Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Don’t Judge the Fencing Referees – A Lesson in Good Sportsmanship

Fencing Referee Making a Call - Illustration to the Don't Judge Fencing RefereesA familiar refrain that I hear from parents at fencing competition goes something like this: “The ref was completely wrong. He called so many touches incorrectly, and he gave way too many red cards.” The might go on about some other issue with the fencing referees, some way that the ref called the match unfairly and so caused their child of this parent some ill end.

It’s tempting to take part in this kind of conversation after a match that doesn’t go our way –  we’re naturally looking for somewhere to put that responsibility. If we know that our fencer worked hard and did their best, it’s easy to lay blame at the feet of one of the people who were on that strip, and that person who gets the blame is often the ref.

Why it’s time to stop judging the fencing refs

This is a big issue for me, because I feel strongly about the role that fencing refs play in this sport. Not only that, I think that there are some compelling reasons why we shouldn’t be modeling this kind of behavior for our kids.

Let’s dig a little deeper into why it’s time to lay off of the fencing referees.

●     The rulebook is complicated

There’s a lot that goes into fencing rules and regulations, and even if your child has been fencing for many years, you’re not going to know as much as the referee. Parents are parents, they’re not referees. It’s not your job as a fencing parent to know every rule in the fencing rule book. That nuance is the job of the fencing referee.

●     It’s demoralizing to kids

When a parent starts talking like this in front of their kids, it can be seriously demoralizing. Children’s confidence is something to be cherished and built up. When a parent takes down a fencing ref, that’s taking attention away from their child. It sends a clear message that the goal that you have for this whole venture is winning, not personal growth or learning new skills, but winning no matter the cost.

Kids know what’s going on. The are savvier than we give them credit for in many situations. If a parent has a beef with the ref, the kids are going to figure it out. And don’t just think about the effect on your own child – the other kid is going to feel like they’re not any good if they hear a parent talking about how they won points or a match on false pretenses. Complaining about fencing calls during or just after a match doesn’t make anyone feel good at the end of the day – it just makes kids feel worse.

●     It misses one of the points of fencing

One of the things that we learn in fencing is how important is to be able to deal with disappointment in life. This is a coping skill that serves us well off the strip. While we certainly want to stand up to protest if something egregious occurs in life, at the same time it’s so important that we learn to cope when things don’t go our way. Learning to deal with difficult situations with grace is one of the central lessons of fencing.

My story of struggling with referees calls

This isn’t something that I’m lecturing parents about because I’m somehow thinking that I’ve got everything figured out. As a fencing parent, I’ve been in these exact situations many times.

I myself have witnessed a few times when the ref made a bad call against my son Adam. Being in my position, I had the luxury of a deeper understanding of the rules than the average parent. In one particular incident, Adam started to cry – “it was MY attack! Not his!!!” I explained that while he might be right, it was the ref who was making the calls. Even if Adam was right, refs are only human like the rest of us, and they can make mistakes.

I always try to explain to him that part of learning to be a great fencer is

  1. Learn to deal with emotions, even if you think the mistake was made that resulted in something negative happening to you.
  2. Work to understand that there is nothing personal between the ref and you. It’s about the ref and the action that happened.
  3. Refs see the action differently than fencers. That’s especially true of youth events, where the refs know the rules and regulations so much better than competitors. We cannot overstate this important fact.
  4. Fencing is about impressing the ref with your action. That means fencers must be clear with their actions in order for the ref to see it. Being clear is just as important as getting the touch.
  5. Also, if you see that the referee makes the same call again and again and you feel he/she is unjust, change the action. You need to learn to adapt to the referee no less than you learn to adapt to your opponent. Fencing action, especially with right of way weapon, is a lot about the referee’s interpretation. Being able to understand how the referee interprets your actions is one of the qualities of a good fencer.
  6. Everyone, EVERYONE makes mistakes. Even at the Olympics, refs make mistakes. That happened in London with Shin A Lam’s unfortunate fencing defeat, and it’s a great learning opportunity for young fencers to learn from an Olympic issue.

These are things that I continue to emphasize with Adam long after matches when he blames referees for making wrong calls and for his eventual defeat . Fencing refs deserve our respect and thanks for all of the hard work they do on the strip. Sometimes Adam does come around, and I am so proud to see him learn to deal with those disappointments in healthier ways.

Parents – please learn to be less sensitive about judging at fencing matches. Spare the kids, let them fence! That’s all they want to do. If they lose sometimes, that’s ok!  If a point gets called that’s not quite right, that’s ok too! As parents, we have to learn to set an example for how we want our kids to act.

Don’t judge the fencing refs! They’re just doing their job as best as they can. Yes, there are often young or inexperienced fencing referees, and in that case it is even more important to know how to support and help them rather than blame and badmouth them.

Here’s to easier fencing matches with less discord, even if a bum call gets made sometimes.

(Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0)


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  1. R

    Thank you! Parents can take the next step and learn, as a minimum, the penalty chart. If more motivated, learn your fencer’s weapon rules. Even more motivated? I know at least one non-fencing parent who became a competent ref.

    • MIKE

      Totally agree also doesn’t help when coaches intervene with comments like don’t worry it was your hit them Ref got it wrong.

  2. Leon Spector

    You, guys, are awesome! Very insightful and timely articles. Kudos from fencing coach and a referee!

  3. carl

    And if you’re fencing foil, then the whole point of that weapon is to improve your defense so you have a clear advantage. If it was too tight to do visual call then you need to improve anyway.

  4. george

    one of the thing, especially for small clubs, the coaches should wait for the referee call. if the referee is a student of the coach, it is hard for the referee to make the call opposite to his coach.

    I have no problem with celebrating once the referee makes the call

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