All posts by Frances Chow

The Common Law: How sabre refereeing really works, and how to make it better

 

Let’s start with a statement that’s both dangerous and self-evident:

At professional level, sabre is not refereed according to the rule book. It hasn’t been for decades.

So what’s going on?

It’s worth noting that this essay is not about the first and last sections of the rule book, the procedural stuff. These parts cover an extensive and very clear set of written rules about things like equipment, the field of play, tournament organisation, conduct of bouts, penalties and appeals. That stuff is basically fine.

Even the bulk of “Part 4: The Conventions of Sabre” is perfectly straightforward, and any competent referee should have memorised the content on technical faults and how to deal with them.

Then comes the “Validity or Priority of the Hit”, and at this point the wheels fall off.

4. An attack with a step-forward-lunge is correctly carried out: a) in a simple attack (Cf. t.8.1) when the beginning of the straightening of the arm precedes the step-forward and when the hit arrives at the latest when the front foot hits the piste…

This definition of the attack has not been followed by a professional referee at FIE level in the decade we’ve been involved in this sport.

Why?

It does not reflect the way the modern game works.

So what’s taken its place?

A set of conventions, unwritten rules,  handed down from the top professional referees to their junior colleagues, and which then propagate out through the sport by observation and discussion. We’ve already written about some examples of this before at some length, but let’s revise.

Some of the conventions govern simple and easily codified things, which are presented at pre-world cup referee briefings as direct orders, eg:

A fencer who starts before the command “Allez” should receive a yellow card.

The majority of these conventions, though, relate to the always-prickly problem of allocating priority.

The Common Law

Allocation of priority in sabre is about recognising two things: Intention and Execution. It’s a subjective exercise.

Unfortunately, the formal rules do not provide anywhere near a comprehensive description of priority. Indeed, the concept of priority on the march which is universally followed in modern Olympic sabre does not appear in the rule book at all.

Yet the game largely works, even at professional level where careers are on the line. Why?

Sabre refereeing can be best understood as functioning like a Common Law legal system. There is legislation (the written rules of the game) which provide a relatively stable framework. Then there is precedent (or interpretation) which allows a more adaptable and nuanced implementation of the written framework to the infinite complexities of real situations.

Common Law systems have governed societies with much more complex and important disputes than sabre priority for centuries. Essentially, what has happened in sabre is we’ve developed our own ad-hoc version.

This is why you can’t solve most sabre refereeing questions by looking at the rule book, any more than you can expect to win a court case by representing yourself based on reading the legislation. You’re missing out on an enormous body of critical understanding and information. But where can you get that information from?

The Missing Link

The weakness of the comparison to a Common Law system lies in the documentation.

In a legal system, decisions are published, allowing interested parties to read and understand the existing interpretation.  In sabre, there are obviously no written decisions, and more broadly there is no system for publishing updates on the current interpretation. Indeed, there is no formal acknowledgement that such a thing even exists.

Luckily for everyone involved, the advent of complete video streaming of major tournaments is going some way towards closing the gap. A sufficiently motivated sabre nerd can sit down and examine the patterns of decisions across a season and figure out what the current interpretation is. We now have data.

At Sydney Sabre, we have been attempting to streamline the process by publishing compilations showing the trends. We can make things like this:

It would be a lot more elegant for the sport, though, if it wasn’t up to people like us to figure this out in our spare time.

Allowing Progress

Formal recognition of the situation will require no small amount of courage. It will mean public acknowledgement of the fact that the sport has not been refereed according to the rule book, at professional and Olympic level, for some time.

But leadership on this issue would have enormous benefits. If the reality of refereeing by convention is openly recognised by the international federation, it will free the leaders in professional sabre refereeing to begin to formally and publicly discuss the way the rules of the game are evolving. It would open the door to dramatic improvements in education, understanding, consistency and professionalism at all levels.

So let’s get it done.


In future posts, we’ll be taking a look at what would actually have to be done to create a working system out of this. Stay tuned!

An Armed Society Is A Polite Society

sabre

Sabre refereeing is tough. Things happen very fast and decisions need to be made based on very subtle differences in complex movements. You’re also dealing with a pair of (often) fired-up people with weapons. It can be scary at the best of times, but we reckon learning to deal with that is a powerful skill.

In our experience at a lot of clubs around the world, most people avoid refereeing wherever possible, leaving it to fencers to “self-ref”, which is a bit sub-optimal for everyone. We prefer to take a “ref early, ref often” approach to training, where people are involved to some level from their first session, and more than 99% of bouts in the club are formally refereed, even if by a relative novice. It helps people get familiar with the flow of the sport, train their eye and get properly familiar with the rules.

We fully acknowledge that this means people are being put on the spot in a position that can risk being stressful and intimidating at the best of times: nobody wants to mess up a call, but it’s inevitable even for the best refs in the world. We’re also not going to lie and pretend that having a ref make a terrible decision that costs you a touch is not annoying. But given that our referees are not being paid for this and are fundamentally here to have a good time, we have an extremely low tolerance for drama.

So, in the spirit of transparency, here is the code we follow:

Be polite and respect the ref

  • It’s totally fine to query decisions, but it must be presented as a query and it must be polite and non-confrontational. Do not under any circumstances challenge the authority or competency of the ref.
    • “Excuse me, was it not my parry?” is fine.
    • “It’s a clear parry riposte!” is not fine.
  • Do not expect decisions to get flipped: we use video review in DE rounds in certain tournaments, but not in training. Refs are expected not to change calls without video.
  • The only acceptable response to any reply from the referee is a polite acknowledgment. No further discussion is to be entered into.

Accept that refereeing errors happen

  • Even the best refs screw up calls. Inexperienced refs, like most of the ones in a casual training session, are going to screw up lots of calls. This needs to be accepted by all fencers.
  • We are an amateur club, where people participate in the sport for the joy of it, and this includes the referees. There is no excuse for making anyone stressed, uncomfortable or humiliated.
  • Even the worst decision needs to be met with good humour: match results inside the club do not matter.

Handle referee training formally

  • We have a lot of inexperienced refs who need to learn how to do things right. However, this is never an excuse for throwing out ad-hoc challenges to calls a fencer doesn’t like.
  • Referee training matches need to be agreed to in advance by all parties involved.
  • Where possible, a supervising referee should be the one making any corrections to calls, and the fencers should follow standard protocols.
  • Experienced fencers can also play the role of making corrections to calls in a referee training bout, particularly where no supervising ref is present. However, they are expected to be absolutely scrupulous about not attempting to game the situation for some cheeky points. They must be prepared to correct calls in both directions (ie: even when it disadvantages them).

Discuss controversial call types with video, after training

  • If a fencer or referee wants to review and discuss a problematic call type, the only sensible way to handle this is with video. Nothing is more pointless than a bunch of people arguing about exactly what physical action someone did based on what they remember seeing.
  • The entire bout should be recorded. We do not allow video review of calls during training bouts: it’s just too disruptive.
  • The footage should be reviewed at the end of training, NOT immediately after the match. Let people cool down and decompress first.
  • This is only to be done with the agreement of the referee. Filming a bout and then springing the footage on someone later with a catalogue of their mistakes is completely unacceptable.

Do not allow lines to be crossed

  • If a fencer (or someone acting as coach) is ignoring the principles outlined above, there is one recommended response from the referee: walk away.
  • The phrase we suggest using to address unacceptable behaviour is “That’s not how we do things here.” Explain that the match is not going to continue. Do not allow them to get another referee: the bout is over.
  • If you feel it’s a minor issue or it’s just someone having a bad day, feel free to give them a warning and ask them to chill out before you pull the plug. If it’s a major outburst, though, don’t be shy about shutting it down straight away.
  • Classic red flags include:
    • Yelling at a referee
    • Stating that a decision was wrong
    • Stating that a referee is incompetent
    • Throwing gear
    • Hitting the piste
    • Anything that is clearly making a fencer, ref or anyone else in the vicinity uncomfortable: hard hits, jostling, swearing etc that are clearly upsetting people.

A note on yelling:

We are 100% not opposed to generalised sabre excitement here. War cries, victory dances, posing, impersonations of angry grizzly bears and other typical responses to adrenaline are totally fine, as long as they’re not directed in someone’s face. However, if things get out of hand and someone’s going full Imboden…

…we have a few traditional responses:
1. Scuttle away like Dr Zoidberg

2. Deploy that hand gesture from that one anti-speeding campaign a few years ago. You know the one.
Thaaaat's the one
Thaaaat’s the one
3. Be Benedikt Wagner
Just be cool in our club. Sport is fun!

The Pursuit of Imperfection

Frontespizio_Cello_Suite

It hasn’t come up before, but some years ago I was a fairly serious amateur cellist.

When you’re a cellist, and you hear that Pieter Wispelway is playing the complete Bach Cello Suites in your home town, you go.

The six suites are the cornerstone repertoire for the instrument, and playing the whole thing in one hit in live performance is a marathon feat few musicians attempt: almost three hours of solo music, played from memory with nothing to hide behind. Pieter Wispelway has been doing it for decades.

You go even if you’ve heard him do it before. I had, back when I was an impressionable teenager who had only ever heard Bach played with the kind of nerdy precision that was deemed to be the Correct Way Of Doing Things, all mathematical formulation, intricate patterns implemented with sublime, inhuman perfection . Suddenly some wild-haired Dutch dude threw this hard-assed diligence out the window and played the dances as dances with what (at the time) was outlandish, daring unorthodoxy. I was hooked.

The guy who appeared in the Angel Place recital hall on Sunday afternoon was not a wild-haired young radical. At 55, he’s  in the position where he can settle down into the comfortable role of an undisputed master of his art.

But that’s not what he did.

Characterised by an austere, understated tonal style and extreme shifts in tempo, it was a vastly more risky interpretation than his earlier work. The instrument spent the majority of its time speaking in modest, human tones well below its capabilities for projection.

The performance was littered with minor errors, literally hundreds of them, stuff that perhaps only a cellist would notice, but the kind of thing a student would dread in an examination: a tenth of a note flat in a chord here, a string accidentally brushed on a crossing there, basic, elementary technical mistakes. Then there were a handful of major glitches, stuff that anyone who was paying attention would have raised an eyebrow at, happening in passages that I could play flawlessly in high school.

And then, he would hit the hard stuff. The bits that young cellists have nightmares about. He ran headlong into material that is brutally, legendarily difficult, and he ripped through it with an obliviousness that had one guy at the end of my row (an alpha middle-aged corporate type who had taken up amateur cello as stress relief) guffawing in disbelief. It wasn’t bravura flair, it wasn’t showing off, it was just making the thing sound how it needed to sound. What are you going to do, hold back because you’re scared?

It was dynamic, unpredictable and utterly compelling. In places, like the haunting, desolate Sarabande from Suite 5, which in many ways felt like the only thing he’d really come across the world to play, it left the hall in stunned silence.  This was an interpretation by an artist who had immersed himself in a work so fully and for so long that he had absorbed its soul and made it his own.

Given that level of mastery, the errors are fascinating. They’re fascinating because someone who could so obviously have eliminated them didn’t bother. They’re fascinating because they were so irrelevant. These ephemeral, trivial little intrusions of chaos and discord into such a monumental performance served only as a reminder of the humanity that produced it, and the inherent trade-offs involved.

You can be fearless and let the soul of thing flow, or you can make it flawless. You can’t do both.  Fear of imperfection in art will kill the spirit that animates it. And a machine that plays music with scrupulous precision cannot do what a human just did.

One Kick: The Sydney Sabre Training Philosophy

Gu Bon Gil Special
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”                – Bruce Lee

Our Training Philosophy:

We are not a clone army. We are all individuals.

Every student training at Sydney Sabre starts by working their way through our 50-Week Course.

  • The 50-Week Course is a primer to the full core repertoire of modern sabre. It covers over 150 technical skills. This is far more than any fencer will ever use effectively.
  • Every fencer needs to identify a personal repertoire of 10-15 skills which they are good at and use successfully. They then need to master these skills.
  • The purpose of the 50-Week Course is to allow a new fencer to identify their personal repertoire.  This repertoire will be different for every fencer.
  • At the end of the 50-Week Course, every fencer should know what skills they need to master. They should know what kind of fencer they are. They should have a clear path.

The purpose of the 50-Week Course is to let us discover who we are.

A bit more detail:

There are two fundamental approaches to sabre training.

  1. The Generalist Method:  Learn a vast repertoire of actions, all of which are potentially valuable. Deploy them as needed on the fly.
  2. The Specialist Method: Figure out a minimal repertoire of actions that work for you. Drill them until you’re really good. Do pretty much nothing else.

The Generalist Method:

This is the conventional approach followed by a large majority of coaches out there. Learning sabre means constructing a complex swiss-army knife of dozens or even hundreds of skills which you can deploy to tackle just about any conceivable situation. On the plus side, this gives you (in theory) enormous tactical depth and adaptability. You’re a robust generalist who can cope with anything. On the minus side, it means you’re spreading your training efforts very thin. For someone with limited time (like someone starting sabre as an adult) it makes mastery of technique effectively impossible.

It also, in reality, means making tactical decisions in a fight is a confusing mess. With so many options to draw upon, picking the right one can be an overwhelming problem. Decision fatigue sets in rapidly. In practice, this limitation means pretty much all fencers end up trimming their own effective repertoires in matches to a modest number of favourite moves, but this is (in our observation) rarely reflected fully in their training.

The Specialist Method:

Gu Bon Gil is a textbook example of what we’re talking about: focused and relentless drilling of a highly limited skill set. Early on in training, the coach identifies what your strengths and natural inclinations are. What you do under pressure? How do you win your points? A core repertoire of at most 15 actions is picked, and drilled to the exclusion of everything else.

You become a specialist with a very narrow range of options which you’re extremely good at. On the minus side, this means you will probably end up in situations where you’re completely screwed and don’t have any backup plan. On the plus side, you can become properly dominant at a set of things that work, and be able to pick between options extremely fast. Hopefully this means you won’t wind up in situations where you don’t have a successful countermeasure very often.

At Sydney Sabre, we follow the Specialist Method. We believe it works better. We also believe that given our function of training amateur fencers with limited time, it’s the only viable way.

Here’s how it works:

Every fencer goes through the 50-Week Course as an introduction to the full sabre repertoire.

  • For each action you need to learn:
    • How to do it,
    • When it’s used,
    • What its limitations are, and
    • If you like it.
  • The goal of each stage in the course is to identify which technical elements work for you for each phase of the game (Basic actions, Attack, Defense, 4m)
  • At the end of 50-Week Course, you should be able to write a list of 10-15 actions which form your core repertoire.

Once you’ve done this you can then proceed to further training  with a clear understanding of what your style is and what you need to work on.

If you’re training with us, this is how you need to think about the content of each class.

Did you find today’s content intuitive and cool? Have you found yourself doing it already in fights? If so, awesome! Write down that your repertoire includes stop cut/circle 5/bind attacks/low line/bounce prep/whatever it is. Did you hate it and find it really hard? No problem, it just isn’t your thing. Let’s move on next week and find some alternatives!

In short: The purpose of the 50-Week Course is to let each fencer find their own repertoire. The purpose of post-course training is to master it.

Everyone has their own path to follow.

 Note: If you’re interested in what’s in the 50-Week Course, we’re in the process of outlining it in the “Sabre Codex” series of articles on this blog. We’re not going into technical coaching detail, but we are covering the big points: what an action is, when it’s used, and what its limitations are.

Whether you like it is up to you.

Why We Love Korean Sabre

Oh v Szilagyi 2017 Worlds. Photo: Bizzi
Oh Sanguk lunges against Aron Szilagyi in the final at 2017 World Championships. Photo: Bizzi/FIE

Regular followers of our work will know that we have a strong affinity for K-sabre. There are plenty of reasons: it is spectacular to watch, we’ve worked with them in the past with great success, and they’re nice guys.

But the real reason is this: They set sabre free.

Back in the distant bygone era of 2008 when we were just getting started in this sport, there was an iron-clad set of rules to follow if you wanted to win.

  1. Be European; or
  2. Go to Europe to train; or
  3. Hire a European coach.

Sabre was an art with a body of secret knowledge which was controlled by an Old Guard of Masters. To ever understand it, you had to go to the source and supplicate yourself.

This was clearly impractical for the enormous majority of humans on this planet, but it was an unavoidable price.

And then K-sabre happened, and everything changed.

Here was a squad who had never followed any of the rules. They never went to the source. They reverse-engineered sabre from first principles and hours of vidcam footage from 1990s World Cups. What they built wasn’t strict and regimented, but wild and diverse and individualistic. It bubbled with joy and ferocity.

The Old Guard shook their fists. They objected loudly to all of this. It was ugly. Simplistic. Unsophisticated. “This isn’t fencing, they’re just fighting like animals”, to quote one particularly memorable rant we heard.

But it worked. It didn’t just work better than it should. It worked better than anything that had been tried before. In an era of increasing professionalism and competition, it worked well enough to claim four consecutive World Cup titles and the current World and Olympic team championships.

Obviously there are peculiar conditions behind all this which are not easy to replicate, foremost lavish financial support for Olympic sports in Korea allowing the construction of a fearsome professional program, but the seeds were sown long before the system was in place.

What Korean sabre showed is that the old rules didn’t have to apply. That’s why we love it. It showed us there was another way.

Now, for all you kids who weren’t around when London 2012 happened, or those of you who may have forgotten, here is what a full-power Korean sabre team looks like.

Take the 30 minutes to watch it. It’s pretty great.

The Sabre Codex 1.6: Defensive Check

Welcome to Beginner Week 6!  Last week, we introduced you to counterattacks: defensive bladework where you both hit and lock out your opponent’s attempt to finish in one supremely filthy maneuver. This week we’re going to take a step back and show you how to use the threat of these actions to force the Attacker into a panicked early finish where, hopefully, you can make them miss completely.

This threatening, fake-counterattack is called check. The basic idea is to make what looks and feels to the Attacker like a legit attempt to hit them, to goad them into a rushed finish.

check parry


You have to be a bit theatrical, but also precise: this is not an exercise in noisy foot-stomping or wild jabbing at the air. We’ll show you how to suggest you’ve got a specific target in mind and make your action clearly visible. But, and this is absolutely critical: You also have to be ready to get out of the way. In tonight’s class, we’ll be covering how to make a good check, and then evade at a common range of attack distances. There’s no glory in successfully goading an attack if it catches you.

The Sabre Codex 0.6: Parry Drills

parry drill

 

Welcome to week 6 of footwork and bladework! We’ve spent the last 5 weeks working on the attack, and now it’s time to switch modes. We’ll be putting more of a focus on checks and retreats in the footwork session, and then turning the spotlight on to defensive bladework, starting with the most fundamental of them all: the four core parries.
The ability to correctly pick the line of an attack and block it with a clean, simple parry requires a huge amount of practice, and this week’s class focuses on the most fundamental drill you can use to build this skill. The “Parry Exchange” drill with four basic options (parries 2, 3, 4 and 5) done slowly, static and at close range is not anything resembling a simulation of a match, but it is extremely useful in developing the muscle memory you’ll need when things get real. It’s also, we have to admit, kind of soothing.
Don’t go crazy trying to “win”, but concentrate on controlling your actions and avoiding rushed guesswork. Efficiency is everything.

The Sabre Codex 4.5: Compound Parries

Previously on Advanced, we’ve worked on ways to stop the Attacker before they get the chance to launch. Checks, sweeps, stop cuts and point-in-line all have their roles to play in the increasingly arduous game that is defence at 180ms lockout timing.

Now we’re moving on to the last line of defence: parries. Over the next few classes, we’ll be building your repertoire of the most powerful, dramatic and (okay) flashy defensive bladework out there, which should hopefully be able to bring even an experienced Attacker to a grinding halt.

We’ve covered the basic parries in the earlier courses. They’re quick and simple to pull off, but their utility can be limited against a sophisticated opponent who likes to use feint attacks. The good news is that you can turn this kind of duplicity right around and use it to build something to your advantage: compound parries. In short, we’ll show you how to lure the Attacker to a false target, then close the line when they take the bait. In tonight’s class, we’ll be starting off with a simple pairing of chest and flank. Expect things to escalate from there over the coming weeks.

compound 3