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Fencing 101 for Parents

The Referee

Referee Bill Gelnaw checks the point of Lucas Schrimsher at the Modern Pentathlon World Cup in Pomona, California, February 24, 2017.

What is a referee?

A referee or simply ref is the person of authority in a variety of sports who is responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on-the-fly decisions that enforce the rules of the sport, including sportsmanship decisions such as ejection. – Wikipedia

I love that this definition mentions sportsmanship. Fencing emphasizes sportsmanship in so many ways. I value this emphasis on sportsmanship, and believe it is important for my son to understand what sportsmanship really means.

Sportsmanship is an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors.

There is a reason why a fencer salutes the referee at the beginning of the bout. And why a fencer shakes hands with the referee at the conclusion of the bout. These gestures, the salute and the handshake, signify the respect that the fencer must show throughout the bout, to his opponent, the ref, and the sport itself. The salute to the ref at the beginning is recognition of the role the ref plays, and the authority he has on the strip. The handshake at the end means, “Thank you. I respect the work you did enforcing the rules and presiding over the bout.”

I appreciate that there is a dress code for referees, in sort of the same way that there is a uniform for fencers. Referees almost always dress well, a coat and tie for men, a skirt or slacks for women. This shows an attitude of respect towards the sport, the fencers, and the important role the referee plays in the world of fencing.

Who are these referees?

They are you.

Fencing referees are mostly fencers who got involved in refereeing or fencing parents who got involved in refereeing. Several fencing parents who started refereeing, either to help (a small amount) with the expense of fencing, or because they wanted something to do while at tournaments with their fencers, have continued to referee long after their fencers have left for college or even left the sport of fencing altogether. They enjoy the sport, the people, and the travel. They get paid very little. No ref is in this for the money. Some referees have had amazing fencing careers. Some referees have never fenced. It’s not necessary to have any previous experience as a fencer before becoming a ref. George Porter, for example, is one of the top refs in our Division, yet he never competed as a fencer.

If you are standing behind a referee in the security line at the airport on the way to a NAC, or checking in at a hotel, if you find yourself getting into an elevator with one, introduce yourself. Say, “Hello.” They appreciate it. And they have a lot they can teach parents and fencers, and some great stories.

You will discover, as your fencer competes, that you will see the same refs at many different tournaments. Some of the local refs are also refereeing on the national and international level. If they are on the international circuit, they have gone through a lot of training and have a lot of experience. Often, the lesser experienced are reffing in local tournaments, getting a sense of what goes into refereeing, making the calls, defending calls, and learning to interpret the rules. Older fencers will often have their first reffing experience at their own club, refereeing younger fencers at an unrated tournament.

Much like young fencers learning how to fence, you may also encounter young referees on your fencer’s strip, learning how to ref. Be patient with these kids. They might grow into great referees. Support them. Don’t yell at them or argue with them heatedly. If you have a question about a call, ask it. And then listen, respectfully, to the explanation. But don’t humiliate the young ref, berate him, or chastise her. If it is a misunderstanding of a rule, if for example, you think the young ref has misunderstood the meaning of “one action” for example, talk to the bout committee (quietly) after the bout is over, and suggest that someone might want to review that particular rule with the ref. You might also discover that in fact you were the one who has misunderstood the rule—another good reason not to get upset in front of your fencer and make a scene. Also, if you have a problem with a young referee reffing your fencer’s bout, say if it is a semifinal of an RYC, for example, prior to the bout, you can go to the bout committee and voice your concerns about his or her experience at this level of competition. Otherwise, do your part in helping to encourage the ref. Support his or her efforts, recognizing that he might be nervous, or she might be shy.

The Referee and Your Fencer’s Safety

Believe it or not, one of the referee’s tasks is to make sure that your fencer is safe. This means not just those tricky corps à corps calls, but also making sure jackets are zipped up, mask bibs are down, shoes are tied, etc. The referee understands that a hole in a sock could potentially catch a sword tip and cause some serious physical damage. I have been sent on a frantic search for a safety pin because the Velcro on the jacket is no longer working. I wasn’t happy about it, but I recognized that it was a safety issue, not that the ref was trying to keep my son from fencing. (By the way, I always have a safety pin or two with me, now.) If a referee asks that something be fixed on a uniform, fix it. And thank him.

‘Ball and Strike’ Calls

Like a baseball umpire, a fencing referee has to make judgment calls on many rulings that are close (can be decided either way). As an example, what one referee would call “simple and immediate” (the one action rule), another would determine as not completed in one motion or too late after the opponent went out of the strip. The rule itself may be clear (just like the strike zone in baseball), but a quick, definitive ruling (which is required) on a close call will often get one set of fencer, coach and parents outraged. Every batter striking out feels that the pitch was out of the strike zone, and every pitcher walking a batter feels that the pitch was right-down-the-middle—when a ruling can go either way, depending on the referee, one will be right and the other will be wrong. That’s sports.

I think refs appreciate it when fencers acknowledge touches that are questionable (like that ‘floor’ touch that you know really hit your foot). Likewise, fencers should inform the ref if they think they were awarded a touch that they really didn’t deserve (e.g., getting a point for hitting the floor and the ref awarded it as a toe touch). This is a sign of good sportsmanship. Eventually, you will probably see all of the top fencers do this. They understand, after years of competing, that winning is important but it is also important how you win.


There are specific guidelines restricting a referee from directing a bout that he/she may have conflicting interests in (same club, relationship, etc.). Generally speaking, a referee directing a bout does not see the individual fencers, but only the fencing actions. Thus, fencers should recognize that a call, even a wrong call, was based on what the referee believed he/she saw in the sequence between “fence” and “halt”—not who a fencer is. If there are legitimate questions of bias, those should be addressed with the bout committee, of course. But, mistakes by a referee sometimes happen during fast and pressure-filled action, just like a fencer’s own fencing is not perfect in such circumstances either.

Referee as Teacher

I have seen wonderful lessons in action watching interactions between some referees and fencers. One young fencer gave his opponent the finger on the strip. Black card. Which is of course the appropriate response. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A black card certainly got the point (slight pun there) across, but this wonderful referee went a bit further. He had the fencer sit next to him at the bout committee table for the rest of the event, as fencers checked in for other events, returned bout slips, etc. and gave him some wonderful lessons about how the tournament works, scoring, and other advice.

I love the March NAC because it is focused on the younger fencers, Y10, Y12, and Y14 only. This is the first NAC for many fencers and a learning experience in so many ways. The referees know this too. Often, they take extra time to explain to the fencers some of the rules and expectations. I’ve seen a ref explain how pool bouts work and how important it is for a fencer to listen for his name and to be ready. You can literally see fencers growing in confidence from the first day of check in to the final day of competition. The referee has a lot to do with this transformation. A referee can ref your fencer’s bouts for years, showing up at local, regional, national, and even international events. And referees get to know the fencers. They watch with genuine interest as fencers become successful and they want fencers to succeed.

Attend a Referee Clinic

If you really want to understand some of the finer, more intricate points of fencing calls and reffing, attend a clinic. And have your fencer do one as well. You will learn so much. It is a complicated sport. And all three weapons have very different rules. Once you start to be able to see some of the finer points of fencing in action, (in epee that might be passing or one action for example), you will have more appreciation for the role the referee plays in the life of the bout on the strip. Once you put yourself in the position of making calls, and having people around you disagree with you, you will have more empathy for the ref. And, who knows, you might decide, like many other parents, that you enjoy reffing and being a part of this wonderful world of fencing, competition and sportsmanship.

Fencers should be a referee for a tournament (many local tournaments have self-ref opportunities). When a fencer experiences making difficult judgment calls as a referee, he/she comes to the realization that refereeing a bout is not easy. In every difficult or “close” call, each fencer feels strongly that the ruling should be in his/her favor, resulting in one side being convinced that the referee made the wrong ruling.

Respecting the Referee

I recently heard two things that I found disturbing.

  • Parents received red cards at Summer Nationals for yelling at the referee.
  • People no longer want to referee because of the abuse they take from parents strip-side (not coaches, parents).

If I knew one of these parents, I might suggest to him or her, please tell your child you made a mistake. That you respect the system, the referees, and the sport, and that you got caught up in the heat of battle, and you acted inappropriately. Your child needs to know that you are willing to admit when you were wrong, and that you are willing to do something about it. Even if you know the call was wrong, you need to show that you respect the authority of the referee making the call. That is what this is about. Not about who was right and who was wrong about the call. At the end of the day, the referee makes the call. It is his or her strip, and the call is dependent on what the ref saw. Not what the parent saw. And don’t ask the ref to review the footage you just shot of the point, proving that the other fencer was off the strip, or the touch hit the floor not your child’s toe. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is what the ref saw. And modeling sportsmanship means that you respect that. And you teach your child to respect that. There will be bad calls. There will be those details the ref didn’t see, or that he saw differently. That is just a fact. It will happen. It happens in other sports, too. Deal with it. And model the appropriate behavior for your child. Because one of these days, you won’t be strip-side and your fencer will model your behavior and will get a black card.

Teach your child by modeling the kind of behavior that will help your child be successful and strengthen your child’s understanding of sportsmanship. Regardless of whether a referee is new to the position or has been reffing for years, all referees deserve the respect that sportsmanship demands. Does that mean you should not question a call? Of course not. But ask yourself, are you questioning a call for a legitimate reason, or because you want your fencer to win? And how are you questioning the call? Are you asking why a particular call was made, or what it was based on? And, after the briefest of moments, because you are interrupting the rhythm of the bout, the focus of the fencers, etc., are you graciously accepting the call after it was explained to you, or perhaps though still respectfully disagreeing, nevertheless allowing the referee to continue to do his or her job, respecting his or her authority? Or are you angry and accusing, saying that the referee is blind, made a bad call, is an idiot, etc.? Are you using offensive language? That also sends a powerful message to your child.

Good sportsmanship is a part of developing life skills such as a sense of fairness, consideration of others, respect for authority, fellow competitors, oneself, and the sport, fair play, dealing with adversity and failure, discipline, responsibility, goal setting, and honor.

The relationship your fencer develops with referees will be indicative of his or her sense of sportsmanship, and can set the tone for years of competing.

Your child is not just learning how to fence. Your child is learning about himself or herself in so many different ways, learning how to successfully participate in the world. As a parent, show him how it’s done.

Shortage of Referees

There is a shortage of available referees in the sport. Why? Low pay, long hours, weekend work are not the only reasons for the lack of enough referees. Most referees participate to support the kids and support the sport; but referees often do not receive the equivalent support from the fencers and the fencing governing body. And without referees, the sport of fencing cannot survive.

Kathryn is a freelance writer and former Director of Communications at an independent school in Los Angeles. She has been a "fencing mom" for 6 years. Her blog, “One Parent’s Perspective,” is a work in progress exploring and sharing both successes and failures in helping her son navigate through the competitive world of fencing.

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