Notes From Anaheim

Life seems to have returned to its usual state of too-much-to-do-ness after the Summer Nationals marathon in Anaheim. Spending my days off mostly wandering around Disneyland and California Adventure too late into the evenings doesn’t seem to have had any adverse effects—it didn’t leave me in any worse physical shape than I already was, and the complete break from thinking about running events definitely contributed to surviving the week. (The massage on the Thursday day off was an inspired idea, too–thanks, Angie!)

I’ve got a longer post simmering in the back of my mind while I work this week on preparing the BC requests for availability for the 2012-2013 season, but in the meantime, here are a few odds and ends:

• The lunches for officials at the Convention Center were a major improvement over what we’d been served throughout the 2011-2012 season. We’d grown so accustomed to the normal 4-day barbecue-Italian-Mexican-cold cuts sequence (which traditionally just repeats two and a half times for SN) that the lunches at the Anaheim Convention Center were almost dazzling in their array of items that appeared to be prepared from fresh ingredients instead of merely thawed or rehydrated. I hadn’t realized how low my expectations of tournament lunches had become until I saw the lunch food this year—for me it was one of several factors that made this year’s SN far less grim than I’d expected.

• Another positive factor was my own schedule—even though I was BC chair for 8 days (twice as many as last year), my 3 days on/1 day off/3 days on/1 day off/2 days on arrangement worked out much better for me than last year’s 2 days table/1 day off/4 days BC chair/1 day off/2 days table. I didn’t have to switch gears between table staff and BC chair, and best of all, I didn’t have to work 4 days in a row. (In the years since we’ve had to go to single BC chairs instead of co-chairs, we’ve learned that 3 days are doable, 4 days are rough, and 5 consecutive days should be avoided at all costs.) Even so, by the final 2 days, we were all dragging, well into that dangerous state where if we sat still for too long, we’d suddenly realize how tired we were and how hard it was to stay awake.

• I’d hoped to have a BC co-chair/trainee at SN this year, since we so desperately need more BC staff trained as chair, but it didn’t work out–we needed our experienced staff too much for running events. If our training plans for this season work out, maybe we’ll be able to return to having 3 or 4 co-chairs for SN, which is better both for running the tournament and for developing new chairs.

• Good golly, we had an epidemic of lessons in shorts and t-shirts this year! Amazing, too, how many of those ignoring the USFA’s full-gear-for-lessons policy decided to violate it directly in front of the BC stage.

One of the most interesting lessons I ever watched, back before I ever got involved with bout committee, was Vladymir Nazlymov (in full gear) giving a lesson to one of the Crompton brothers, who was in shorts and t-shirt and wore no mask. It was a fascinating lesson to watch, completely different from the lessons my daughters got—Crompton was in no danger of being hit, because he was practicing only attacks, but Nazlymov, even working with an experienced and talented fencer, had the good sense to wear protective gear.

Violation of the gear policy is always more of a problem at SN than at NACs, and Olympic years are even worse, with increasingly tense and cranky Olympic coaches resenting having to wear full gear within the venue, contrary to their usual practice in their home facilities. At SN, though, we’ve got all these newbie fencers and relatively inexperienced coaches who see the elite coaches and fencers violating the policy and think, “Gee, it must be okay if they’re doing it.” Many of the resulting lessons are painfully cringe-inducing. Which is why the policy exists: to protect the scary fencers and coaches from their own bad judgement.

• Finally, I’ve neglected my carpet collection for too long—here are a few patterns from the Anaheim Hilton:

What Are National Tournaments For?

That many fencing referees like to race to see who can finish their pools or direct elimination quadrants first is not surprising. After all, most start out as—and many still are—competitive fencers. Rare is the event when I don’t get at least a couple of calls asking for permission to use an adjacent strip “so we can make things go faster.” Most of the time, I say yes, because I usually need events to progress as quickly as possible—there’s a different event that needs more strips for its DEs or another just closing registration that’ll need a dozen or two strips for its pools.

We—bout committee, assigners, referees—are focused on keeping things moving, minimizing wait times during and between rounds. Most épée fencers are familiar with the “Alperstein Method” for running a DE quadrant, in which fencers are called early to test their weapons so that they can hook up immediately to fence as soon as a strip opens up. Grouping strips by pod has made it easier for assigners to group referees by quadrant with enough geographic diversity that conflicts are seldom an issue, significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to turn events from pools to DEs. We expect to reduce that time even further as FencingTime’s auto-assign function becomes more usable and assigners learn how it works.

A couple of years ago, there was even the Process Improvement Task Force, which looked at and analyzed BC procedures to see where there was room for streamlining tasks. Figuring out how to make tournaments go faster is not just a matter of  friendly rivalry among referees or the obsession of detail-oriented BC geeks—it’s  become institutionally ingrained as our entry numbers have grown ever larger.

There are a few limits: a pool shouldn’t use more than one extra strip for doubling, and pools of 6 or fewer shouldn’t be doubled at all. And there’s not much point to one DE quadrant using extra strips to finish up more quickly when extra strips aren’t available to the other quadrants—that simply means that the faster group has to sit around and wait for everybody else to catch up.

Which brings us to a question worth asking: how does this emphasis on going faster affect our athletes?

Now it may well be that fencers don’t perceive much of this push for speed, that the amount of waiting built into our tournament formats feels about the same as it always has. Maybe when you balance our increasingly streamlined procedures with our increasingly large tournaments, it’s essentially a wash.

Or perhaps we’re all just frogs simmering in a huge pot and haven’t noticed how much our tournament experience has changed over the past decade or so.

In a perfect world, fencers at a well-run tournament should expect to be able to watch all of their pool competitors, to get a look at their different styles, to see which actions they tend to use and how other fencers react to those actions. Getting pulled away from this information-gathering to test weapons or to fence one opponent while others in the pool are still bouting inhibits this learning process and may even damage a fencer’s prospects in the tournament. A long succession of tournaments under such constrictions could even hamper our fencers’ long-term competitive development.

In a not-so-perfect world, we ought at least to be able to have this discussion, but right now running national tournaments in a way that provides competitors with a high-quality experience is not an option. Running national tournaments is all about survival.  It’s not merely fencers surviving eight rounds of DEs, or officials surviving two six- or seven-hour events in a single day, or bout committee making it through three or four conecutive 14- or 15-hour days—it’s the survival of the USFA itself.

We don’t have the option of adopting a more sensible tournament structure right now because the USFA’s finances are so dependent on tournament income. Membership dues bring in around $1 million and tournament income a little over $1 million, approximately the total international programs deficit for 2011–2012. (These are very round numbers—for more precise figures, refer to recent USFA financial reports.)

Were we to reduce the size of national tournaments to more reasonable size, to allow, say, 8- to 10-hour competition days and a more civilized pace, we would lose income essential to keeping the USFA functioning.  Our shaky finances have trapped us in a broken tournament structure, pressured to keep growing events that are already too big, already stressing both our personnel and equipment resources.

We can’t simply keep going on the way we have for the past few years—the way we are going is unsustainable, and we’re losing too many experienced people to the stress and frustration. We desperately need a new revenue model to support a more workable tournament structure, but can we—will we—develop both before the whole rickety USFA contraption collapses under its own weight?

(Jenga photo from Google Images)