Signs of Spring

Spring is well and truly here: blue skies, sunny days, green hills (not that “golden” of which my mother fumes, “They’re not golden! They’re dried-up brown!”), poppies and lupines, open windows, fresh air, sense of impending doom.

You didn’t really think this would be an ode to nature, did you?

Spring is the time for recruiting and hiring officials for Summer Nationals. Recruiting and hiring bout committee staff means poring* over the schedule and pondering how much larger this year’s entry numbers will be than last year’s, and trying my damnedest not to remember what SN feels like.

A decade ago, I’d wait anxiously for the email that told me to book my flight, that I’d been hired, that I’d get to run away and play for the whole noisy fantabulous ten days of fencers and coaches and parents and vendors and officials running amok within their concrete bunker. And once my flight was booked, the two months until the start of SN seemed like forever. My most frequent thought, looking forward to my annual SN excursion: “This is going to be so much fun!”

Now I’m the one who sends those emails, after I sort through everyone’s availability and figure out whether we even have enough staff to cover all the competition days. Some BC staff volunteer for all of SN, while others are only available for 5 or 6 days. Some compete and others have family or friends who are referees or armorers, so they need specific days off. It’s always a bit suspenseful charting it in a spreadsheet to see whether I have enough people for each day or they’re all clumped at one end or the other. And will I have the right mix of chairs and computer leads and data entry and table staff to make it work?

We had almost enough this year, and only had to do a bit of finagling to get the combination we needed to be sure all the necessary functions were covered. Though a surprising number of us are still masochistic enough to volunteer for the whole 10 days, more and more of the most experienced and capable staff—perhaps those who remember better than the rest of us from year to year what working SN is like—are available for only 5 days or not at all. Dread is not an emotion conducive to volunteer retention.

I can’t blame them. After all, I’m not entirely immune, with that pesky sense of impending doom. Instead of my former cheery anticipation, what will be running through my head off and on until I board my plane for Columbus will be something more like this (the relevant content is at 1:15).

I’ve been whining about the size and stress and challenge of our national tournaments for years now, and some people tell me that’s exactly what it is—whining—and that I should just stop, suck it up, and deal with it. (Dare I add, “like a good girl”?)

But those entry numbers keep going up and up, and the competition days keep getting longer and longer, and I keep thinking back to that article I posted about after the 2011 SN, in which I immediately recognized the symptoms SN causes in those of us who work it. I’ve read a bit about partial sleep deprivation since then (for instance, here and here), which has not relieved my concerns. Sleep deprivation affects different people to different degrees, but the consequences are real: more than 4 or 5 days with less than 6 hours of sleep can cause cognitive impairment equivalent to a .05-.10 blood alcohol content.

We do what we can to try to mitigate the effects of our cumulative sleep debt. The plane trip always starts the process for me—my typical 6:30 am (or earlier) departure means I have to get up at 2:30 or 3:00 am to get to the airport in time, and when I finally reach what airline people call my “ultimate destination,” my sense of time is so messed up that I’ve made the successful transition to what I always think of as Tournament Time, where it doesn’t matter what day or time it is but only where I need to be and what time the next event is supposed to start.

I try to track the progress of my cognitive impairments as they develop. Talking myself out loud through previously routine tasks usually starts around the fourth or fifth day, though some years it’s been earlier. Around the sixth or seventh day, I usually have to start thinking consciously about how to manipulate my lips and tongue and mouth in order to form the words I’m trying to say. Part of me is interested in trying to determine what my own personal BAC would be if I exhibited the same symptoms due to alcohol consumption, but unfortunately for that analysis, I’ve never been that drunk.

As tired as I may feel toward the end of a 14- to 16-hour day, I’ve learned that I need to make the next day’s strip plan on the previous evening, usually while the final 8 of the last event is fencing down to the gold medal. If I decide it’ll be easier in the morning when I’m more alert, I’ll usually be wrong. I’ll be better off with the extra half hour of sleep.

My condition is not unique. Look at the referee corral around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, and you’re likely to see unassigned but unreleased referees staring into space or napping with their heads on the table in front of them. Then think about the referees who are working, who’ve probably been working the whole day already and might have 3-5 more hours left before they’re done for the day. Standing, signaling calls, focusing on actions, coping with athletes and coaches and parents—sore muscles, achy joints, tired brains, testy moods. Cognitive deficits? We don’t allow referees to consume alcohol while they’re working, but we let them work while suffering from the same symptoms excessive alcohol consumption would cause.

Or take a look at the trainers’ clientele every so often. They handle a constant stream of fencers in need of ice or taping or stretching, punctuated by emergency calls out to strips, and they  treat a lot of referees, too, keeping them on their feet and functioning. Might our long competition days adversely affect our trainers’ skills and judgment, too?

Are we really serving the best interests of our athletes?

How did we reach a point where 14- to 16-hour competition days are considered even remotely acceptable?

This is wrong. We need to change it.

* I can’t use that word now without giggling (and more weirdly, worrying about my coffee), and we know whose fault that is, don’t we, Peach?

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