• Julie Seal

Can You Hear Me Now??

Communicating Clearly With Your Referee

(Before you read anything, let me say that of course I know I am a giant hypocrite - sometimes.)

I have been fencing for 29 years and I have been a nationally rated referee for 23 years (give or take). I think I'm smarter now. Here's why: I understand the relationship between me and my referee better. I have organized it mentally and that allows me to shift my energy to the most valuable tasks during a bout. That's important when you're almost 50 and you're trying to fence teenagers...and win. Efficiency is "money". Wait....what's that phrase the kids say??? Efficiency is "fire".

I used to think that the referee was supposed to know "right of way" like Moses knows the 10 Commandments. Like a prophet, they should see it, recognize it and proclaim The Truth. I was so emotionally upset when a referee wouldn't see something I did, that I thought was "right". Like many fencers, I would have an on strip crisis of faith when the referee would award a touch that seemed to clearly go against the rule book.

Now before you give me the standard response i.e. "that's because what you thought you were doing isn't what you were actually doing", let me propose another idea.

What if I was doing exactly what I meant to do? What if I even see it played back to me on video and it is still exactly what I meant to do? What if other people thought I was right too? The obvious answer is, "Sometimes the referee is wrong." That's true, but that's still not what I'm getting at.

For a moment lets imagine that fencing is sign language.

When you attempt an attack or a parry, etc. you are trying to communicate. You are talking to your referee. You are trying to say, "See its my turn and therefore my point because I'm doing this!" And you assume that we all know what "this" is.

But what if our "words" are garbled?

What if your actions/words have a twang? What if the word is a little different in New York than it is in California or New Hampshire or Germany or Korea? Like when some people say "pop" and someone else says "soda"? Or like when someone says Of-TEN instead of Of-Fen? Or Potato? Or Potato? (You get it.)

In like fashion, what if we parry the blade but for some reason the referee keeps calling it a beat attack? What if we think we are attacking but we keep being told we are not?

The answer is in the referee's action vocabulary. Your referee has a mental image of what each action should look like. You are not fitting into their "range of recognition". In short, they can't understand what you are saying. And that's ok. Your referee does not have to know your language. But you can know the basics of theirs. The most effective way to help yourself is to find out how they say what you want them to hear.

What do you do if you go to a new place and no one understands what you mean?

Re-frame your mindset when you are speaking to your referee. You don't have to have a referee that is "right" like Moses about the 10 commandments. Because the truth is that we all see things a little different. We hear them a little varied. And sometimes what we see changes with more experience. You have to know what words (actions) the referee understands. The more detail you can get the better you will be able to adjust.

Here's some ideas:

Don't say : But Sir, that was my parry riposte!!!

Say: Would it have been my parry if he were lunging when our blades met?

Don't say : He stops!

Say: Did I need to go sooner after the finish of his first lunge?

The great thing about these questions is that it offers your referee a chance to reply with a complete sentence. You want to avoid verbal interactions that end with your referee not replying or just shaking their head. That is not milking the moment for an insight.

Additionally, when you allow for the reality that your referee saw something different that might be of value, you have just established a working, professional relationship. No referee really wants to piss you off. Its an emotionally draining process. Referees admire fencers. Referees are fans. But they have a job and referees hate being bullied. Close minded communication makes you look difficult and frankly, stupid. When you set up your questions thoughtfully, you can learn how your referee thinks as well as subtly point out your intended message.

Find the commonalities in your action vocabularies.

Find "the words" (or actions) you both agree on. Make a mental note. Organize your plan knowing how it will be regarded. Sometimes you will encounter a referee who might not have any common ground with you on an action. Don't do that action. Just like some words are swear words here but not in the UK. Don't say them! Find another action that they see and understand. On rare occasion your referee may only understand "one light". The sooner you recognize it, the sooner you can put your energy into making that happen. In the moment, it doesn't matter whether it's right or wrong. You have more important things to worry about, like winning. Remember its a game, so play.

Honestly, you're not Moses either. We must recognize that whether the rules are written in stone or French, people are the administrators. The wise competitor will learn to put their own fencing religion aside. There is no divine reality in fencing. Its harshly subjective.


While adults argue with one another at NACs and online, the kids have been doing something so smart. When I don't give them the attack they say "Hand or foot?" What a concise and intelligent question! As a referee it allows me the opportunity to explain quickly why they don't get the point. As an athlete they have solid easy feedback that they can use immediately. In a sense they have asked me for a mutual contract of interpretation. Brilliant!

Fencing is so amazing! What a huge set of skills we can learn. When we finally start to pay attention to each other and give their perspectives value, we learn how to move our game forward. By letting go of our precepts, we ultimately have more control over our future.

And yes, I know I still need work.


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