Tag Archives: USFA

Fencing Wish List: Intro & Finance

In the Election Candidates thread over on fencing.net, several board candidates have responded to a question about what three things USA Fencing has done right and what three things they’ve done wrong over the past year. I’ve no lack of opinions but I find myself a bit put off by the form of the question—one of our continuing habits organizationally is to resort to the quick fix to handle a specific issue without addressing the more fundamental problems that create all those specific little issues in the first place. Making that quick list seems too much like the short-term mindset we’ve been falling back on for so many years.

Having said that, of course, I can refer you to my candidate info sheet, which contains a list of the four—that’s four, not just three (and five is right out!)— areas I think USA Fencing needs to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m going to address each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Let’s start with the money:

Get our finances under control.

The USFA is in much better shape financially than I would have thought possible a year or more ago. Financial reports are more frequent, more understandable, and based on what I know of my own corner of the organization, more reliable. We’ve got a real finance director (and with Keri Byerts, one who knows  fencing!) and control processes now that are actually being used. But if I had to choose a single step that’s made a huge impact on both our finances and the attitude with which the board and staff approach our finances, it would be Sam Cheris’s approach to budget variances, which should not have had to be an innovation: any increased amount in one area must be offset by a decreased amount somewhere else.

Assuming we continue on the same track (not necessarily a safe assumption given our recent history), we should be operating on a stable financial basis within a year or two. But we need to be sure—since we are now in a world where we’re fielding complete teams instead of just a few athletes in a couple of weapons—that we plan our Olympic quadrennials carefully, so that we can fund our athletes properly for each Games and not dig ourselves into a Olympic-size financial hole as we have for the past few quads.

A financially stable NGB with a demonstrated ability to manage its spending becomes a much better target for grants and donations and sponsorships. I hope we continue the work we need to do to get there.

In a sense, our recent financial woes were caused by our success—and our failure to think about what that success means for the future. For too long we’ve focused on our year-to-year finances, or at best, a quad’s worth of budgeting. But think about our growth—while our competition entries have more than doubled in the last 15 years, we haven’t developed new referees or other officials at anywhere near the same rate. And what about coaches? The old Coaches College, the USFCA, and Michael Marx among them have provided some useful training to those already coaching, but they haven’t done much to increase the number of new coaches entering the sport.

Individual entries for SN in Columbus will be well over 7,000, even allowing for withdrawals and no-shows, and it’s entirely possible that entries for next year’s SN will be over 8,000 if we don’t change our tournament structure. We’ve already got a virtually inflexible schedule, with unavoidable conflicts in some weapons; if we wanted to bring Division I, either a NAC or the championship, back to SN, we’d have to either add days or drop other events. There’s not much that we can do with those numbers, aside from shaving a couple of minutes here and there by tweaking procedures.

Over the past two or three quads, as I and my predecessors warned of the consequences of our growth, a countervailing attitude was always that we shouldn’t worry—we should encourage more growth, because more members and more entries mean more revenue, and the more revenue the better. So now we’re locked into a revenue model under which our events are becoming more and more unmanageable while we need the income they generate. Our ability to manage tournaments in the best interests of our athletes is being seriously compromised by our revenue needs.

This cannot continue indefinitely. (I currently think the odds of our being able to create a workable schedule for the 2014 SN or to staff it once we have a schedule are no better than even.) What will we want USFA to be able to do in a decade or two, when our membership is 40,000 or 60,000? Will we still be running NACs? Championships only? Will we have spun off tournament operations to regional affiliates in order to focus on coaching education and  club development? Whatever we decide has implications for our revenue model, because we need to be able to fund whatever we decide we need to do.

More on these possibilities in my next few posts.

Next up: Governance



Filed under Fencing

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?


Filed under Fencing, Miscellaneous ranting

Didn’t Need the Hat Anyway

Last month when I received the USFA Nominating Committee’s invitation to apply for nominations for election to the Board I realized I was seriously considering putting in for the Volunteer Director slot. Not being completely insane, I immediately contacted a few friends and family members and asked them to talk me down from the idea.

None of them were much help–the responses I got ranged from “Why wouldn’t you?” and “That’s a good idea–you should do it” to “If you don’t do it, I will hunt you down!” The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea, and within a couple of days, I’d sent in my application materials as directed.

Yesterday I received a note from the Nominating Committee thanking me for my application but explaining that because of the large number of excellent applications, they were unable to include my name among the nominees.

Here’s what I’d told the Nominating Committee in my cover letter:

In 2001, unhappy with the conduct of recent sectional tournaments, I attended my first section meeting and ran for section chair against the incumbent. Unknown to anyone outside my daughters’ fencing club, I lost, of course, but because Paul Soter said that anyone crazy enough to run for section office should be put to good use and nominated me, I was elected as Vice Chair for Juniors of the Pacific Coast Section.

I’d already begun working bout committee both locally and nationally, and found that I enjoyed running fencing tournaments, but my year as a section vice chair began my education in the governance and politics of the United States Fencing Association. In the dozen years since then, I’ve served in elected offices (division chair and Congress representative), appointed positions (Tournament Committee Chair, ROC/NOC Advisory Group Chair), and more informally (tournament schedule reviewer, occasional proofreader for American Fencing, Athlete Handbook revisions, and other national documents). While my experience has been frequently rewarding, it has just as often felt frustrating and futile.

Val Belmonte, our new CEO, has said that he sees his job as to transform USA Fencing from an amateur association into a professional organization, one dedicated to serving its #1 customers, our fencers. That is a view I share, and one that requires us to look at who those fencers are and what they need from their national governing body. For too long, we have operated as we have always done, without seriously addressing whether our classification and points systems and our tournament calendar and structure still meet the needs of our fencing population. Our financial struggles over the past two Olympic quadrennials have only exacerbated our situation and left us even less able to deal with our growth and changing demographics.

Here are what I see as important priorities for us:

Get our finances under control. In the short term, this means reducing and eliminating the deficit, which the current administration has made a good start on. Over the longer term, it means establishing a viable revenue model less dependent on tournament income, so that tournaments can be managed for the good of our athletes and team selection instead of for income maximization. Our increased entry numbers have kept us in survival mode to the extent that the fencer experience–let alone any spectator experience–is hardly considered in tournament management.

Create a tournament calendar and structure appropriate to our fencer demographics. Continue to develop our regional circuits at all age levels, including the addition of regional tournaments for Junior and Cadet fencers. Replace the outmoded divisional qualifying tournaments with a unified system of point standings for qualification to national championships.# Over the next quad, develop a national tournament calendar that can adjust to our continuing growth, fulfill—without being driven by—our team selection mission, and serve our entire athlete pipeline.

Create and manage an appropriate and effective USA Fencing identity. The new website, giving us more options and control over our public face, is a huge improvement in this direction, as is the improvement in our publicity operations. We should make our visual image and print identity more consistent and recognizable with the creation of an official house style, and should ensure that all licensed merchandise conforms to the image we want to project.

None of this will be easy. Some of it will be extremely difficult and will require discussion and debate and ideas that have not yet occurred to us. But I believe that my experience, particularly with tournament operations, will provide a perspective that has been missing from the board, and that I can make useful contributions to solving these puzzles.

One final note: as much as I support the direction of the new administration this quad, I take the fiduciary duties of the board very seriously. During the last quad, I believe the board was too trusting of the information provided to it by the national office and failed to perform its due diligence both by asking enough of the right questions and insisting on answers to those questions when asked. That I approve of the goals of the national office staff would not relieve me of the responsibility to ensure that USA Fencing is being managed effectively according to its mission.

I appreciate your consideration for nomination as Volunteer Staff Director. If you need any further information or have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely, Mary Griffith

I thought a bit more, and consulted those same friends and family, and concluded that I wasn’t ready to give up yet. So I’ve decided to pursue a petition nomination, which requires that I collect signatures of at least 25 voting members from among at least four different USFA clubs.

I’ll be in Louisville with my petition, so if you’re willing to help me get on the ballot, I’d appreciate your autograph.

# When 60% of our possible qualifying events do not need to be fenced because they have 3 or fewer entries, our championship qualification process is broken. (Plus, I persist in believing that one should have to actually fence and win at least one bout to qualify for a national championship.)


UPDATE: OK, I thought it would be easier just to wait until after Louisville to send out extra petitions if I still needed signatures then, but so many people are asking… marypetition


Filed under Fencing

What Are National Tournaments For?

That many fencing referees like to race to see who can finish their pools or direct elimination quadrants first is not surprising. After all, most start out as—and many still are—competitive fencers. Rare is the event when I don’t get at least a couple of calls asking for permission to use an adjacent strip “so we can make things go faster.” Most of the time, I say yes, because I usually need events to progress as quickly as possible—there’s a different event that needs more strips for its DEs or another just closing registration that’ll need a dozen or two strips for its pools.

We—bout committee, assigners, referees—are focused on keeping things moving, minimizing wait times during and between rounds. Most épée fencers are familiar with the “Alperstein Method” for running a DE quadrant, in which fencers are called early to test their weapons so that they can hook up immediately to fence as soon as a strip opens up. Grouping strips by pod has made it easier for assigners to group referees by quadrant with enough geographic diversity that conflicts are seldom an issue, significantly reducing the amount of time it takes to turn events from pools to DEs. We expect to reduce that time even further as FencingTime’s auto-assign function becomes more usable and assigners learn how it works.

A couple of years ago, there was even the Process Improvement Task Force, which looked at and analyzed BC procedures to see where there was room for streamlining tasks. Figuring out how to make tournaments go faster is not just a matter of  friendly rivalry among referees or the obsession of detail-oriented BC geeks—it’s  become institutionally ingrained as our entry numbers have grown ever larger.

There are a few limits: a pool shouldn’t use more than one extra strip for doubling, and pools of 6 or fewer shouldn’t be doubled at all. And there’s not much point to one DE quadrant using extra strips to finish up more quickly when extra strips aren’t available to the other quadrants—that simply means that the faster group has to sit around and wait for everybody else to catch up.

Which brings us to a question worth asking: how does this emphasis on going faster affect our athletes?

Now it may well be that fencers don’t perceive much of this push for speed, that the amount of waiting built into our tournament formats feels about the same as it always has. Maybe when you balance our increasingly streamlined procedures with our increasingly large tournaments, it’s essentially a wash.

Or perhaps we’re all just frogs simmering in a huge pot and haven’t noticed how much our tournament experience has changed over the past decade or so.

In a perfect world, fencers at a well-run tournament should expect to be able to watch all of their pool competitors, to get a look at their different styles, to see which actions they tend to use and how other fencers react to those actions. Getting pulled away from this information-gathering to test weapons or to fence one opponent while others in the pool are still bouting inhibits this learning process and may even damage a fencer’s prospects in the tournament. A long succession of tournaments under such constrictions could even hamper our fencers’ long-term competitive development.

In a not-so-perfect world, we ought at least to be able to have this discussion, but right now running national tournaments in a way that provides competitors with a high-quality experience is not an option. Running national tournaments is all about survival.  It’s not merely fencers surviving eight rounds of DEs, or officials surviving two six- or seven-hour events in a single day, or bout committee making it through three or four conecutive 14- or 15-hour days—it’s the survival of the USFA itself.

We don’t have the option of adopting a more sensible tournament structure right now because the USFA’s finances are so dependent on tournament income. Membership dues bring in around $1 million and tournament income a little over $1 million, approximately the total international programs deficit for 2011–2012. (These are very round numbers—for more precise figures, refer to recent USFA financial reports.)

Were we to reduce the size of national tournaments to more reasonable size, to allow, say, 8- to 10-hour competition days and a more civilized pace, we would lose income essential to keeping the USFA functioning.  Our shaky finances have trapped us in a broken tournament structure, pressured to keep growing events that are already too big, already stressing both our personnel and equipment resources.

We can’t simply keep going on the way we have for the past few years—the way we are going is unsustainable, and we’re losing too many experienced people to the stress and frustration. We desperately need a new revenue model to support a more workable tournament structure, but can we—will we—develop both before the whole rickety USFA contraption collapses under its own weight?

(Jenga photo from Google Images)


Filed under Fencing