2014 SN Diary: Post Mortem

This will be one monster grab-bag of a post. I’m mostly recovered from Summer Nationals—the hypnic twitching has subsided, my muscles have quit yelling at me, and I no longer feel as though I will drop off to sleep any minute, but my ability to focus on the work at hand is not yet what it should be. So I’m not even going to try—I’m just going to throw stuff up here as it comes to me.

This was for me the most difficult SN I’ve ever worked. That’s not to say that it was the worst SN I’ve ever been to—Columbus 2014 was not nearly the threat to Austin 2003, the all-time champion of  horrible SNs, that I’d expected it to be—but it was easily the most challenging SN I’ve worked as BC chair. Partly it was the run-up to the actual tournament. Six weeks out we had no idea whether we’d have as many referees as strips. At the point where referee hiring is usually all but done, we were looking at only about 50 refs for the first half and 40 for the second half.  This for a schedule based on 61 strips and a venue with 65 strips. (We use the extra pod mainly to minimize delays  when an early event is still on strips needed to start a later event.) There were more than the usual number of problems with entries and eligibility, and figuring out BC staffing for 12 days instead of 10 turned out to be trickier than I had expected.

Mostly it was the unknowns I stewed over: Would we finally have enough referees? Strong enough referees? How would coaches and parents cope with the less-experienced-than-usual referee crew? Would the new BC process even work for SN? Would the 25% of the BC staff who’d never worked a SN before be more help than hindrance? Would the projected schedules hold up? How bad were the odds against June 30 finishing at the projected end time? Would we maintain at least a minimal level of competence through the whole 12 days? Would there be enough coffee in Columbus to keep us all alert enough to avoid the worst errors?

So I began the tournament more tired than usual. Fortunately, the first half was the easier half, the Vet/Div half, with a schedule that exemplifies what all of SN should be like. This gave us a chance to get comfortable with the new BC process before we got into the second half horrors, and gave all those eager new referees a chance to get acclimated to the unique pressures of SN.

• Favorite newbie ref conversation:

Newbie Ref (to Sharon Everson): Uh, I think there’s been a mistake. I just checked my report time for tomorrow and it says I’m assigned to Div I. That can’t be right—I’m only a 7.

Sharon (checking Newbie Ref’s name): No, you’re a 5. We promoted you. You’ve done well these first few days.

Newbie Ref (flummoxed): Really? I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

Sharon: You’ll do fine. Don’t worry—we won’t use you too far into the DEs, but you’ll be fine for the pools.

Most of those new and unknown referees were terribly excited to be at SN. They were enthusiastic and hardworking and eager to do their best. It was just heartbreaking that many were out of their depth, and simply didn’t have enough experience for the events they were asked to work. They did their best, but because of the shortage of experienced referees, they did not get the mentoring they needed and deserved. Much to my surprise, there were very few black cards this year—only 4 or 5 over the entire 12 days. We had one black card that was voided because the referee erroneously believed that failure to sign a scoresheet was grounds for expulsion, and there were a couple of sore losers who said something inappropriate to their referee or did something inappropriate with equipment, but nothing much out of the ordinary. By the time we got to the second half, when I’d expected more than the usual number of spectator black cards because of the less-experienced referee crew, coaches and parents seem to have grasped the idea that our refs were doing the best they could under the circumstances. (Either that, or those referees didn’t realize they could do something about abuse directed at them. I choose to believe it was tolerance and understanding.)

World Cup photo break:

So why so much trouble hiring referees for SN? There are those who believe it’s due to a few disgruntled troublemakers attempting to foment some sort of referee rebellion, but any such vocal complainers are not the source of the trouble—they are one symptom of a systemic problem. Our volunteer corps—in all categories—is so overextended, stretched so thin, that we’ve not been able to establish and run the recruiting and mentoring programs we’ve needed for years. Our tournaments—especially but not only SN—are so large and tightly scheduled and the economizing of the past several years to get our finances into the black have resulted in consistently terrible working conditions—hotels remote from the venue, inadequate meal options (both variety and quantity), unconscionable hours on concrete floors, etc., etc. Mix that with high-demand referees running out of vacation days or opting to use those days at better-paying, more pleasant tournaments, add in a lack of significant change despite years of complaints and warnings, and it’s all too easy for many refs to perceive such continued poor conditions as a lack of respect—even contempt—for the volunteers who make our tournaments even possible. Some referees who feel this way become vocal complainers. Others simply opt to do something else with their time and energy.

It will take us years to fix this.

The second half was what it was. There were occasional problems with the monitors, due to our original consumer-level equipment bought for proof-of-concept being overtaxed by the additional demands we put on it. (There’s a proposal for upgrading our equipment to handle the load.) By the time we got to the really ugly days, we were all in survival mode, focusing on getting through the next round, the next event, the rest of the day, hoping that meals would be palatable enough not to have to force ourselves to eat just for the fuel. (Hence the vacuum effect that occurred when candy or cookies or other treats were dumped onto tables in the referee corral.)

There was this:

JMETM checkin

This is what check-in for 65 teams looks like. (We’re still dazzled by how early the JME team check-in was done—especially considering it occurred while the JME individual event was in progress.)

Another favorite referee moment:

 Day 11, about 7:30 am. Most of the tables in the referee corral are filled with referees getting their morning coffee fix, waiting for their 8:00 assignments. Adam Brewer stands up.

“I have something to say,” he says. “How many of you have been here since the first day?”

Perhaps 60% of the referees there—along with half the BC staff facing the corral—raise their hands.

Adam proceeds through the corral, high-fiving every raised hand.

This is inexplicably encouraging.

Somehow we made it through. Eventually there was this:

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

The very last bout on the very last strip on the very last day.

And this:

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

The last bout slip of the 2014 SN.

Inevitably, there were travel problems due to Hurricane Arthur and other storms around the country. Too many people got stuck an extra day in Columbus or strange layover cities on their way home, but it sounds like we all made eventually made it.

And those BC staff who’d never worked a SN before? They rocked.

Oh, and there were carpets:

Update: One last item that I forgot to include: if you haven’t seen them yet, these 360-degree panoramas of the venue are amazing. Take a look!

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9 comments on “2014 SN Diary: Post Mortem

    • There was! I didn’t get any myself (turned away just at the wrong time & missed the availability window), but several BC staff did.

  1. Bravo Mary! Great summary. I am sorry that I couldn’t be there to help this year. In any capacity. I agree that the push to get us in the black has resulted in a severe decrease in the quality of experience for both volunteers and competitors at the expense of the bottom line.

  2. I can’t help but wonder whether it’s worth lowering hiring standards when referees cannot be found. An 8, an offer to referee for only the cost of travel (lodging with family friends), and a recommendation from a ref with a good reputation weren’t enough to get hired. I realize that these are high caliber events, but maybe the cannon fodder can be used on lower-profile events to free up some of the more-experienced refs. Of course, that might stretch the definition of “more-experienced.”

    Hope to be seeing you by San Jose!

    • Except that you can’t treat events at Summer National Championships like running a local event. You just can’t. The sub-standard Refereeing that exists at the local level is okay at the local level because everyone understands that, often, those lower level Referees are still ‘in-process’ in terms of skills development. They are going to make incorrect calls. Not all of them, but a lot of them. Combine that with the ‘audience’ that is the Qualified fencer. They earned their entry (or at least went to enough ROCs for the 1000 points). So, all of these ‘better’ fencers at their appropriate skill level, which is for the sake of argument, higher than the ‘average’ fencer. And that person has spent a lot of money, taken a lot of vacation time, and/or traveled a pretty long way to get to the venue. Plus paid for their Coach’s travel. If you went to all that effort, would you really be happy with anything less than flawless calls and Refereeing for your bouts?

      That’s not fair to those lower-level Referees. It’s even LESS fair for us (the fencers) to be okay with the idea of working that 8 for 12h a day, for 10 out of 12 days. Everyone can blame the officials, organizers, BC and the Tooth Fairy as much as they like, but it comes down to this: How many hours without breaks is considered fair–or healthy–for an individual to be presiding bouts? How focused and clear-minded can those calls be on Day 9 of seemingly endless fencing? Mentally, is it even ethical for us as the fencers ourselves to treat people who are there to make sure we have a good time on our days off as ‘The Help’?

      There is a fundamentally flawed perception that all of us have: These people are basically giving their time away for our benefit. So they get over-used, and we as the participants are already wrankled at having spent so much money to be there in the first place. Maybe if more of that money stayed in our community, and every Club and Coach was an employee who collected fees from fencers, submitted it to the NO, who then re-distributed it among those employees and for the running of tournaments–maybe then we would have the right to complain about the officials being inadequate. But they aren’t, and we don’t, and either way, we are all *choosing * to be here. You, me, Mary, and everyone else remotely having to do with Fencing. No one is holding a gun to our heads. No one is forcing me to take time off work to travel to compete, or be a Division Officer, or study to take the Referee Exam. We do it because at the core, at the heart, we all love Fencing.

      So that choice, freely made, comes with all the muck and frustration and untenable things and expensive things that make the ‘getting to actually fence’ part possible, and so very, very worth it. Or not, depending on how low your particular morale is. Results not typical, your mileage may vary.

      So maybe we fix the problems, all of them, by just stopping, taking a deep breath, and trying to remember to be kind. To have compassion for each other. To realize that as stupid as that other person seems, that maybe, occasionally, we ourselves are actually wrong. As in, I am writing this, and realizing that between my day job, money, long distance friendships, relationship strain, and frustration with all things fencing that my *perception* that everyone else is the problem is wrong. That I am wrong. That I am the mean person, that what I want, whatever that is at the time, is actually pretty selfish. And that doesn’t help a Referee do her job well any more than any of us could do.

      I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I am kidding myself if I think I am going to be able to solve these problems. But what I can do is stop having unrealistic expectations of the people donating their time to our enjoyment of the sport. I can try to remember that there are parents giving up sleep and a lot of money to try and give their kid something that will make them happy, or at least give them happy memories to look back on when they grow up and find themselves 39 and stuck in a cubicle for 10 hours a day. And I can decide to just try to be approachable, mindful that my own resentments are probably without merit, and that everyone else is probably dealing with something crappy that has given them neurotic expectations in the first place. So I am working on being kinder. On being less of a bitch, so to speak. Might be a lost cause, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to personally improve the experience and perception that people have about how fencing works ‘behind the scenes’. It does no one any good if I won’t even stop to say hello to the fencers who are just coming up to Bout Committee to be friendly, and it certainly won’t encourage them to want to learn how to Referee and/or eventually work for me at a tournament.

      So yeah. I need to be less of a bitch, everyone else needs to realize that we are all flawed, and maybe just try to be a little more understanding of each other. And who knows, someday it might not only reduce the number of Black Cards generated, but allow us all to enjoy Fencing again.

      • I think that makes a lot of sense. Clearly we want those to have made it to such a high-level competition to have comparably high-level referees. But I imagine that if we had the option, we wouldn’t hire anyone below a 5.

        The thing is that we don’t have the option. It looks like the BC made the right call for this year, since Columbus seems to have been a success. But what if the growth of SNs outpaces the development of the national referee corps?

        It seem hard to reconcile the tension between the national community lamenting the lack of referees and the conditions they face while lesser-known referees are begging to have the opportunity to work 12-hour days on concrete floors (it’s hard NOT to hear what being a ref at a national event is like) and hearing that the way you get hired to ref national events is to have been hired to ref a previous national event.

        I think what the national community means is not that we don’t have enough refs but that we don’t have enough refs with proven reputations, and what the lesser-known refs mean is not that national BCs are too stingy but that there aren’t enough ways to prove they’re up to the task.

        If we had enough refs this year, then the right decisions were certainly made. Maybe the status quo will keep working indefinitely. It really might. But it’s hard to come to that conclusion from how the national community talks about the state of our organization.

      • One small point to keep in mind: the BC at SN is in charge of the timing and running of the competitions. Referee development, hiring, and assigning is handled by the FOC and their delegates, not the BC. (Even with auto-assign, the referees for each event are selected by the assigners.)

  3. Pingback: Qualification Changes for USA Fencing Events - Fencing.Net : Fencing.Net

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