A Harangue on Referee Feedback and Development

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Alright, controversial opinion time. Back at Summer Nationals, I had a student walk on as a referee. He’s studied the rules extensively, he’s worked hard at it in practice, and he’s motivated to get better. But he was still “green,” so to speak.
A friend of mine refereeing in his pod sent me a message and informed me that he was having a rocky pool, and the particular referee overseeing him wasn’t giving him constructive feedback, he was outright screaming at him and chewing him out.
And this is an illustration of why I have zero desire to referee beyond a regional level: it would seem, to ascend in the referee ranks beyond that level, you have to subject yourself to a level of humiliation that I simply would have no desire, or perhaps too much pride to get there. Even when you DO get there, that humiliation never ceases. How often do you go to a NAC and see an FOC publicly berating a fellow official at the top of his/her lungs within earshot of others? Pretty often? I thought so.
I imagine this is a part of the reason why we’ve seen so many of our great referees leave the sport over the years: the development and feedback they receive isn’t really feedback at all, it usually comes from some self-absorbed codger blowing off hellbent, hysterical steam.
So let’s talk about good feedback delivery, and how that works. If you’re going to give feedback the proper way, you take yourself and your feelings out of it as the deliverer and provide an objective assessment that identifies the individual’s action, the impact of it, the result, and how to correct it.
Here’s an example of bad feedback: “Damien, I can’t believe you botched that call in the pool. I mean, really, I feel like you blew that one. Back in my day, we’d have to do
pushups on thumbtacks if we botched a call. Your reffing sucks and I wish you’d quit.”
Here’s an example of good feedback: “Damien, in that Division I Men’s Foil bout, you called ‘counterattack in preparation,’ which is actually not a valid call from the rulebook. For reference, it’s ‘attack in preparation.’ The result of this was that FotR was awarded a touch that wasn’t his. If you have any questions about what I just told you, let me know.”
The FOC’s focus on referee development needs to also turn to a focus on referee retention. The two are hand in hand. Develop formal feedback guidelines that even the self-absorbed codgers are required to follow, and if they can’t deliver feedback without emotional outbursts, it’s probably time to find people who can.
Referees go to NAC’s at the expense of their own vacation days, they’re fed on a three-day old hotdog diet, and they’re paid like paupers. You want to know why they do this? Because they frickin’ love it, and I love them for it. The worst thing you can do is alienate the most passionate members of the fencing community by treating them with such utter disrespect. This all needs to change. Pronto.

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