REF: Nationally Rated Referees

originally published in American Fencing, vol. 61, no. 1 (Spring 2011)


Jon Moss (Northeast Division, F1, E1, S2) says he was coerced into becoming a nationally rated referee.

“I was not a member of the AFLA at the time, but I was directing at the NJ Sectional Qualifiers. This man with a cane, who turned out to be Ralph Goldstein, kept following me to whatever strip and weapon I was assigned. After every bout, he’d ask me why I called this or why I hadn’t called that. Then he asked what my ratings were. I told him I wasn’t even a member of the league. At the end of the day, he handed me a check for $50. I said that I was promised $75. He told me I was now a member of the AFLA and needed to be in Baltimore the next weekend to be tested for my national license. For some reason, I went!”

The “F1, E1, S2” numbers after Moss’s name, by the way, refer to his ratings in the various weapons. Currently, 1 is the highest rating referees can earn, and refers to their reliability at various levels through the sport; a “1” implies demonstrated proficiency at the highest levels of Division I competition.

For Gerrie Baumgart (Colorado Division, F5, E1, S9), wanting to fence was what turned her into a referee. “For my generation, women often had to wait hours to get a (male) referee. A lot of us didn’t want to wait forever so we would do it ourselves. If we wanted to fence, we had to referee.”

For many referees, the scarcity of qualified referees in their local divisions was a major factor pushing them into becoming referees.

Andria Hine (Indiana Division, E5, S6) was writing a letter of complaint to her division officers about the poor quality of the refereeing at a division youth event, when “I realized that just complaining wouldn’t get me anywhere. I needed to step up and try to make the situation better.”

But there are other reasons, too. Says Hine, “As I’ve gotten further into it, it has allowed me to be at tournaments with my son that I might have missed otherwise. Seeing him on the medal stand at a NAC is a lot better than seeing the pictures.”

For Christine Griffith (Philadelphia Division, S4), who started reffing when she was about 13, becoming a referee was partly to understand the sport better and partly to help cover her tournament travel expenses. “Refereeing has helped my fencing immensely. Being able to understand the referee’s perspective helps when you’re on strip, because you have an idea of what they may be seeing, and you’ve had firsthand experience explaining to fencers what their ‘real’ action was. “

Omar Bhutta (Western Washington Division, F2, E4) started refereeing off and on at his club about 14 years ago. “Once I hit college, it was much more expected that you referee in practice, and I was fortunate to be fencing with some of the top foilists at the time, so they taught me that I had a lot to learn.”

Discovering how much there is yet to learn is often a surprise to newly licensed referees, who at national tournaments are usually assigned at first to work with an experienced referee for both observation and mentoring.

“When we examine beginning referees,” say Moss, “we need to see what skills they bring and what skills need to be grown, taught, and learned. The differences in ratings reflect which characteristics are solid and which require growth. Some of those are understanding the fundamentals of fencing, knowing the rules, and being able to understand the actions in the framework of fencing and the rules.”

“Beyond that, referees need to have the composure to make calls under various pressures. In terms of recognition of actions, a referee operates under a pattern response condition. If referees have seen particular actions before, they tend to be able to react to those actions more correctly. So experience at each level is critical in order to gain the pattern to respond to.”

“I don’t remember what my first national tournament was,” says Griffith, “but I do remember Mr. [Bill] Goering, the referee I was paired with for my first pool, telling me to slow down and breathe while I was calling the action. I was so nervous my hand signals were all over the place. Since then I’ve always focused on setting a rhythm to calling actions, and making sure I breathe.”

For Bhutta, the hardest thing to learn has been that the learning never stops. “You cannot stop learning and you will make mistakes every day you referee. Every referee makes mistakes and no one likes to. You have to accept that you will make mistakes, but keep working to make fewer and fewer.

“The other hard part,” he continues, “is owning my mistakes. Sometimes a coach or a fencer yells at you and they are wrong, but a lot of times, they are completely justified. Balancing the ability to stay focused during the bout and not be influenced by coaches, but still objectively analyzing if they might be right, is a hard skill to learn.”

“You also need the ability to stay calm under pressure. When you start to get nervous, or start questioning yourself, or start to get influenced by your surroundings (coaches, fencers, parents, the voices in your head), that’s when things start to get bad, and you can start to bias yourself. This takes lots of practice and experience.”

Hine agrees that humility and a willingness to learn are essential characteristics for a good referee, but it takes more: “Confidence—never let them see you sweat. They sense weakness and will try to exploit it. And self-control, for those times when coaches, fencers, and parents get really vicious. Rather than take it personally, I have to tell myself, ‘This gentleman has been coaching for 30 years. He knows far more about the sport than I do. What can I learn from this?’”

Both Hine and Griffith also agree that it can be especially difficult to be a female referee, particularly in saber, though they are philosophical about it. “You have to be independent and confident in your ability to call the action,” says Griffith. “You also have to be patient, and know that it takes time to improve and to gain respect as a competent ref.”

The climate for female referees has improved considerably from what it once was, though. Baumgart remembers when George Kolombatovich and Ralph Zimmerman passed Gay Jacobsen D’Asaro (now MacLellan) and submitted her name (as just an initial and last name) to the 1983 University Games in Edmonton, Alberta.

“Not only was she not allowed to referee once they realized she was female, but they actually announced over the public address system that no female referees would be assigned.”

Baumgart says attending an engineering school for college got her used to bias against women. She wasn’t happy with it, but it wasn’t so unexpected to find it in fencing, too. “But I’m competitive and wanted to be better than I was, so I worked at it.”

“Ralph Zimmerman was good at seeking out younger referees and taking chances on them,” she says. “Women were chancy assignments. He asked me if I was willing to do whatever I was asked to get to the Olympic Games. I said yes.”

It turned out to be a huge commitment. She worked 17 world cups in about a year and a half to build her reputation as a suitable selection. But in 1996 in Atlanta, she became the first American woman to referee at the Olympic Games.

According to most referees, warming up is just as important for them as it is for competitors. “When I really began to climb as a referee,” says Moss, “ I had a foil referee as a partner, Andy Shaw. Before each competition —at all levels, high school through national championships—we would locate fencers who seemed to be warming up relatively seriously. We would alternate making the calls to each other and then we would challenge each other to get more detail or to correct errors. As a result, we were ready to referee when we were called.”

Griffith does much the same thing on her own: “I usually try to find a few fencers who are warming up and ref the bout in my head. This way I can start to see the timing and my brain gets waked up for the event.”

“For big tournaments,” says Bhutta,  I’ll usually read through the technical rules, just to remind myself of them. I try to read the rules front to back a few times a year, and usually I do it before NACs. Sometimes I’ll also go to the FIE YouTube channel because there is a lot of world cup footage there. Since there is not a lot of high-level fencing in my area, it helps me get up to Division I speed faster.”

“As the day moves on, during my down time, I’ll either rest my eyes for a bit, or go watch other bouts that referees I trust are refereeing. I found that I get better faster by following other refs around, especially toward the end of the day if I am not being used in other rounds.”

But it’s not just mental preparation that’s needed. “I tell fencers that you need to be in better physical shape to referee than to fence,” says Baumgart, “and they think it’s a joke, but I’m absolutely serious. Sore legs, sore back, sore hips—completely normal for referees.”

“And for a referee, Summer Nationals is totally different from anything else you’ve ever done before,” insists Baumgart. “People have no idea the amount of stamina it takes to referee and maintain that level.” Plenty of sleep and plenty of water are also crucial for surviving the long Summer Nationals days.

But there are rewards for the hard work and physical wear and tear.

“When the fencing is great,” says Moss, “my love for high-level sports and the ability to have the best seat in the house make refereeing just plain fun!”

Bhutta agrees. “Refereeing is fun because it’s a way to stay involved at a high level, now that I have a real job and less time to train. As a fencer, I competed nationally, but I was never among the real top foil fencers. Some days I’d win bouts I probably shouldn’t have, but I never realistically had a chance to be the best. Refereeing is fun because it’s something I can still push myself with. I never once imagined I could fence in a world cup. Now I’ve started to referee them, so it’s something I can excel at. That’s a great feeling.”

Griffith still prefers fencing—most of the time. “Often when I ref a lot of good bouts, I always end up wanting to fence as well. But there are times when you’re reffing some really good fencing, and you can get in the zone just like you do when competing—everything just meshes together, and you know you’re making good calls. It all depends on how good a day it is.”

And some days can be very good, says Hine. “In March, a very high-level referee who has been a mentor to me in the past, and who has been away from the sport for a while, watched me ref a finals bout. After the bout, he came up with his hand on his heart and told me how much I had improved and how delighted he was to see the progress I had made over the last few years. No one is going to agree with every call I make. I know I make mistakes. Everyone does, but to be recognized for the improvement, by someone who is considered one of the best, was amazing!”

One of Bhutta’s most memorable days was refereeing the gold medal matches in both men’s and women’s foil at the Division I Nationals during an Olympic year. “It was pretty cool refereeing two bouts between such elite fencers with a large crowd watching. Exhilarating!”

“It’s going to be hard to forget the experience of handing out my first black card,” says Griffith. “But I’d say my most positive referee experience was when I’d just finished reffing a semifinal for a vet women’s saber event. Walking up to my assigner, I felt like I was just going to be told of all the mistakes I made in the bout. Instead, he told me to ref the gold medal bout, which at the time was the my first final. And I managed to ref the final and not screw up! It was an exciting day.”

Jon Moss recalls refereeing a foil national championship bout between Jon Tiomkin and Nick Bravin: “The final score was 15-14, and Tiomkin had won his first championship. In a restaurant later I overheard someone ask Jon who the referee was and he replied, ‘I don’t remember.’

“I believe that was the greatest compliment I’ve ever received in my career as a referee.”

 • • • • •

How To Become a Nationally Rated Referee

  • Learn the the rules of fencing. You can download the latest USFA Rules Book and the “Study Guide for National Referee Examination” from the FOC website. The study guide is a collection of all the test questions; finding all the answers in the Rules Book will help you prepare for the written test.
  • Practice refereeing in practice and at local tournaments as much as you can.
  • Take the Referee Development Seminar. These are usually offered at no charge during Summer Nationals and for a fee at various locations throughout the country during the fencing season, often at sectional events. Contact the FOC for the latest seminar information.
  • Pass the written examination, both the general test and the test specific to the weapon(s) you’re interested in, with a score of at least 90%.
  • Pass a practical examination in your weapon(s) of choice. Referee ratings range from 10 (proficient at the level of the final of an unrated tournament) to 1 (proficient at any level of an Open NAC competition). New referees typically earn ratings in the 8–10 range; promotion to the 4–5 range typically can typically take at least 3–6 years.
  • For complete details about the examination process and the rules of fencing, visit the Fencing Officials Commission website.
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