Respect the fencing referee, always!

It takes exceptional skill to be able to call a complex attack correctly.  That's why there are so few referees at the top of the referee hierachy.

It's almost inevitable at every tournament to hear complaints about how bad some of the referees were.  Given the lack of systematic training for referees, it's not surprising that less experienced referees make more mistakes. 

The right of way rules make refereeing foil and saber bouts much more difficult than epee bouts.  The greatest number of mistakes are made by referees when interpreting who has the right of way.  There are no hard statistics available, but a top level FIE referee estimated that even at the highest level, referees still get about 10% of their calls wrong.  Which is why the video is used in World Cups and Grand Prix starting in the round of 64, and in the US, the video is used at national tournaments starting in the round of 16.

It is inevitable that mistakes will be made given the complexity of  interpreting who has the right of way under pressure.  Like the fencer, the referee is also under pressure to get it right.  No referee ever wants to cost a fencer a bout because of wrong calls.  But it is inevitable that they sometimes will in fencing.

the basics about referees

Before continuing, let's make sure all our readers are on the same page.  We'll explain a few basics about referees first so you have context.

Fencing referees do not referee for a living.  Referees do it because they enjoy it, and they love the sport.  All referees do something else for a living, some are fencing coaches, some do other work.  Teenage referees are usually fencers working for pocket money.  They are all volunteers. 

We should be grateful to volunteers, and not get mad at them because they make mistakes.  If we want improvement, the solution is to engage US Fencing on providing better training to referees.  Referees are not fair game for coaches and parents to vent their frustrations on.

There are 10 levels of skill in refereeing, and they are weapon specific.  A level 10 referee is a novice.  Level 1 and 2 referees are in a rare and elite group qualified to referee semi-finals and finals of Division 1 events at national competitions.  FIE level A & B referees are qualified to referee at World Cup and Grand Prix events.

The referee certification system, after the initial referee clinic and online test for a specific weapon, requires an aspiring referee to go out into the field (tournaments) and start refereeing under the supervision of a senior referee, usually someone at level 3 or 4.  This is pretty much a baptism by fire for the new referee.  The new referee is expected to maintain a profile in confidence regardless of how nervous they are.  This is not easy for the new referee.

A referee is promoted to a higher level when they pass specific criteria in the field under the observation of a senior supervising referee.  As a referee progresses in their skill level they will be able to referee DE rounds - there are rules on how deep in a tournament a referee can engage depending on their certification level.

For example, a level 10 referee will be allowed to referee pools in local and regional youth, cadet and junior events.  The referee will progress to refereeing DE rounds as their skills improve.

US Fencing has recommended honorariums for referees based on skill level, and a flat per diem of $20 a day.  The honorariums range from $125 per day (for Level 1,2 and 3, and FIE Level A & B), $100 per day (for level 4 & 5) and $75 per day (for levels 6 to 10).  Given that most referees work between 8 and 10 hours on tournament days, the honorariums work out to less than the minimum wage in many states. See US Fencing Referee Commission announcement on honorariums HERE.

Systematic referee training needed

Referee training in the US is an entirely "on the job" process.  That's tough when the sport is growing fast, and there is need to develop referees fast. 

There is no money allocated by US Fencing to training referees.  Training takes place at the local level when a tournament organizer is willing to hire young referees who will be supervised by senior referees at the tournament.  This method worked well when fencing was a much smaller sport. 

Given the rapid expansion of the sport, US Fencing needs to come up with a better and more systematic training system for referees.

Referees are expected to remain calm under pressure, make "good" calls 100% of the time, remain poised when a crazed coach or parent is verbally attacking them, and handle emotional situations (usually enacted by coaches and parents) with dignity.  And referees are expected to do all this with minimal training and no pay!

Based on the examples cited below, US Fencing needs to do more to protect teenage referees from abusive behavior by coaches and parents.

It's time we all got real about this.

Funding for referee training can potentially be raised from higher registration and event fees at regional qualifying and national competitions.  There could be a re-allocation of parent spending from airline travel towards funding referee training.  See Holding National Competitions in Hub Cities on where there may be room to re-allocate parent spending on travel to funding referee training.

respect the referee

Given the circumstances, fencing referees are doing a great job!  While there always a few bad apples who abuse their authority as referees, the vast majority of referees are honorable people working to do the right thing.

The next time you see a coach or parent screaming at a referee, or attempting to intimidate a teenage referee, keep in mind that that type of behavior is unfair, unacceptable, and reprehensible. Much of the bad behavior is directed at teenage referees, probably because coaches and parents think they can get away with it (aka bullying behavior).  The same bad behavior directed at an adult referee would most likely earn them a black card.

Being repeatedly and unfairly screamed at for making perceived "wrong" calls is the most common reason cited by teenage referees for why they quit refereeing.  If we expect our fencers to control their emotions under pressure, we adults must do the same.

We cannot excuse bad behavior on grounds that it was an emotional moment.  We should know better.  The same bad behavior perpetrated at work or against a stranger on the street would land us in huge trouble.  So why, engage in that behavior against a referee who is simply doing the best he/she can.

Parents and coaches must understand that cycling through referees who quit because of adult bad behavior is not good for the sport in the long term.  We need a next generation of referees to sustain the sport.  

See US Fencing Notification on Coach and Spectator Behavior at Tournaments HERE

examples of poor behavior 

(Based on eyewitness and referee accounts)

1) At a sanctioned local youth tournament, a teenage referee makes "mistakes" during a DE bout.  The coach of the fencer against whom the "mistakes" were made, starts haranguing the referee, and is verbally aggressive in tone and substance towards the referee.  This coach is an FIE level referee. The tournament organizer, also an FIE level referee requests the coach to stop his behavior.  The coach's response is to call the organizer an abusive name.

2) At Summer Nationals, a teenage level 7 referee is accused of making a "bad" call during a DE bout by a competitor's parents.  The teenage referee is under observation by a senior referee.  The parents become hysterical, with the mother accusing the referee of ignorance and insisting that the referee reverse the call (an absolute no-no), and the father using foul language against the teenage referee.  These are parents of a fencer highly ranked on the National Points List, they should definitely know better.  Their fencer also won the bout by a large margin.  These parents got away with a yellow card against the father.

3) At an RJCC, a teenage referee is accused of making several "bad" calls during a DE bout by a competitor's coach, who starts screaming at the referee to do a better job.  After the fencer loses, the fencer's mother jumps in, and tries to intimidate the referee by asking for her name with a threat to report the referee for incompetence.  The mother then circles the referee while loudly stating that she was going to make sure the referee got into trouble.

4) At an RYC, a seasoned and well regarded coach and tournament organizer is upset that a teenage referee is making "bad" calls during a DE bout involving one of his fencers.  This coach then engages in intimidating behavior by coming within inches of the referee's face and screaming his version of what he thought the action was at the referee.  He does this repeatedly throughout the bout.  

5) At an RJCC, a teenage referee makes a call.  The fencer against whom the call was made and his supporters start pushing the referee to change the call by citing so called "evidence".  The fencer and his supporters were obnoxiously insistent.  The referee then reverses the call (an absolute no-no).

6) At Summer Nationals, during a pool bout, a coach strongly feels that his fencer would have won if the teenage referee hadn't made a bad call.  After the bout, the coach is yelling and gesticulating and tries to get close to the teenage referee to have it out with him.  The referee's father physically steps in between the coach and the referee and tells the coach that that's his son.  The coach apologizes, puts his hand out to the father, shakes his hand and walks away.

These examples all involve teenage referees, who because of their youth, are viewed by coaches and parents as fair game for intimidation and bullying behavior.  Adult referees make mistakes too, but coaches and parents exercise far greater restraint around adult referees, and when they don't, they are more likely to end up black carded.

the ball is in US fencing's court

Better referee training will help reduce the more easily avoidable mistakes.  Better enforcement of rules against coaches and parents for misbehavior will curb referee intimidation, and the constant churn of teenage referees who quit in the face of abusive adult behavior.

It's not an excuse that behavior in other sports is a whole lot worse.  Fencing is the intelligent person's sport, we should keep it that way.

Perhaps we should video bad behavior when we see it, and submit it to the bout committee immediately.

You can also file a report with US Fencing SafeSport Co-ordinator, Suzie Riewald at or call her at (719) 866-2616.  You can also file a report HERE

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Donna Meyer