National Tournaments and Volunteer Staff.
USA Fencing runs the largest and most complicated tournaments in the entire world. There is nothing that begins to approach the complexity and scale of our Summer Nationals, and even our large NACs surpass what you see anywhere else. To get to this position we have achieved amazing feats, from training a huge cadre of certified, professional referees, contracting for huge numbers of tournament equipment, some of the worlds best armorers, and bout committee members who process events efficiently. If you look back at how tournaments were run years ago, we have really made things measurably better. However most of the progress we have made has allowed our events to get bigger without breaking. The competition experience for athletes, spectators and staff hasn’t done well. Our finals are rarely attended or noticed by people, many of our events are double and even triple flighted to start their pool rounds, and our officials often work extremely long hours under considerable stress. When they do have breaks, they’re often uncertain of how long they are for or when they will be needed next. This combination leads to burnout and dissuades people who might consider volunteering from considering it.
As we look at our tournament structure going forward we need to identify what acceptable working conditions are for our officials and make sure that the choices we make respect that. There are many people so dedicated to the sport that they will stay awake for 18 hours, on their feet almost the entire time, eating a sandwich at the strip during the breaks between bouts. But it really is unreasonable of us to ask this of them, and practically they won’t be doing as good a job at the end of it. So when we calculate how many referees are needed, we need to look at how many hours we need them for, make sure they get a guaranteed time to seat down and eat, and that there are opportunities for real breaks during the day. Being told “You can go to the restroom after doing this next bout, but hurry back” isn’t a break. We’re forced into these statements because the tournament is rolling along like a wave and taking a real break would toss everything into chaos, or take even that opportunity from the people volunteering alongside you.
Another area that needs to improve is the professional development pathway of our volunteers. Right now there are a number of steps along the way that might mark your progression from just beginning to whatever your ultimate goal is. For referees that includes taking the seminar, passing the written exam, your first tournament, your first final, your first national tournament, etc. But when it comes to how to get these, many people feel lost or uncertain. It is often unspoken how to get hired for your first NAC. Once you go, did anyone tell you if you did a good job, or what you need to work on to get better? Some people get this feedback, and others do not. We need to be consistent in our mentoring and providing feedback to everyone who volunteers their time to us. We need a clear pathway for how to become an armorer or Bout Committee member.
As an organization we have achieved amazing things, but every good organization is planning for how to improve, and implementing these plans. Let’s focus on that improvement.