Some time ago, I finished a weekend of refereeing together with a group of beginners who just passed their theoretical tests. They were paired up with more experienced referees (I was one of those) so that one referee pair would work a poule, and the referee examinator would walk around and observe. I am pleased with the results, all passed the theoretical part of the test and only one (out of a dozen or so) of the aspiring referees failed the practical element.

That said, I came up with a series of tips that I have gathered during the years, and I doubt most rookie referees would come up with them right away on their own. In no particular order, here is a nonexhaustive list of tips for quickly becoming a better referee:

  1. Speak in a way that does not wear your voice out. There are lots of detailed suggestions for how to do this on the web.
  2. Speak in short, declarative sentences. This is not the place for flowery speech.
  3. When giving orders, do not formulate them as questions or suggestions. Be completely clear.
  4. Do not motivate your decisions unless there is a compelling reason to do so. The fencers can ask for motivations, if they so wish. Every extra sentence drags out on poule time, and increases the risk that you will say something that goes over wrong.
  5. Develop a set way for testing weapons at the start of the match, and stick to it. If you always do things in the same order, you lessen the risk of forgetting something. The same goes for the procedure at roll call.
  6. Test the first fencer to be hooked up and connected first. That saves a little bit of time each match, and it adds up over time.
  7. Move in such a way so as to keep the important things in your central field of view at all times, as much as is possible. That means extra vigilance for fencers with explosive footwork. Step back as much as is possible, given the position of the other referee behind your back. If the poule behind your back is ready before yours, step even further back. Be wary of when the fencing nears the back lines – then you must move fast in order to be in a position where you can see whether the back fencer steps behind his back line, while at the same time being able to see the fencing box and control it with the remote. If necessary, step back and use the remote with your off hand in order to get the angles right. Note that the optimal referee movement is not the same for different weapons – in epee, you can follow along. In sabre, it is best to step as far back as you possibly can, and get a reasonable overview from there.
  8. Hold the remote so that four fingers support it from below, and your thumb is on the start/stop button. That is the only button you need to control at all times, all other buttons can be manipulated with the other hand while you hold the remote with your dominant hand.
  9. In order to prevent mishaps where the clock does not start at the right hand: Start with the “en guarde” sign and verbal command, then the “pret” sign and command, THEN check that you have the stop/start bubble of the remote right under the tip of your thumb by feeling for it, THEN give the “Allez” sign and command at the same time as you push down the stop/start bubble. Check that the colon sign between the minute and second digits goes from red to green (that takes less than a second) and then start observing the fencers.
  10. If you are unsure: go with your gut feeling, AND STICK WITH IT. It might be wrong, but things will surely go wrong in a jiffy if you start visibly waffling. If you are unsure: take your time to replay your inner video camera, make the sentences necessary to describe your call, and do so without showing any sign of what your final decision should be, or insecurity.
  11. If coaches are trying to coach during fencing time, and you would like to put a stop to it without having to resort to carding the coaches: Do not hesitate to speak loudly to the fencer and call him to the guard line right away! You are interrupting the coach, but that is by design, and there is nothing he can do about it.
  12. If a fencer is prone to hogging the side line, spend more of your attention checking all four feet close to the sidelines. That is especially important in epee, where toe hits are an issue. If you are cramped in by another piste behind you, be aware that it is easier to miss things happening on the side line closest to you, due to the fact that you must deflect your vision further down.
  13. Be proactive in seeking referee assignments when you are a rookie. While a rookie, you will not be on top of the various search lists, and unless you are proactive, it is quite possible that the referee roster will be filled with old hands that the competition leadership considers its go-to people before you get a chance at working and thus becoming better at refereeing.

Note that all these tips are in addition to whatever your refereeing teacher taught you, and what the head referee says at the referee meeting. Should either one say something that goes against my 13 tips (unlikely, but you never know) follow their preferences over my tips.

There is no doubt that you will come up with your own tips and hacks when refereeing in addition to my list above. Consider my list a booster pack of sorts that will enhance you from total greenhorn to somewhat experienced in a jiffy, if you follow all points.

Welcome to the refereeing cadre, and I hope to see you on a piste near mine!