Tag Archives: Summer Nationals

WWHHEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

Tanya sent the final numbers for Anaheim last week.

The Anaheim locale is appropriate: Half the fun of thrill rides is letting the anticipation scare you, so I’ve decided that the only way to approach SN this year is to view it as a roller coaster, probably one of the dark rides where you can’t see the next drop or loop. Every morning I can show up at the venue, ready to see what twists and curves await us all. The only thing is, I’m not sure 12–14 hours in the Convention Center will provide the exhilaration to release all that nervous anticipation.

Consider the numbers:

Last year, we had 6, 221 individual entries and 340 teams.

This year? 7,074 individual and 427 team entries.

No short days for us this time, either—we’re projecting only 2 days to finish before 8:00 pm, 5 to finish between 8:00 and 9:00, and 3 for 9:00 pm or later.

Largest individual event: Junior Men’s Epee, 286. Notable runners-up: Junior Men’s Foil, 269; Junior Men’s Saber, 231.

Startlingly large events: Youth 10 Men’s Foil, 125; Youth 12 Men’s Foil, 235.

I’m choosing to view the preparations as the pre-ride, the build-up-your-expectations wait to board. Then a deep breath at the top of the climb when the ride pauses just long enough for us to realize we can’t see the steep drop to come, and then,

WWHHEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

At least we’ll get (real) fireworks every night.

JUNE 21 UPDATE: Final numbers after the withdraw deadline: individual entries are now 6947; team entries are still 427. Projected end times are unchanged.

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Burning My Bridges

I’ve written several times before about how I got into working bout committee at USA Fencing national tournaments, about how annoying it was for both me and my daughters for me to be right there at the strip watching them compete. For them, I was a distraction; for me, watching them fence was uncomfortably stomach-churning—there was nothing I could do to help them except refill their water bottles and try not to bother them. When someone suggested that I help out with bout committee (BC), I jumped at the opportunity—it gave me something useful to do far enough away from my daughters’ strips to eliminate the stomach-churning, but still gave me access to plenty of information on how they were doing.

This is me having fun.


Next thing I knew, I was working more tournaments than the girls were competing in. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t just helping with data entry—I was running competitions and then entire tournaments, assigning strips and BC staff, and dealing with questions and problems from fencers, coaches, parents, referees, and spectators. I discovered that I love running huge fencing tournaments—the bigger, the better. I love the combination of detailed and big-picture focus required to chair a tournament. I love watching the interpersonal dynamics: fencers & referees, fencers & parents, parents & officials, coaches & officials, officials & officials. I love watching fencers work their way through an elimination tableau, managing their intensity and stamina to keep winning all the way to the gold. I love watching fencers cope with disappointment and frustration to keep coming back and trying again.

my typical concrete playground

I’ve never been one for resort-type vacations, the kind where you sit on the beach and relax in the sun. Masochist I may be, but give me the 15-hour days within concrete walls, listening to the whines of scoring boxes and the screams of Cadet saber girls. Give me the parents who haven’t yet learned that it’s their kids who are fencing and not them. Give me the coaches who believe I’ve deliberately assigned their fencers as far from each other as possible within the venue. Give me the referees who never seem to learn that they should eat lunch when they’re told they should eat or they may never get another chance. Give me the generically awful concession food, the kids who roll their eyes at their overprotective parents, and the cranky and charming veterans. Give me the fencers tickled out of their minds to have won their first DE and those for whom winning gold medals has become almost routine. Give me the ten days of chaos and 6,500 7,000+ entries that is Summer Nationals and let me play.

I love running huge fencing tournaments.

the bigger, the better

So why am I ready to walk away from fencing?

_________________

One of the first—and most important—concepts we teach new BC trainees is “You will make mistakes.” Everyone involved in fencing learns this: fencers choose wrong actions, referees blow calls, BC staff mis-transcribe scores or names. What is crucial is what happens next—do we learn from our mistakes to prevent them from happening again? On the BC stage, that means we figure out how the error happened, and do what it takes to minimize the chances that it will happen again—refocus attention, improve staff training, alter our procedures, and if it comes to that, change personnel. Our mistakes, if they are unavoidable, should be brand new mistakes we’ve never made before.

Some of my tournament peeps
(l. to r., seated: Wayne, Other Rich, Nancy, Carla; standing: Marc, Irena, me, Coffee-Joe, Linda, Rich, Tanya, Brandon)

For several reasons, we are not learning: the United States Fencing Association is making the same mistakes it’s made for the past two Olympic quadrennials. A couple of weeks ago (courtesy of Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words), I came across the perfect word to describe USFA’s current straits: “omnishambles.” Apparently gleefully in vogue to describe British politics, it is a combination of tragedy and farce in politics, encapsulating “serial misjudgments and misadventures.”

Among fencing’s omnishambolic aspects:

• USFA members often receive incorrect information from national office staff who neither know nor consult the appropriate rules and policies before answering questions from members. Avoidable errors in the processing and updating of tournament entries have caused event delays of 10–30 minutes at every national tournament this season. Confusion and misunderstandings about travel and hotel arrangements for officials have also been common. As noted in the draft USOC audit report (and not specifically addressed in the executive director’s April 26 report to the board), 24 individuals have left positions in the national office since 2008; the staff of the international department alone has turned over completely twice in the past two years. Such rapid turnover certainly helps to explain the staff confusion about fencing policies and procedures, but what explains this number of departures from a staff of only 13 or 14 individuals?

• Others can speak more authoritatively about USFA finances, but I cannot help but wonder at the sloppy controls noted in the USOC audit report draft: after the USFA financial debacle of 2008, how is it that our accounting procedures are anything less than squeaky clean?

(And while we’re on the topic, I can imagine an executive director who, on receipt of a USOC audit report draft, might share it with the full board, explaining what it says, where he thinks it’s wrong, and what revisions he’ll recommend to the USOC for the final version. But that’s not the ED we have. And I can imagine a board less concerned with the “premature distribution” of a document marked neither “confidential” nor “not for public distribution,” and more concerned with the substance of its content and the frustration that led to its public release. But that’s not the board we have.)

• The bulk of the work developing USFA policies is done—in theory—by various committees appointed by the board. In practice, the four “standing committees of the board,” six “additional principal committees,” six more “committees of the board,” and four “task forces” comprise an ungainly, labyrinthine governance structure, suffering from murky delineations of responsibility, diffused authority, difficult communications, and a notable lack of direction.

Consider one relatively simple example: determination of the national tournament calendar. Let’s see—that’s to do with domestic national tournaments, so obviously that should be determined by the Tournament Committee (an “additional principal committee”). But wait, there are other interested groups, too: the National Team Oversight Committee is concerned on behalf of the high performance director, the national coaches, and the elite programs; the Athlete Council has an interest, obviously; other groups (the ROC Committee, the Youth Development Committee, the Veterans Committee) have regional calendars dependent on and potentially affected by the national calendar. Now, of course, we have the recently created Tournament Oversight Committee, composed mainly of the chairs of most of these other committees, to help coordinate matters.

So whose job is it to take the lead on creating a future season’s calendar? The TC could start, but would end up needing to get input from the NTOC. How do we do that? We committee chairs don’t get a directory with emails and phone numbers for all these committee chairs, so we’ve got to start with tracking down contact information. If our calls don’t get returned or emails answered, we might decide to talk with the appropriate people at the next NAC (if we happen to see them and if they’re not in the middle of fencing or coaching or refereeing or running an event). Or maybe we have a nice chat, and the chair promises to consult with her committee and get back within the next couple of weeks. Or maybe it’s the TOC’s job to coordinate proposals? Who’s in charge here?

The next thing you know, it’s already April and everybody’s in panic mode because there’s no calendar yet for next season, and it needs to be decided right now so it can be posted to the website within the next couple of days, and suddenly there’s a proposal floating around which the committees only just found out existed, and oops, I guess we’ve got to go with this one because we don’t have the time any longer to consider all the ramifications more thoroughly, so whatever the problems with it, this is what we’re stuck with for next year. (But we’ll fix it for the season after next—we’ve got plenty of time to start thinking about it now.)

Apply the same process for qualification paths, classifications, team selection, and other policies as needed. Repeat annually.

Last August, I was cautiously optimistic that we could break this pattern when I was among a group—tournament-related committee chairs, as well as a few board members and national office staff—invited to come to a weekend-long “Tournament Summit” in Colorado Springs to work out a competition plan for the coming Olympic quadrennial. Then I saw the agenda—we were to start by identifying problems; developing solutions was not on the schedule. During a morning break on the first day, one of the board members mentioned that he’d been to a similar meeting four years earlier. “Nothing happened after that one, either,” he said. At the end of our weekend, the executive director gave a nice pep talk about what a good start we’d made and promised that he would send out the notes from our discussions to us within the week. He has yet to do so.

• Finally, there is our board of directors, which utterly baffles me. I’ve worked with most of these individuals at tournaments for years; I consider many of them friends. Individually, they are energetic and accomplished people—coaches, club owners, athletes, successful professionals in non-fencing businesses. As a governing entity, though, the board meanders unpredictably between ridiculously detailed micromanagement (such as 45 minutes in February spent discussing whether the automatic award of classifications to members of national championship teams should be discontinued) and unwillingness to exercise appropriate oversight of USFA operations (as in “we cannot micromanage office personnel”).

Watching board meetings is painful. Some parts are routine: approving the minutes, accepting committee reports, complaining about financial reports getting to the board too late to allow for thorough review before the meeting, hearing the executive director say, “I don’t know; I’ll have to look into that and get back to you,” especially disconcerting in regard to budget line items.

The Strategic Plan is much admired—by the board, at least. But without effective leadership and mechanisms for achieving its goals and objectives, it’s just a wish list, a long, comprehensive, intimidating wish list. Every so often I look at this part, relevant to my work on the TC:

USA FENCING STRATEGIC PLAN

Goal 4: Enhance and grow the sport
• Strategy 2: Review and refine tournament purposes and program structures.

• Objective 1: By April 1, 2012, have an approved plan for tournaments at all levels for the 2012-2016 quad. Proposed schedule to accomplish this objective:

  • September: Create a Tournament Oversight Task Force (TOTF) and sub- task forces for Local, Regional, Sub-National (SYC, ROC), National events and ranking/ratings. Each task force and sub-task force must have deadlines and a specific set of objectives to complete.
  • October: Formulate questions for committee and membership surveys and research.
  • November: Go live with surveys.
  • December: Formulate proposals based on research and survey results.
    Disseminate proposals to committees and general membership.
  • January: TOTF to provide final report for BOD including recommendations.
  • February: Present to BOD.
  • March: Vote on strategic tournament plan for 2012-2016 quad.

Ambitious and worthy objectives. They sound a lot like what the TC was originally meant to do, and quite a bit like what that Tournament Summit last August was intended to work on. I’m even a bit sad that the TOTF isn’t on the current task force list—it would have made a nice addition to the committee alphabet soup, fitting in well with the TC, the NTOC, and the TOC. That strategic tournament plan for the new quad might well have been a good thing to have done, too.

Our whole governance structure seems to be best at creating committees and making lists, but we’re not good at all with the follow-through, with the accountability. What we’re missing is leadership.

And that missing leadership is why I’m going to need a lot of persuasion to vote for any incumbents at all in this year’s USFA board elections. I’ve worked through the established channels. I’ve talked with national office staff and management and with elected board members about the problems that plague us, and I’ve seen no improvement. Going public is the one option I’ve not yet tried.

I wish I could say that I am alone in my frustration, but I am not. It is not my place, however, to speak for the other volunteers who’ve reached the same point I have, where we’re ready to walk away from the tournaments and the sport we love. They must speak for themselves.

Elvis has left the building.

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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?

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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.

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