How to work WITH the referee at fencing competitions

Fencing referee administering a yellow card at a fencing tournament

by Ed Kaihatsu

Arguing with the fencing referee has a 100% failure rate. In this short essay, I will discuss why coaches who choose to do so need to reconsider their approach. Instead, they should think about how they can best work WITH fencing referees instead of AGAINST them. This is the second of a three-part piece on the critical aspects of coaching in fencing. Topics of other essays in this series include coaching at competitions, preparing the coach and preparing the athlete.

Never put a referee on the defense

Referees rarely change their judgement of a touch after an argument with a coach. Many coaches understand this logically, however, in the heat of the bout, they still choose to be unnecessarily aggressive when they believe a wrong call has been made.

It’s important to understand that human nature is not on your side in this scenario. Taking a combative tone will almost always provoke a defensive response, even if the referee is doubting their judgement. So behaviors such as shouting, stomping or pouting (believe me, I’ve seen it all) only make your situation worse.

Some coaches might think that arguing with the referee can be smart maneuver because it puts pressure on the official to show favor on future touches. I cannot say that this does not occur, however, it is not a sustainable strategy, and can very easily backfire. It’s important to remember that it’s your student that is up there giving their heart and soul, and ultimately they are the ones that will suffer the consequences if you push the referee too far.

Ask the fencing referee intelligent, constructive questions

You want the referee to be on your side, so work WITH the referee. Approaching the exchange like a discussion is much more likely to lead to a constructive result.

Once a call has been made there is virtually nothing that you can do (unless there’s video replay) to recover that point. However, there are two important ways that you can help guide their perception for future points by asking the right questions.

How to educate the fencing referee

The true power of asking the right questions is that you can “coach” the referee by calling attention to the actions that may have been missed. Asking simple questions like “who started the action?” “who beat the blade?” and “help me understand why it was the opponent’s attack?” can provide extremely valuable information. If your student likes to do an action in a certain way, and the referee misses the call the first time around, they are much more likely to pick it up the next time if you guide their attention to the right place.

How to educate your fencing student

When asking simple questions and controlling your tone and language, you are more likely to get a thoughtful response and truly learn more about what the referee is seeing and thinking. With this information, you are in a much better position to advise your students on how to make positive changes in their fencing actions. You can even ask questions when there is one-light or an off-target touch just to hear what the referee is seeing.

So, ask good questions about the action then STOP TO LISTEN TO THE ANSWER!

After they are finished, nod your head to indicate that you understand, even if you do not agree. Acknowledging that you understand is a show of support and can help develop a better working relationship. This information can then be used to direct your students next actions, so they are more likely to be seen favorably by the referee.

Be aware of the mood of the referee

The one caveat with this approach is that referees, like fencers, have different personalities. REFEREES DESERVE A LOT OF RESPECT because they work long, hard days and often take abuse from fencers, parents and other coaches. It’s essential that coaches read the mood of the referee and decide whether asking a question will do more harm than good. Remember, while fencers compete only in their event/s, the referees continue on to several other events over the course of the tournament.

Set a good example for your students

Take the high road! Arguing can have a negative effect both on your relationship with the referee and on your own students.

Remember that as a coach, you are not only responsible for their growth as fencers, but also the development of their character. You may not always realize it, but they are watching and processing your every move. They are learning what is right and wrong and good and bad through the example you set for them. If you discourage them from arguing with referees, you need to exercise the discipline to avoid doing it yourself!

The stress of competition has a tendency to bring out undesirable aspects of our personalities, so keep your position as a positive role model in the eyes of the parents, students and referees.

Ed Kaihatsu, former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University, coaching at a NCAA fencing competition

Ed Kaihatsu, former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University, coaching at a NCAA fencing competition

About Ed

Ed Kaihatsu is the former Associate Head Fencing coach at Northwestern University. Prior to that, he was the Assistant Fencing Coach at University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois. He was also the Fencing Program Director of SECA Sports Academy, Shanghai, China. Ed is also a longtime competitive fencer, a two-time national team member and, more recently, a six-time veteran national champion (5X Foil, 1X Sabre).

Footnote from Ed

I want to thank the many collaborators on this article. First and foremost, Kevin Carroll for helping me structure my thoughts. I would also like to thank John Heil, Jamie Douraghy and Jason Rogers for their input to the piece. 

Image of Ed: Thank you so much to the photographer, whose name has escaped me, that took this great image.

Preview Image Credit: By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0