Youth fencing brings with it youth referees, an aspect of our sport that’s good all the way round.
As a fencing father and a fencing event organizer, I’ve watched as beginner and young fencing referees work their way through calling matches. They start officiating at tournaments at a very young age, down to age twelve and sometimes even to age ten! That’s a fantastic thing as it develops referees, it develops fencers, it instills confidence, and so much more. Handing over a match to a young fencer shows them that the adults in their life trust them to make smart, level headed decisions.
Making mistakes is a part of life. Refs at the national level make mistakes. Refs at the Olympic level make mistakes. However a lack of experience means that young refs make more mistakes than those veterans with years of calling matches under their belt. What’s more, young refs tend to make the same kinds of mistakes again and again. While we can’t instantly give our young fencing referees years of experience with a snap of the fingers, we can teach them how to remedy their most common mistakes by mastering fencing referee skills.
Note that when we talk about these important fencing referee skills, we aren’t talking about the details of technical decisions and rules. Those are aspects of being a ref that young fencers should go to their coaches and mentors to deal with. Instead these are guidelines for all of fencing refereeing that exists outside of the technical aspects of the sport.
Fencing ref skill #1 – Recognize this is about service.
It’s easy to forget who this is all about for fencing referees. The “target audience” of the fencing referee is fencers. It’s not about the observers, and it’s not about yourself. As a fencing referee, you serve tournament organizers, the bout committee, parents, coaches, and of course the two fencers in front of you.
When a referee steps onto the strip, they need to be in command of it. That can be challenging for a young ref who is shy about their position, but it’s also a major building block of personal growth! These young referees have been entrusted with an official position, one that elicits respect and honor from their peers and from adults. It’s a taste of what it feels like to be in a position of authority while also giving of themselves.
Being a fencing referee is about being of service to other people. It should be done in a spirit of fairness and impartiality, but with a joy too because you truly are helping out your fellow fencers. Being of service to other is one of the great joys in life, because giving is a great joy.
Fencing ref skill #2 – Good technical calls
No matter what the technical calls are, they need to be good. If a young fencer is serious about reffing, they should be in constant learning mode. That means learning from every person and from every source possible. A wide breadth of knowledge must come from a wide breadth of sources.
- Your coach. If he or she makes a call during training that you do not understand, don’t be shy about it – ask and clarify!
- Your referees. If you are fencing in a match and a referee makes a call that you don’t understand – ask and clarify!
- Online. There are tons of videos online where you can watch fencing matches. Make it a habit to decipher an action, pause the video, and make a call before you unpause to hear the decision. Rewind if you don’t understand a call, then look again and again until you get it.
- Competition. Watch other referees work in competition, including when you fence. Make it a habit to compare your own interpretation of the fencing phrase or action with the final call.
- Stay up to date. Keep yourself current with latest rules and trends by signing up for news from relevant communities (e.g., the fencing referees commission). This is a recommendation for older beginner fencing coaches, as we of course don’t expect and eleven year old to be reading newsletters.
Improving technical skill as a ref is a major boost for fencing performance as well. It’s important to note that fencers who ref, from a young age especially, also improve their own mastery of the strip by leaps and bounds.
Fencing ref skill #3 – Order & efficiency on the strip.
Referees play a key role in keeping fencing tournaments running smoothly.
A little inefficiency on the part of a referee can add up to a major delays! How? Here’s example. Suppose a ref is directing a pool of 7 fencers. That’s total 21 bouts that ref is leading. Now suppose that in each bout this ref “wastes” 1 minute on inefficiency. That’s whooping 21 minutes that are added to the tournament! That time can be a major crunch, almost a half hour, which can delay the whole tournament significantly by affecting other events!
So when you step on the strip, think about being the most efficient person, as much as you can. Here’s some things that might help to be more effective:
- Announce who is on deck and who is on hold. Always. The most idle time during the pool is the change between fencers.
- Remind fencers of their number. Double check to make sure everyone knows their number, in fact just reiterate it with each set of combatants. This is especially important with little kids.
- Call fencers by name and number if you can. While kids can forget their number, they will remember their name.
- Show fencers where to connect. There is a rule that first called fencers connects on your right unless he/she is leftie. However, kids might be confused and they always do. So when you call them, show where to connect. Explain the rule while doing that.
- Keep your paperwork close. Do not put a scoresheet and weight/shim too far away, forcing you to run back and forth to make notations or weapon test. Keep them within reach.
- Don’t wait for blade/body cord changes. If a fencer needs to change their blade/body cord, do not wait until they connect. Go and grab the weight/shim and be ready to do the test when they are ready.
- Write the score near the bout number. Always write the score near the bout number you called before you put the score in the table. At some point you will make a mistake. Tracing the right score will be easier if you write it across the bout line on the bottom part of the scoresheet
- Sign fencers as they fence. Do not wait till the end of the entire pool to sign the fencers. They might leave the pool strip by that time, and then you’ll have to go chase them down. When a person finishes all their bouts, tell them to sign the scoresheet before they disconnect.
- Learn to diagnose basic body cord and weapon failures. When something does not work, it might take a lot of time to diagnose what exactly is not working and what the fencer needs to change. Learn to do it yourself as independently as possible. This will save tons of time for the entire pool and will help you as well as a fencer.
- Have spares close by. Before the pools/DE’s start – instruct your fencers to have their spares (weapons, body and mask cords) near the strip. This saves a lot of time if something goes wrong.
- Slip exchange. In the DE if you always have the slip for the next pair and let the fencers know they are on deck, the DE round will run fast. Take 2 slips at the time, send a winner to the Bout Committee and instruct them to bring a new slip back to you. It’s not always possible to do this, but it’s well worth the try.
- Help other refs! Sometimes you will finish your pools earlier than some of the other refs. Offer to help! You might be able to double strip their pool and get the competition moving much faster.
- Be loud and clear. Always announce clear and loud: score, time left, cards, periods, fencers to fence, etc. Young fencing refs can feel shy at first about being so loud, but that’s a major detriment! Learning to be confident for the sake of clarity is an important part of being a better ref.
Notice that these are all little things! The kinds of habits that a referee learns to internalize along the way. All of this won’t come instantaneously, but with practice it becomes second nature.
Fencing ref skill #4 – Unbiasedness
There is a reality to reffing in a fencing tournament that is perhaps the biggest challenge. Fencing referees will have to call bouts for their friends and teammates, and even for fencers who they don’t know well but for whom they have a natural inclination.
Learning to turn off that underlying sense of giving an edge to one over another is a major win for a referee. It’s not easy! Even for adults it’s not easy. Fencing is a niche sport and a small world, and it’s a reality that fencing referees have to call matches of people who are close to them, sometimes very close. That doesn’t matter. It can’t matter.
One way to do this effectively is to imagine that the people in the fencing masks are someone else. Pull them away from who you know them to be and think of them as another fencer.
However unbiasedness isn’t just about being conscious when refereeing for people that you know. Sometimes a fencer will walk up with a certain swagger or confidence, and it’s easy to say inside your head “Wow, this looks like a great fencer.” and then give them slightly preferential treatment without even thinking about it. Bias has a way of creeping in when we don’t realize it!
Fencing ref skill #5 – Consistency
During a match, fencers naturally learn what calls the ref is making and make slight changes so that they can avoid being called out again. If you called the same action differently several times, fencers will not be able to make the right changes. It’s hard to hit a moving target, that’s why fencing itself is so challenging. Of course fencing rules aren’t meant to be moving.
For example, if you don’t yet have enough experience to see that that hand starting first and thus cannot separate two attacks as attack and counter-attack, then be consistent next time when faced with the same situation. If you call this action beat attack instead of parry-riposte, continue with that call throughout the entire tournament. This will give the fencers in your charge the opportunity to change their action if they know how you see the phrase, even if they don’t like it and will argue every time. If you interpret the action one way – try to stick to this interpretation at least until end of the bout.
Later on you will grow in your experience and understanding, and it might be that you change your reading of the phrase, and that’s 100% ok. Again – stick to it till the end of the bout, pool or even competition.
Another major point in terms of consistency is that sometimes your call will be challenged by the coach, parent or fencer. DO NOT CHANGE YOUR CALL. If you think that you made a mistake after hearing the objection, tell the participants that this is what you saw (your original call) and that next time you will try to pay better attention if a similar situation happens. Do not be tempted to change a call that you’ve already made. This will lead to an attempt to influence you in the future calls, and that’s not good for anyone.
Remember that everybody (really, everybody) mistakes. The most important part of your job is to learn from those mistakes. After the competition is over, consult with your ref mentor, the head referee, your coach, or your fellow referees about the call.
The other great news is that the longer you ref, the easier it will be to be consistent. This is a skill that comes much more easily with practice!
Fencing ref skill #6 – Calm focus
Remember that the fencers, the parents, and the coaches have a stake in the competition. You do not.
They might be nervous, in fact they most often will be nervous. In competition, their adrenaline is running, they want to win, to advance, to earn. You are not in this for any of those things. They will be jumpy, loud, and yelling. You should not be. It’s your position to be more calm than usual. Your job is as an official. Do not escalate if possible, and stay focused so that you can catch problems before they start. The more you maintain order, the less chance emotions will have to get out of hand.
Remember, you are just at the beginning of your fencing career. You are new to this job! A major challenge for young fencing referees is that sometimes it is adults who will push the boundaries. Maintaining calm in this scenario is not only important for the match and the tournament, it’s important because it teaches kids to navigate situations where they have to hold their line against intimidating factors. In this case, adults. If they think you are missing some touches or actions and require side refs, that’s ok! Don’t take it personally as it’s not an attack on your worth at all. More often than not it is only emblematic of your lack of experience, which is nothing to be ashamed of – you will learn! Sometimes it is a mind game the fencer plays with either you or your opponent. Just focus on your job.
The ref is the calm within the storm. Whatever winds are blowing all around you, they aren’t caused by you and they can’t blow you over.
Fencing ref skill #7 – Humility
It’s often surprising to young fencing refs how much freedom there is in admitting that you don’t know everything. Heck, it’s surprising to adults and kids of all kinds to find this out!
If you don’t know every call, every move, or the right thing to do at every moment as a referee, it doesn’t mean you’re not a great ref. Coming into being a referee with the idea that you know everything or should know everything is exhausting to you and it’s detrimental to your effectiveness as a referee.
Sometimes a parent, a coach, or a fencer is going to come in and ask for an additional referee or for the Head Ref to come in for supervision. That’s nothing to feel intimidated about. Great fencing refs take their ego out of the equation and allow the process to go forward.
Fencing ref skill #8 – Awareness of your impact
While we don’t want to put overly much pressure on young fencing refs, it is important for them to realize that their job is important and has a lasting impact.
The calls made at a fencing competition will be remembered and discussed. Think about how many times you as a fencer have sat down over a meal after a long day of competing and gone over the ref calls? Or on the long car ride home where you discussed in detail what the referee did during a match? It’s our habit as fencers to dig into the detail of fencing matches because it helps us learn and grow. As a fencing referee, you’re a part of that learning and growing for other fencers.
The actions of a fencing referee lead to something else. They are part of a bigger narrative that has a lasting impact on the fencers who are in your charge. That something else might be the podium or the points needed to qualify for another competition.
Again, this isn’t about putting pressure on young refs to be perfect (refer to #7), but great fencing referees take their job very seriously because they know that the calls they make live on past that moment in competition.
As they say in the comic books “With great power comes great responsibility.”
A final note to parents of young beginner fencing referees – this is a wonderful opportunity for your child to learn and grow! Sit down with your young fencer and discuss the impact that they can make. Talk to them about what a responsibility this is for them, about the things discussed in this post about being a good referee, but also how proud you are of them for taking on that responsibility!