Sabre refereeing is tough. Things happen very fast and decisions need to be made based on very subtle differences in complex movements. You’re also dealing with a pair of (often) fired-up people with weapons. It can be scary at the best of times, but we reckon learning to deal with that is a powerful skill.
In our experience at a lot of clubs around the world, most people avoid refereeing wherever possible, leaving it to fencers to “self-ref”, which is a bit sub-optimal for everyone. We prefer to take a “ref early, ref often” approach to training, where people are involved to some level from their first session, and more than 99% of bouts in the club are formally refereed, even if by a relative novice. It helps people get familiar with the flow of the sport, train their eye and get properly familiar with the rules.
We fully acknowledge that this means people are being put on the spot in a position that can risk being stressful and intimidating at the best of times: nobody wants to mess up a call, but it’s inevitable even for the best refs in the world. We’re also not going to lie and pretend that having a ref make a terrible decision that costs you a touch is not annoying. But given that our referees are not being paid for this and are fundamentally here to have a good time, we have an extremely low tolerance for drama.
So, in the spirit of transparency, here is the code we follow:
Be polite and respect the ref
- It’s totally fine to query decisions, but it must be presented as a query and it must be polite and non-confrontational. Do not under any circumstances challenge the authority or competency of the ref.
- “Excuse me, was it not my parry?” is fine.
- “It’s a clear parry riposte!” is not fine.
- Do not expect decisions to get flipped: we use video review in DE rounds in certain tournaments, but not in training. Refs are expected not to change calls without video.
- The only acceptable response to any reply from the referee is a polite acknowledgment. No further discussion is to be entered into.
Accept that refereeing errors happen
- Even the best refs screw up calls. Inexperienced refs, like most of the ones in a casual training session, are going to screw up lots of calls. This needs to be accepted by all fencers.
- We are an amateur club, where people participate in the sport for the joy of it, and this includes the referees. There is no excuse for making anyone stressed, uncomfortable or humiliated.
- Even the worst decision needs to be met with good humour: match results inside the club do not matter.
Handle referee training formally
- We have a lot of inexperienced refs who need to learn how to do things right. However, this is never an excuse for throwing out ad-hoc challenges to calls a fencer doesn’t like.
- Referee training matches need to be agreed to in advance by all parties involved.
- Where possible, a supervising referee should be the one making any corrections to calls, and the fencers should follow standard protocols.
- Experienced fencers can also play the role of making corrections to calls in a referee training bout, particularly where no supervising ref is present. However, they are expected to be absolutely scrupulous about not attempting to game the situation for some cheeky points. They must be prepared to correct calls in both directions (ie: even when it disadvantages them).
Discuss controversial call types with video, after training
- If a fencer or referee wants to review and discuss a problematic call type, the only sensible way to handle this is with video. Nothing is more pointless than a bunch of people arguing about exactly what physical action someone did based on what they remember seeing.
- The entire bout should be recorded. We do not allow video review of calls during training bouts: it’s just too disruptive.
- The footage should be reviewed at the end of training, NOT immediately after the match. Let people cool down and decompress first.
- This is only to be done with the agreement of the referee. Filming a bout and then springing the footage on someone later with a catalogue of their mistakes is completely unacceptable.
Do not allow lines to be crossed
- If a fencer (or someone acting as coach) is ignoring the principles outlined above, there is one recommended response from the referee: walk away.
- The phrase we suggest using to address unacceptable behaviour is “That’s not how we do things here.” Explain that the match is not going to continue. Do not allow them to get another referee: the bout is over.
- If you feel it’s a minor issue or it’s just someone having a bad day, feel free to give them a warning and ask them to chill out before you pull the plug. If it’s a major outburst, though, don’t be shy about shutting it down straight away.
- Classic red flags include:
- Yelling at a referee
- Stating that a decision was wrong
- Stating that a referee is incompetent
- Throwing gear
- Hitting the piste
- Anything that is clearly making a fencer, ref or anyone else in the vicinity uncomfortable: hard hits, jostling, swearing etc that are clearly upsetting people.