Now What?

I’ve been following an interesting discussion in the Reno Post-Mortem thread on fencing.net about why referees choose to work SN and why they cease to do so.
There’s a big gap in comprehension between those who are referees (or other officials—the same reasoning applies for armorers and BC staff) and regularly work national tournaments and those who are solely fencers or referees who have not attempted the SN marathon in recent years.

Ian Serotkin, explaining in post #49 why he likes refereeing at national tournaments, outlines the basic reasoning in favor:

I enjoy doing something difficult, well.

I enjoy giving back to the sport of fencing, which has given me a great deal in terms of personal development, character building, and physical & mental strengthening for the past 17 years.

I enjoy sharing this experience with my good refereeing friends, who share a singular dedication and camaraderie that is hard to match.

I enjoy visiting cities that I would have little reason to otherwise visit.

I enjoy being involved in extremely high level matches that I only could have hoped to reach as a competitor in my wildest dreams.

In my own case, it was better both for my kids and for me that I had something useful to do at tournaments, so I was happy to help out on the computers at that first JOs I worked in Sacramento in 2000. Once I started working national tournaments regularly, I was well and truly hooked on one of the more obscure hobbies in the country. Running individual and team events—and then whole tournaments—was incredibly challenging and satisfying.

I developed a whole new category of friends I see regularly at tournaments, and look forward to seeing them again wherever the next tournament takes us. Some of the best times in my life have been spent listening to stories at lunch in the officials’ lounge (I can’t remember all the details of Brendan Baby’s tale of Wes Glon testing some poor innocent’s worthiness to fence saber, but I remember how hard we all laughed) or in whatever that venue’s Official Officials’ Bar was. And there was the noisy little flight from O’Hare to South Bend one January that was at least 75% fencing people—I always felt sorry for that poor 25% who had no clue what the party was all about.

It’s been a hoot to see fencers I knew first in the Y1os or Y12s head off to NCAA teams (or the Olympics!) and others become ferociously competitive again once they age into Veteran events. I’ve seen fencers transform themselves from bratty whiny kids into impressively competent and personable young adults (and I’ve seen others retain their original annoying personalities well past the age they should know better).

love running fencing tournaments.

But I don’t know that I can continue. I’ve promised myself and others that I will stick with it through the end of this Olympic quadrennial, but beyond that is an open question. Like many other national tournament officials, I’m ready to say, “Enough.”

Some of the fencing.net posters postulate single causes for referees to opt out of working SN:

  • the delayed compensation, or
  • the minimal amount of the compensation, or
  • the abuse from fencers, coaches, and parents, or
  • the long hours, or
  • the often less-than-wonderful food (especially what can be had with those late-night meal tickets

The problem is not that simple, though. Nobody volunteers as an official for the money. Sure there are some referees, particularly some of the younger ones, for whom the delayed payments all last season was a serious issue, but nobody expects to make big bucks as a tournament official.

Getting screamed at by coaches and parents every so often comes with the job, too. The vast majority are fine—usually—but that people sometimes get mad and behave badly is only to be expected.

Nobody—well, at least not anybody who thinks about it for more than a few seconds—expects USFA tournaments to run on the same hours as world cups. Two or three thousand fencers in 12 or 18 or 24 events over four days (or nearly 6,500 fencers in 89 events over 10 days, as in Reno) naturally require longer hours and busier days than the two-events-each-spread-over-two-days schedule common to FIE world cups and championships.

Hotel and convention center food is what it is (all too often deep-fried). But there are often good restaurants around that surprise us (though we know the per diem probably won’t cover the price of the evening meal). But getting together with the gang is usually more important than the food.

The negative aspects eventually accumulate to the point that they overwhelm the many reasons for working national tournaments. The Atlanta 2010 Summer Nationals was a tipping point that way for many officials. All the problems combined synergistically to create an event that was no longer satisfying, no longer challenging, no longer fun.  It had become merely an ordeal to get through.

My tipping point was more gradual: the past season as a whole. Normally, I get twitchy if I don’t get to a tournament often enough. Two or three seasons ago, I was only scheduled to work a couple of tournaments after a year of working four or five, and I missed my fencing community. I look forward to national tournaments with great pleasure, despite the occasional horrible ones, like the 2006 Atlanta SN or Austin in 2003. We never plan on tournaments being horrible.

This past season I still looked forward to tournaments as usual—until the instant I fastened my seatbelt on the plane and suddenly thought, “Wait a minute! I just did this last month and it wasn’t fun.” Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Dallas, and Dallas were all like SN or worse, in the numbers of entries, in the long hours, in the punishing conditions that made it impossible to do as good a job as I knew I was capable of, that demanded the clearest thinking when I was most battered, that left me too tired to even feel relief at the end.

Those of us who volunteer for the satisfaction of doing our jobs well, for the fun and the community, no longer receive those rewards. Under the current conditions, we cannot do the job well, the community becomes almost non-existent, and fun is so rare that it startles, as it startled me on my Sunday off in Reno.

At this stage, deciding to quit working as an official is more a rediscovery of sanity than a conscious decision. We have to be lunatics to volunteer in the first place, but we’re not insane enough to keep at it forever.

This week I’m looking at drafts of the day schedules for next season (which look to be even more difficult than last season’s) and at the early returns (usually the majority by now, but this year so far only a sprinkling) to my request for availability to BC staff. We’re already potentially losing two or three experienced BC people through normal attrition (job and family changes), more than the newbies we’ve got coming in. I wonder whether I will even be able to staff national tournaments this season—are enough of us still crazy enough to stick it out through 2012 in hopes of the situation changing for the next Olympic quad?

SN Day 10

It’s the last day.

My event today is the D1AMS, which is probably better for me to be doing today than the D2WF I finished up with last year. That it’s saber will help me stay awake.

(I continue to believe that one day I will have seen enough foil that it will start to make sense to me; I haven’t yet figured out how or when that will occur, though. But I would definitely like to understand foil at least a little bit.)

Once my event ends, I shift over to packing up mode. Over the past season, we’ve replaced a lot of our small bins with clear plastic boxes, so packing and unpacking is much easier than it used to be. Joe’s finally got the additional Pelican case he asked for ages ago, for the registration netbooks and the extra laptops.

Somehow, though, we always seem to end up with more stuff to go into the BC crate—additional boxes from registration, easels and poster board signs, way too many cartons of Olympic travel brochures—so all the pictures we took last time of how we packed the crate are useless this time.

By the time the fencing is done, all but the last computer and the extension cords and power strips are ready to go into the crate. Figuring out the 3-D jigsaw this time goes pretty quickly, and the BC crate is all packed only an hour or so after that last WF bout finished.

We’re going out with a whimper again, just like last year. Instead of the big BC last night dinner with a dozen or more people, we’re fractured into small groups. Tanya and Nicole need to go to a meeting with Greg; Annie and a few others want to go the the Peppermill buffet; 3 or 4 others of us don’t have the energy to go that far and decide to hit the sushi bar again before we head up to our rooms to pack our own stuff.

I miss those big BC dinners. Sure, they were fun—we indulged ourselves with food and drink—but they were also a kind of debriefing event. We talked about what went well and what didn’t, and floated ideas for improving our procedures. Those dinners helped turn a bunch of opinionated individuals into a BC crew that functions well together. The new BC people coming up now aren’t getting that same experience, to their detriment—and ours.

SN Day 9

All that sleep on my day off seems to have helped. I’m up, at least, and over at the venue early enough to help set up Aaron’s Vet MF age levels, though he doesn’t really need the help.

It’s mostly a paired day—aside from the lone D2WF, there are two D3 events (MS and WE), two sets of Vet age levels (MF and WS), and two Vet team events (MS and WE). Another (relatively) relaxed combination of events.

I hang out with Aaron for a while—he refereed for the first three days of SN, and then flew to Boston with his wife for a 4th of July sail around Boston harbor on the USS Constitution. He’s working BC for the last three days of SN, I suspect partly just for the fun of people asking him why he’s not refereeing.

My own event today is the Vet MS Team, so I go eat lunch in time to be back for the team check-in starting at 12:30. It’s a fun event for me, because I know a lot of the fencers and most of them are already familiar with team procedures. We end up with 11 teams, so we don’t need more than a single pod to run the entire event.

The gold medal match is held on the finals strip with the replay sytem in the other room. It’s between Bill Becker’s nominally Arizona team, with Bill, Dan Corrigan, Wang Yung, and Justin Meehan, a stunning vision in saber gear, and a team called the Last Minutemen, with Don Anthony, Alfred Lara, Josh Runyan, and Ted Smith. While it looks at first that the Minutemen have a slight advantage over Arizona team, Bill uses his replay calls effectively, and none of the Minutemen have enough experience against Justin to get around his reach.

An early evening—Kristin and Chris and I finally get up to the sushi bar at the Atlantis, and then we all crash.

SN Day 8

Today was a much more typical day off than Sunday was.

I was barely aware when Christie’s alarm went off, and the next time I woke up, it was nearly 10:00. I dozed a bit longer, and eventually got myself up and dressed, and read for a bit. I always intend to read more news during tournaments than I do, but it usually ends up seeming more trouble than it’s worth—my brain doesn’t parse sentences well after a few days in tournament mode, and I never mind not having any idea what’s going on in the real world. (I do manage to check the SF Giants scores every so often, though.)

Coincidentally (my days off are the last day of the first BC chair and the first day of the last BC chair), today is my birthday, and Lisa takes me out to lunch at 775 Gastropub, which has a truly excellent long beer list and yummy food.

775 Gastropub's Mushroom Ragout Crepes (yummy, as was the Deschutes Black Butte Porter XXIII)

After lunch, we go into the shopping mall attached to the restaurant to walk off some of lunch (there was, after all, that brownie sundae for dessert). After an hour or so, I realize I’m getting sleepy, so I head back to the hotel for a nap. Off and on I wake up enough to read for a bit, but keep dozing off again.

At some point, Christie appears when she’s released from her day refereeing saber, and we decide to wait to have dinner with Angie and Kristin and Chris, once they’re done with their BC chores. We all walk across the street to Foley’s, which has become The Official Bar of Summer Nationals, for beer and pub food. Christie surprises me by paying for both of us before I get a chance to. “It’s your birthday, after all,” she says. I keep forgetting about that whole grown-up kid thing.