The moment when a fencer gets a new rating is an exciting one. After working hard and continuing to grow, they finally push past their old rating and up to the next level.
Like anything in sport, or anything in life, a rating captures a single moment in time. It’s a marker of where someone was on the day that the rating was granted. Because that rating follows fencers, being put next to their name and being used to seed them for competition, it can feel like it’s part of their identity.
Clubs congratulate fencers on their ratings in newsletters and social media posts, celebrating this achievement. It can seem like a rating is graduation from one level to another, like moving from the novice class to the advanced class.
There are two sides to every coin, though. Intertwined with that joy and excitement about this accomplishment, there is also a great deal of pressure.
When performance doesn’t equal the rating, mentally at least
Not long ago, I witnessed a situation where a fencer who’d just attained a higher rating found herself performing below her expectations at a competition. She felt as though she couldn’t live up to the standard that she had set for herself, nor could she live up to the expectation that the new rating seemed to push on her.
This young woman thought that, now that she’d gotten this rating once, she must always beat the fencers who had a lower rating or lower seeding. There’s a real logic to her thinking. If I’m now a C-rated fencer, I should be winning against D, E, and Unrated fencers, shouldn’t I?
Yes and no.
There was nothing for this young woman to prove, though she felt intense pressure to prove herself. The rating is not going to go anywhere if she loses against another fencer with a lower rating. It’s not going to go anywhere for four years, in fact. If a fencer doesn’t renew their rating for four years, only then does it drop, and then only by a letter.
For her, it wasn’t about losing the letter though. It was about her not feeling as though she was performing at the level that she had been awarded. As though she wasn’t living up to her potential.
Nothing to prove
Earning the rating is proof in and of itself that a fencer is on that level in that competition. There is nothing to prove further once a fencer has gotten there.
The young woman above was burdened by the weight of her own expectations. No one was telling her this, not her coach or her parents. Her self-induced pressure caused her a great deal of inner turmoil, and the worst part is that this turmoil is needless. Not only needless, it’s detrimental.
Feeling the weight of all of that which she was pushing on herself took time away from her thoughts about her actual fencing performance. You cannot focus effectively when you are covered in pressure.
There is a great deal of freedom in feeling untethered from proving yourself. Confidence is the builder of champions, and being comfortable in your own skin and with your rating/performance combination is where you will best find your fencing flow.
Understanding fencing ratings
Progress in the fencing rating is not something that is easily predictable. Most often, a new rating isn’t wholly expected at a competition. Of course, each fencer has an idea that they are progressing and they have goals for their performance in a given competition, but the rating system is fickle and so a fencer can unexpectedly find themselves with a new rating.
Fencers start off as unrated (U), and then move up through the alphabet from E to A. The higher rating, the more advanced-level competitions a fencer is permitted to compete in. For instance, qualifying for Fencing Summer Nationals in Division 1 involves attaining a C, B or A- fencing ratings before someone can be considered for the competition. If they don’t meet the minimum rating requirements, they can’t qualify. This is so that the competition maintains a rigorous level.
Ratings are also used to determine seeding in many tournaments. Each of the pools is intentionally mixed in ratings, You can read about the specifics of the pool seeding system in our previous post about the Principles of Pool Assignments. The long and short of it is that ratings are an essential part of how pool assignments are done in every tournament.
Ratings are awarded based on the following criteria:
- Total number of fencers competing
- Ratings of fencers participating
- Final placement of fencers in conjunction with their rating
From there, it’s complicated. AskFred has a great chart with all of the details included, which you can find here. If you click on it, you’ll see that getting a higher rating is all about the ratings of the fencers who are competing in the competition and how a given fencer performs against those rated fencers.
Ratings are a snapshot
A fencing rating has nothing to do with the consistency of performance. They are not only a snapshot in time, they are specifically a snapshot of one competition.
Ratings aren’t even a reflection of the best that a fencer can do. Whether a fencer gets a higher rating at a competition has everything to do with who shows up at the tournament. If lots of incredible, highly competitive fencers are there on the day, then a fencer will have to really show up with their top performance. If, however, the competitors who show up that day are not at quite as high a level, the same fencer is less likely to get that higher rating.
Moreover, earning an A-rating in a high-level National Championship is totally different than getting the same A-rating in a local tournament. It is many times more challenging even if both tournaments have the same A4 level.
This isn’t to say that the system is broken, nor is it a call to reform the fencing rating system. The rating system works overall, and it’s valuable for understanding both that moment in time for a fencer as well as their potential for future growth through the season. Fencers do need to understand what the rating represents.
Too often, we see fencers thinking that the rating is more meaningful for their overall fencing prowess than it really is. On the other hand, they can see it as nothing more than an antiquated system that doesn’t have any real meaning. The reality is somewhere in the middle.
One of the things to remember is that in addition to the rating, there is a national (and to some extent regional) ranking of the fencers in every age group that more accurately reflects the strengths of the fencers.
Though the rating is definitely a snapshot of a certain moment with certain parameters and is in no way a comprehensive assessment of a fencer’s capabilities, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a useful tool.
Self-value and ratings
The nature of fencing is such that fencers can have good days and bad days. We see this all the way to the Olympics, where a relative unknown fencer can be buoyed ot the top of the podium on the biggest stage in the world, even though they haven’t fenced that way ever before in their life. The same thing happens with ratings. We have seen fencers jump more than one rating, for example from Unrated to D or from E to C. This is common, and it’s an example of how uneven the process can be.
Placing a high level of expectations on yourself because of a rating is going to hold any fencer back. Rather than thinking of it as “I’m now a B rated fencer, so I must always beat fencers who are of a lower rating or it means I am no good,” we need to reframe it to be “I’m a B rated fencer who has good days and bad days in competition. I want to continue to work on making the good days more often.”
The bottom line here – a fencing rating does not equate to the value of any fencer. It’s a tool. It’s a label. It’s something to celebrate. It’s not a magic ball that will always indicate performance.