were too round?  Which one had the shallow chest?
When I have large classes I write notes as I go along but I’m always amazed how many novice judges believe they have the ability to remember everything.  They may have a marvellous memory but, given the hesitation that we so often see, I suspect the vast majority do not and this is why they must go backwards and forwards, moving the dogs again and again, while they try and make up their minds.
What happens, at its simplest, is that they play safe and put up the people or the dogs that they recognise.  And it is at this point that psychological pressures come into play.
As I have often gone into the details of this pressure in the past I do not want to repeat myself but I am delighted that other senior judges and columnists have, albeit belatedly, recognised the importance of judges understanding these issues.  I certainly made these points when we were discussing judges training back in 2000 but the concept was never embedded into the program.  This was partly because some did not believe that it was particularly important but more that the structure itself was so basic that there was little scope for more complex levels of discussion such as understanding value judgements, the mental ‘set’ required to make what are sometimes difficult decisions and the psychological pressures, both conscious and unconscious that affect the process.
I know that some people believe that I overcomplicate the issue but I do assure you that this is not the case.   The reason is that we are often far too self-confident in our own abilities and experience once we have reached a certain level of expertise.  Let me give you some examples.
Despite the fact that our top sportsmen, whatever their fitness, ability or talent and whether they are individuals or teams, all have coaches.  Have you ever asked yourself why this should be especially when although the coaches will be competent and knowledgeable they have almost never reached the pinnacle of excellence achieved by those who they coach?  The reason is that the coach can provide an external, independent analysis which the individual or team is incapable of appreciating for themselves.  Coaches do a great deal more than providing moral support and encouragement.  A very famous athlete almost at the top of his career was taken by his coach to Loughborough University which specialises in sports, and was given the opportunity of watching himself running on a treadmill.  The coach was able to point out that he was wasting energy in the way he was moving his elbows.  Clearly the most efficient movement is simply backwards and forwards along a straight line but this athlete had got into the habit of bringing his elbows back in a curve.  It took quite a lot of time and effort practising the correct movement but the result was that he was able to shave several seconds of his time in the 200 metres.
Almost all of the top musicians and singers have a teacher whatever their standard and status.  A friend of mine, an educational philosopher and one of the countries leading drummers, surprised me earlier this year by referring to his ‘teacher’:  despite his age, he is a couple of years older than me, he still has a regular three quarters of an hour ‘lesson’ every month.
One of the world’s greatest violinists, Itzhak Perlman, relied on his wife, also a concert level violinist.  In a recent interview he explains that when you are playing, it is very difficult to hear yourself and he relies on her to tell him if a passage is too fast, too slow or too ‘mechanical’.   Perlman says his wife is very tough and he appreciates that, because without that level of criticism his playing would not be as good as it is.  All the world’s great opera singers have professional coaches and they refer to them as their ‘outside ears’.
As I know from my own experience, listening to the recordings you have made makes a great deal of difference but it often needs somebody else to point out precisely where you are going wrong.  One of my favourite songs is ‘Just One of Those Things’ and I have sung it often but have never felt that I had got it exactly right to my own satisfaction.  At my annual Jazz Summer School I took the problem to that wonderful jazz singer Liane Carroll (the only jazz musician ever to win two BBC Jazz Awards in one year) and asked her to see if she could spot what was wrong.  She played the piano and I sang it through once and she pointed to the music and said ‘here’ and ‘here’.  After the verse, which is sung freely, the song goes into strict time and she pointed out that I was making a mistake, not in the speed or the rhythm but in the way I was delivering that information to her.  Later in the chorus, between one of the stanzas, I was getting the interval wrong – and if you don’t hit the right note at that point it takes to several bars to get back to the tune proper.  That evening we performed it at the Jazz Cafe concert and it worked just fine.
Now, I am not a particularly good singer but that example points out how small things make a significant difference.
In the States, coaches are beginning to be used for teachers who, by and large because we are egotistical lot, resent any interference in the classroom but now successful surgeons who have been operating at a very high level for many years are beginning to realise that they can improve their performance by coaching.
Atul Gawande felt that his technique had reached a plateau and called in his old Registrar who trained him during his residency.  Now retired, Robert Osteen was reluctant at first but said he was prepared to try and attended one of Gawande’s operations.  He was reluctant to make any criticism but he had made copious notes and under pressure, suggested that there were half a dozen small things which would improve the flow during the operation.  One of the most important, despite being deceptively simple, was the positioning of the drape over the patient which dictated not just the surgeons position but the position of his assistants which then had a knock-on effect on Gawande’s freedom of movement and his ability to manipulate his instruments.
Osteen has continued to coach his former pupil and as a result Gawande, who already had an excellent record, showed improved performance in the efficiency of his operations and the rate of recovery of his patients.
During my judging apprenticeship I was very fortunate in having a number of people who watched and advised me and I have always been greatly appreciative of the time that they took to discuss every aspect of judging.  Our current method of assessing judges in the UK is an anonymous report sent to Clarges Street on the occasion of anyone’s first CC appointment.  Can this be enough or should that person become, for a series of appointments, a mentor and coach?
If we are really going to crack the thorny question of transparency and confidence in judging this may be one of the techniques we should develop.

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