By Jon Willis
Last year, after I had run a cadet competition, I overheard a fencer refer to me as ‘the man who organises competitions’. Initially, it dented my ego to think that I’m known more for running competitions than my exploits with an epee. I only retired a few years ago! However, I’m delighted to have been able to remain in fencing, to use my competitive experience to improve the standard of events in the UK and help the sport grow.
I now work for Leon Paul as their Events Manager. They had sponsored me as a fencer and I was really excited when I learned they were going to build the Leon Paul Fencing Centre. I had some input in the planning stages of the build and was delighted to then be offered a position here. My responsibilities include all aspects of the competition calendar for events at the Fencing Centre, as well as external competitions such as the Leon Paul Junior Series. We work closely with British Fencing and I have also volunteered for major championships at Sheffield and Sports Dock. Of course, all along it has been a team game. Our squad of referees, armourers and floor managers have a deserved reputation for excellence. We have run over 100 fencing competitions in the last 3 years and have strength in depth.
I often get asked for tips on how to go about running a good competition. The one word answer I always give is planning. If you have planned your event correctly, on the day it can then be fairly straightforward, following a set process from check-in through to poules, DE’s and medals. If you haven’t planned, then frustration, tantrums and meltdowns are inevitable from beginning to end.
A timetable and piste plan is vital. I create a spreadsheet with the number of pistes across the top and a timeline down the side for progress through the day. Each block on the page represents a period of time on a certain piste.
For each weapon, I know on average how long a poule takes. Depending on the number of entries in the competition I can work out the number of poules I will need and hence the number of referees required. Similarly for DE’s, I can plan timings and normally then cut down to 8 pistes for a L64 or L32.
Once the action starts I cross off the rounds as I go and try to beat my projected finish time.
Just as with fencing itself, you have to keep up the tempo! Once check-in closes it’s all about speed. Non-fencing time needs to be kept to an absolute minimum.
There are certain things you can do during an event to speed things up. It is sometimes possible to split poules that are lagging behind or reassign DE fights to a different pistes. For example, in the L64, ‘fight f1’ will always be 1st seed against 64th seed. Typically, that fight will be over a lot faster than ‘fight f2’, which is 32nd seed verses 33rd seed. It is not an exact science but with experience you learn the flow of competitions and can work out how best to shave time.
These are the most challenging and the most fun! Whether it’s a large LPJS or the Nationals, you are now juggling up to six balls in the air (which is tricky, if you’ve ever tried it!). The hardest of all competitions to get right is the BYCs. I’ve run this for the last couple of years and it really is a 3 shattering days of intense pressure. Even with the best planning, the volume and complexity of a large youth event means that you are soon assigning fights on the fly. It then comes down to the quality of your team to get through the day – there is no substitute for their experience and judgment. Some of you might have noticed we do a few little tricks available, like running down a section of Tableau on one piste (thanks Mavis). This is tough for the referees but the most efficient way of running an event of this size. It reduces the number of shuttle runs with score sheets and helps the young fencers stay in the right place (herding cats comes to mind!).
It is disastrous to have insufficient referees or simply to rely upon random volunteers/parents to turn up on the day. There is no point putting out loads of pistes and having a fancy spreadsheet if you haven’t got enough referees to officiate.
Referees are the most important people for the running of a competition. In my experience, if you have a good set of referees for your event it will go smoothly. Self-refereeing slows down poules and can be an inconsistent experience for the fencers, sometimes leading to avoidable disputes. It will make timetabling the competition much more cumbersome. Worse still, from an organiser's point of view, you can’t even hit them with clipboards to speed things up. The subject of refereeing is a whole topic for a different blog but making sure you have enough referees is pretty much key to running a good event.
There are still improvements that can be made to fencing events. The major efficiency I would like to see introduced is a tablet system of poule sheets, which connect directly back to DT. This already exists at some major world events but to set it up requires a lot of expensive hardware and data cables/networking. Without question, it slashes non-fencing time at the events I have seen. As I have already said, the duration of fencing bouts is pretty much constant and there is nothing you can do about it as an organiser. It is the non-fencing time you have to reduce.
Increasingly, competitions have websites with FAQ, information and even live feeds/results. This has transformed participation in events and also improves the experience for those taking part. With internet coverage, particularly via Smart TV, we can get fencing to a mass audience.