Times Change . . .

Word for the day:

Nostalgia

nos⋅tal⋅gia /nɔstældʒə/

noun

longing for something past

ORIGIN: 1770, Modern Latin rendering of German heimweh, from Greek nostos “homecoming” + algos “pain, grief, distress.” Originally “severe homesickness,” transferred sense of “wistful yearning for the past” first recorded 1920.

Allowing fencers to feel they’ve reached the big time is not the only argument I find unpersuasive for keeping national fencing tournaments as large as they are now.

Another claim I hear fairly often—typically from a middle-aged or older coach or referee—is that large tournaments are important for young fencers to meet and develop friendships with others from all over the country, that such friendships are essential components for the development of young fencers—not just into accomplished athletes—but into competent and responsible adults.

This one’s easy for me to dismiss. After all, when these proponents of large tournaments as educational institutions were young, our large tournaments weren’t large at all by today’s standards. Even as little as a decade ago, USFA’s Summer Nationals were smaller than some NACs are now. Local tournaments were purely developmental, entered mostly by fencers who’d just begun to learn the sport. Outside the very few fencing centers around the country (the New York metropolitan area, and perhaps Los Angeles and Portland) any fencers who sought serious competition had to enter and travel to national events to find real challenge. Today, though, national events are no longer the only places to find the friendly rivals that were so important to the proponents of this argument, and there’s a good argument to be made that national events are now so large and ungainly that they actually hinder the formation of such valuable relationships.

But I find this argument interesting as an aspect of a more comprehensive problem within the sport of fencing:

USA Fencing is a deeply nostalgic organization.

Of course, there is a lot to like about the history and traditions of fencing. There are the salutes and handshakes, and at least a tradition  of courtliness, however much it may now be honored in the breach. There’s the huge and growing Hall of Fame collection that Andy Shaw maintains, and it’s rare to have a chat with George Masin without hearing about some interesting new artifact he’s just acquired or bid on.

And there are the stories! I’ve been in the sport long enough now to have accumulated some of my own (Austin 2003, Reno & the lost equipment train, the Tucson home & garden show NAC, for just a few), but the stories are part of what first caught and then kept me around the sport—tales of weird calls, novel ways of cheating with equipment, stylish and original means of provoking the presentation of black cards, coaches reenacting competing versions of entire bouts . . .

But there’s a dangerous downside to nostalgia.

We can look back too fondly at the past, remembering people and friendships and feelings, and forgetting the reality of that past. We can long for a gentlemanly once-upon-a-time and forget that it excluded complete categories of people we take for granted now in our sport.

Nostalgia can make us believe that our memories represent reality, that way the world was is still the way it is, that the beliefs and behaviors that allowed us to survive our past still equip us for the future.

My nostalgic middle-aged coaches and officials are right to want those valuable relationships for their young students. But those students inhabit a different world than their mentors—they’ll find their friends and rivals and memories, all right—but not in the same way or in the same places. In 20 years or 50 years, those kids will look back on their own past, and worry that their own successors will miss out somehow because the world has changed too much, while their own kids will—like every generation—do just fine creating their own memories.

However valuable its history and traditions are, USA Fencing—specifically, USA Fencing’s governance—can no longer afford to indulge in nostalgia. We’ve outgrown the structure that served what we used to be. We need to look clearly at who and what we are now to create the structures that will serve and support the different organization we already are.

Times change. There’s no going back.

Layout & Strips, Part 6: Repechage, Plus Some SN Considerations

I’ve been fond of repechage ever since I figured out how it works. As a moderately geeky, detail-oriented BC person, I find it an interesting intellectual exercise to calculate all the backside table reseeds and swaps, and it’s always fun to try to get it done before the computer operator hands me the printed version. But much as I personally like the double-elimination format, I feel strongly that it no longer belongs at national competitions, but should be relegated to camps and fun tournaments along with fencing-16-to-all-places (which can also be thought of as quadruple elimination).

Here’s why I (and most other BC people I know) are not happy about the return of repechage to national events. Let’s take the hypothetical tournament we’ve talked about in the last two posts and add repechage to the ME event. The pool round would be the same, of course, with the 23 pools of 7 and 6 pools of 6. The DEs start out the same: 158 of the original 197 fencers would be promoted to the DEs. Again, that’s an incomplete table of 256, on 8 pages in XSeed.

But around 1:00 pm, when the tableau has been fenced down to the 32, the double elimination kicks in, and two extra repechage tables are added to the process. If the round of 32 is fenced on 8 strips, as is typical, the event will finish around 6:00–6:30; if fenced on 16 strips, it will end a bit sooner at 5:30–6:00. Repechage adds between 2 and 3 hours to the length of the event.

But that’s not its only effect. Don’t forget that WF event, expecting to be able to go wide on 24 strips for its DEs. Depending on where the ME is when the WF pools are done, those 24 strips might not be available for the WF DEs. Because the ME uses more strips for more hours, the options for other events are reduced. For this relatively simple hypothetical tournament day, the consequences are not too serious. For a more complicated day, such as those we will face at the January NAC, where not only will we be adding repechage back to all the epee events but we will be adding six Cadet events to the usual Junior and Division I events, those consequences could well cause delays that cascade through the whole schedule. Each day could end up even longer than just the two to three hours added by the repechage itself.

Think about that for a bit: 12 large events over 4 days become 18 large events over 4 days. Instead of 3 events each day, we’ll probably have 4 events each on Friday and Monday, and 5 events each on Saturday and Sunday. And spread thorughout that assortment will be 6 large epee events with repechage making them 2 to 3 hours longer than they otherwise would be. Those days will have SN hours—with fewer events, they won’t be such complicated days as at SN, but they will be SN numbers and SN hours. It will be an interesting tournament.

There’s another aspect of repechage events worth talking about, and that’s the question of when the inevitable waiting around should occur. At every repechage event, there’s always at least one group of referees which runs their quadrant significantly faster than the rest and inevitably gets frustrated at not being able to keep going as far into the DE table as they want to.

One of the irritating quirks of XSeed is that it cannot print out the tableau or bout slips for the round of 32 and beyond until all 32 competitors are known. Sometimes the BC uses this to our advantage—if we need to reduce an event from 16 or more strips down to 8, we’ll stop at the 32 to move everybody to 2 contiguous pods. But this drives those hyper-efficient referees batty—they want to keep going and get all those frontside bouts fenced down to their 4. Sometimes, if we’re not moving to different strips, we’ll let them keep going, but to do so, we have to print out blank bout slips and start transferring bout results—both front- and backside—to a handwritten paper tableau. Eventually, once the whole 32 is in, XSeed will print the round of 32 tableau, but until then, keeping track of both the front- and backside bouts is a tricky and often frantic process for even the most experienced BC staff.

And the thing is, when those rapid referees finish off their quadrant 30 or 40 minutes ahead of everybody else, they get to sit around waiting for everyone else to catch up before the rep tables and the round of 8 can be fenced. Why waiting around then is so much preferred to waiting around earlier may be one of those referee mysteries I’m doomed never to comprehend.

If this glimpse into BC thinking about strip management has you thinking that strip planning doesn’t seem all that complicated, keep in mind that my imaginary tournament day was a relatively simple one. Some NACs—and JOs—are nearly as straightforward, but others are more challenging, such as the March and April NACs, with multiple age-level Veteran or Youth events, even though most of the individual events are not huge.

The monster of all challenging tournaments is, of course, Summer Nationals. With 6 to 14 events each day and daily entries ranging from 350 to nearly 800, figuring out which events should go where on  66 strips is a decidedly nontrivial jigsaw puzzle not found anywhere else in the fencing world.

Layout & Strips, Part 5: DEs

At the end of the last post, we’d reached 11:00 am on our imaginary tournament day. All the pools from our ME and MS events have finished, and the promoted fencers are waiting for their DEs to be posted. While the scoresheets are printed and the referees assigned for those events, the 112 WF fencers whose event closed at 10:30 are reporting to their strips for their pool round.

As you may recall, the MS DEs will be fenced on 8 strips, in 2 adjacent pods of 4 at one end of the hall. Because the WF event will be the last to finish, I’m going to put their 16 pools of 7 on the middle 4 pods. Assuming that the BC stage is roughly in the middle of the room, putting the WF in the middle, too, will mean they won’t need to move to a different area for their DEs. The ME DEs will go on the remaining 4 pods at the other end of the hall. For the next few hours, every strip in the hall will be used for competition.

How do we decide how many strips to use for DEs? That’s determined mainly by the total number of strips available and the number and size of events to be fenced. In this case, we have 345 fencers in our 3 events: 158 promoted in the ME, 75 promoted in the MS, and 112 fencing in the 16 WF pools (from which 90 fencers will eventually be promoted to their DEs). That means we’re looking at a not-very-full table of 256 for the ME (8 pages of tableau in XSeed), a not-very-full table of 128 for the MS (4 pages in XSeed), and a half-full table of 128 for the WF.

Normally, we aim for the DEs to take somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes to fence down to 8 finalists, and we use our planning spreadsheet to see how many strips it takes (8, 12, or 16, usually) to achieve that. Sometimes we are forced into smaller numbers than we’d like because of a crowded schedule or a shortage of referees (fairly common in saber, where we might have 12 strips available but only 8 referees).

In this hypothetical, the ME is projected to take about 2-1/2 hours to fence down to the 8. Typically, the point weapons run about 30–45 minutes longer than our spreadsheet projects, mainly because we haven’t bothered to adjust the spreadsheet bout durations to align with the actual current durations. If the ME reaches the 8 by 2:30 or so, we’ll consider it on time. Since this is a relatively simple day, where no other groups will need any more strips, the only time pressure is the desire of the fencers and officials to eat their dinners at a moderately reasonable hour.

Since the ME is on an 8-page table, each pod will have 2 pages of the tableau. Depending on the preferences of the head referee and the number of referees available, we might send this out as four groups of referees and 2 pages per pod, or as 8 smaller groups with a single page for every pair of strips. The single-page-per-pair grouping would make the paperwork easier to track, but the whole-pod grouping would minimize delays caused by one or two strips being slower than others, since the larger groups can pick up the slack more easily to compensate. (The larger groups also make it easier to avoid referee conflicts, since there are more referees available to use.)

Similarly, the MS might be assigned with half the tableau (2 pages for each half) to each of the two pods of 4 strips, or with each one-page quadrant assigned to a pair of strips. A saber DE of this size would typically take 60–75 minutes to fence down to the 8.

Once each event reaches the 8, it could continue to fence straight through to the final, or we could pause to move the round of 8 to a single pod. On a relatively leisurely day like this one, we’d more likely take the pause and assign the 8 to the single pod closest to the BC platform, and then hold the gold medal bout on the designated finals strip, if there is one. If not, we’d choose a strip in the pod used for the round of 8 that allows the most space for spectators (and preferably a good view of the fencing and the score box for the BC).

The round of 8 typically takes 90–120 minutes for the point weapons and 45–60 minutes for saber. (Not only are saber bouts shorter, but it’s not uncommon for saber fencers—especially the younger ones—to opt not to take the whole ten minutes allowed between DE bouts.)

If the ME finishes as projected and there are enough foil referees, we’d be able to take the WF DEs wide and put their DEs out on 24 strips, 3 in each of 8 pods. With 90 fencers in a 4-page tableau, that would be a half-page for each of the 8 groups. That might save 20–30 minutes over the 16 strips originally planned for the WF DEs, not crucial for this day but perhaps highly desirable on a long crowded Summer Nationals day.

Under this hypothetical schedule, the MS would likely finish between 2:00 and 2:30, the ME around 3:30–4:00, and the WF around 5:00–5:30.

Next time: Repechage and some thoughts on SN complications.

Layout & Strips, Part 3: General Principles

OK, we’ve got strips laid out and numbered, so we’re ready to start the fencing. How do we decide which events to put where?

For local tournaments, assigning strips is easy, so much so that even using the word “assigning” is silly. Local events in my own area rarely use more than five strips—normally, we just hand scoresheets to the referees, who pick a strip and call out their fencers’ names. Both the venues and the competitive fields are small enough that a more complicated procedure is completely unnecessary, and would be downright silly.

As tournaments get larger, particularly when you’re dealing with more than one event occurring simultaneously, you need to pay more attention to how you’re using your strips and where you’re putting each event. At medium-sized events—say, 8 to 16 strips—there might be a couple of events starting at the same time, with another one or two starting a couple hours later as the first events shrink through their DEs to their finals, and perhaps a third wave a few hours after that.

Ideally, the sizes of all these events should be known when the schedule is made—it’s far easier to assign events that are spread appropriately throughout the day than struggle with planning delays because too many fencers are scheduled to fence at the same time. At the very least, tournament organizers need to have solid projections for their event numbers—without a well-planned schedule, even the best assigners can only achieve least-bad outcomes.

(Though scheduling is not my main concern in these posts on strip management, there are a few general guidelines for workable schedules, the most important of which is to get the biggest and slowest events started first on as many strips as possible. There are those who argue that it would be better to let the faster events go first and get out of the way, so the monster events can then have the venue for as long as they need it and not make everyone else wait around, but that hardly ever works. Big events usually need a lot of strips for their early rounds, but shrink down to fewer strips once their pools are done. Using the strips they free up as they become available is usually more efficient and makes for a shorter day overall, even if some fencers have a longer stay than they might otherwise. Keeping referees and other officials to more reasonable hours helps keep them more competent, too.)

Let’s assume, in any case, that we’ve got a reasonably decent schedule. How does the assigner decide what to do? I’ve usually got these guidelines in mind:

  • Keep each event on adjacent strips as much as possible—it’s easier on fencers, coaches, and spectators, and makes it easier for tournament officials to track progress.
  • Give each event as many strips as possible for each round, keeping in mind the other events scheduled.
  • Always think at least two or three rounds ahead—what happens now can drastically affect the choices available later in the day.
  • Try to keep team events and finals bouts on the edges of the hall, to allow as much room as possible for spectators.
  • As the day winds down, move the remaining fencing increasingly closer to the bout committee, to allow armorers to check and shut down equipment, volunteers to clean up, and keep the traipsing back and forth to a minimum. (This also gives the bout committee members a chance to finally watch some actual fencing.)

Next time: The ins and outs of assigning pools.