Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Requiem

I love Summer Nationals. It's such a gloriously insane idea.

You can have your World Cups, with your civilized two events per day and scheduled DEs. I'll take our noisy festival of six to twelve events each day, with fencers of all ages and parents and coaches and vendors and referees all running amok together.

NACs are nice enough. I especially like the December Div.I/Vet and the January Div.I/Jr events, which are great for spectators looking for terrific fencing, and the more relaxed March Div.II/III/Vet NACs, where we develop both fencers and referees, often to the annoyance of some of the more competitive vet fencers. And it's always fun to mix the Div.I and Youth events in the April NACs—where else would you get to see a tiny Y10 girls' saber medalist gazing up, up, up at the very tall Tim Morehouse presenting her medal?

But Summer Nationals puts it all together—the kids, their sometimes-overwrought parents, the recreational fencers, the hyper-competitors, the veterans who've seen everything and know everybody, and the newbies who aren't even quite sure what a conductive strip is, not to mention all the coaches and referees and other officials. And everyone has stories to tell, tales of yore (the time before the latest egregious rule change), tales of battle (as often coach vs. referee or coach vs. coach as fencer vs. fencer), and tales of intrigue (which could be almost anything—intra- or inter-club feuds, rumors of international bribery, or which referees broke up and are dating new people).

Summer Nationals is interesting.

Ten years ago, Summer Nationals did not exist.

1n 1996, USFA's National Championships were held in Cincinnati, Ohio, over nine days in June. There were individual competitions in all weapons in Division I (except for women's saber), Division II, Juniors, Veteran Combined, and Wheelchair (except for women's saber), along with Open Teams and Junior Teams (except for women's saber). There were 1502 entries in the 28 individual events and 189 teams in the 11 team events.

This year in Atlanta, we held 77 individual events (Divisions I, I-A, II, III, Junior, Cadet, Youth-14, Youth-12, Youth-10, Vet-40, Vet-50, Vet-60, and Wheelchair —except, of course, for women's saber) and 18 team events (Division I, Open, and Junior). There were 6,240 individual entries and 353 team entries. And we took only one day longer to make it all happen.

I'm going to miss Summer Nationals.

We've nibbled at the edges of the problem for the past few years, lowering the qualification rate at divisionals and sectionals to 25%, and increasing the number of events using the 80% promotion rate instead of 100% (though limiting the youth events would have been more useful than limiting the veteran events, many of which are already tiny). We've had poor old XSeed tweaked to its limits to make it do what we needed, figured out a way to semi-automate team seeding, and started using En Garde to run the team events instead of writing them completely by hand.

We've tightened up the standards for working bout committee at Summer Nationals: we no longer take trainees at SN—we can't afford the time and energy to teach people, and we can't afford to risk the kinds of errors that inexperienced hands can make. We've developed a crew of people who know what needs doing and cooperate to get it done.

But we're fighting a tidal wave. Summer Nationals is suffering from a terrible affliction, and that affliction is success. Fencing is booming, and we're losing the race to keep up with the growth.

We've tracked the numbers: for the past few years, the average growth for a SN event from one year to the next has been 20%. Each year it becomes more and more difficult to devise a workable schedule of events (especially when the schedule must be devised before we know what the final numbers will be).

We've known all this for several years now. But this year in Atlanta, we could feel it.

That punchy Day 6 feeling we've always joked about, that stage when we start asking each other again—only half-seriously—why we keep coming back to subject ourselves to this same old madness year after year, didn't hit on Day 6 this year—it hit on Day 2. This year there was just enough more stress, just enough less resilience to make a qualitative difference in the feel of the whole tournament. By Day 6, we felt pummeled and battered.

It's not a change that's completely obvious to most fencers yet. But the change is there: everybody's a bit testier than they used to be, coaches are more unhappy with referees, referees a bit readier to throw penalty cards. We've already lost some of the top referees who used to be SN regulars—they're simply not willing to deal with the brutal conditions for referees, and the attrition will continue inexorably. That Day 6 query, "Why is it we do this?" is no longer just a joke—it's a genuine question we can't answer anymore because the Summer Nationals we asked it about is already gone.

Next year's Summer Nationals will be more of the same—only worse. With the next quadrennial, we'll get whatever alternative the current Tournament Task Force and the Board of Directors come up with. Whether it will be as much fun as Summer Nationals once was is something we'll just have to wait to find out.

(And Summer Nationals will become part of the lore, part of the Good Old Days, when the fleche was legal at saber and flicks hadn't yet been invented. Golly, I can already feel myself getting crotchety about it all.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Disasters

Last time, I explained what the bout committee does when everything goes right. This time, I'll talk about some of the factors that can make for a less than perfect tournament day.

Reseeds
One of the problems we hate most are reseeds—those dreaded times when everything goes perfectly right up to the point where fencers are reporting to their strips and fencing is starting, and then we discover that someone is missing from the pool list or that the #5 seed is #173 on the seeding list. Usually, this type of problem is our fault—someone who checked in at registration was inadvertently withdrawn from the event, someone was added to the right event in the wrong weapon, or the points lists used to seed the event were incorrect. Occasionally, this type of problem can be fixed without having to reseed things entirely, such as when an unrated fencer can be added to a pool of 6, and after one of those mysterious "Stop fencing!" announcements, we tell everybody to start fencing again. In other cases, as when the problem involves a highly rated or ranked fencer, the seeding is so disrupted that we have to throw out all the pool sheets and redo everything.

Over the past few years, we've become much better at catching seeding problems before the pools are posted. At this year's Summer Nationals, we had very few reseeds, and those we did, we were able to take care of before the fencers were called to their strips, with no apparent disruption.

Slow pools or quadrants
Sometimes delays are caused by problems within a single pool or DE quadrant. There might be technical problems with the strip—something wrong with the reel cord or the grounding or one of those baffling intermittent electrical gremlins. If the trouble lasts more than just a few minutes, we can move the fencers to an empty strip, but sometimes all the strips are being used and there's no alternative but to wait until the problem is fixed.

Injuries, of course, also cause delays—minor sprains or strains might use the whole 10-minute injury time-out for taping, and more serious injuries that need more complicated treatment or even an ambulance can take half an hour or more to clear the strip. (We won't even go into how major injuries can affect the fencers who have try to refocus on their bouts after such an incident.)

And then there are the rules disputes—a fencer might ask a question that the referee chooses to consult with one of the FOCs about for the proper interpretation of the appropriate rule. Or a fencer might appeal a referee's decision, in which case an FOC, the BC chair, and perhaps the Tournament Committee representative might take a walk out to the strip to discuss the matter and render a decision. Whatever the outcome of the appeal, the result is a delay.

Sometimes fencers just fence slowly. It's not unusual in the point weapons for a stunned-looking referee to return one of the last pool sheets in an event, muttering about how every fencer had at least one weapon or body cord fail and each and every bout went to time.

Whatever the cause, DEs can't start until every single pool has finished, and even if only one DE quadrant gets bogged down, it will delay the completion of the entire event.

Insufficient resources
This is more and more often a problem—not enough strips or not enough referees. (One could also describe this as too many fencers, but that's an entirely different discussion.)

The extreme example of this was the 2002 SN in Austin, when first thing in the morning on the first day we needed at least a dozen more strips than the 50 we had, and of those 50, about 20 lacked electricity (and that was only the beginning of a week remarkable for its many lengthy delays).

Or consider this year's SN in Atlanta, where more than once we had to double-flight pools or use fewer strips than we had available because there simply were not as many referees as we needed for all the events that day.

Even though USFA is using more strips and hiring more referees for both NACs and SNs, it's still not enough—but that's the topic for next time.

SN: Part Two

This second installment on bout committee at this year's Summer Nationals—like the first—is coming substantially later than planned (but we'll get to the reasons for that later).

Last time, I outlined a few of the jobs done up on the bout committee platform. This time I'll give an overview of a typical event at a national fencing tournament, NAC or SN, and then I'll talk about how SN is different from a regular season NAC (including how this year's SN was different from those previous).

Prior to the start of the tournament, a tournament database is created and is loaded onto the tournament computers. Entries for each day's events are printed and posted the evening before in the designated posting areas. Usually, we try to have at least three or four posting areas spread throughout the venue.

In the morning, each of us who is running an event gets signs to designate our table location, and picks a color—a marker which is used to make it easier distinguish all the paper for that one event from all the paper for all the other events going on that day. This is especially useful when two or more events are handled by the same computer operator at the same time.

At the close of check-in (or, ideally, a few minutes before), the registration staff provide us with the registration list, showing who checked in and who did not, and a set of index cards, each stuck with a label containing the name, club, and division of a fencer who did not check in. These are what are used to make the standard "The following fencers have not yet checked in and must report to the bout committee immediately . . . " announcement. Usually, we call all the no-shows, wait four or five minutes, call them again with a 60-second warning, and then announce that the event is closed. Anyone who has not checked in with the bout committee by the end of that final 60 seconds is then withdrawn from the event. Once this is done (along with any other adds or withdrawals which might have been sent along with the registration list and the no-show cards), a revised seeding list is printed and posted, and we announce that the revised seeding is posted.

While the revised list is being posted, the pool lists are printed. One copy goes to the FOC rep for that weapon, who will assign the referees for each pool. The BC event chair talks to the strip manager to get strips assigned for the pool round, and notes the strip numbers on her copy, which is then copied and posted.

The event chair then marks the actual pool sheets with the event color, adds the strip numbers, gets the referee list from the FOC and adds the referee names as well. Then we announce that the pool and strip assignments are posted, that fencers should report to their strips, and call the referees to pick up their pool sheets.

In theory, this whole process could be handled in 20 minutes or less, but often takes longer, depending on how complicated the day's schedule is, how many events have the same start time, whether there are enough strips or any events must be double-flighted, whether there are so many fencers from a single club or division that conflicts within pools must be resolved, whether the necessary referees have all checked in for duty, and any number of other little problems, singly or in combination. Normally, if we get all the 8:00 events out by 9:00, we're happy—that will at least get the day started well.

Once the pools are out, the BC staff gets a bit of a break—we go get coffee or even watch some fencing. About halfway through the time the pools are expected to last, we may go round the room and check to see whether any pools are running significantly more slowly than they should, and let the FOCs know if some referees may need help. If the event has some pools of 7 and some of 6, we usually try to assign the 6s next to 7s, so that once the smaller pools are done, the empty strip can then be used to for double-stripping the 7s.

Eventually, all the pools finish up and the pool sheets are turned in to the BC. The computer operator enters the pool results, and then prints out all the information we need for the next round: the round results ("ups and outs," which shows where the cutoff is if there's a cut before the next round), the DE table (1 to 8 pages, depending on the size of the event), and the DE bout slips, four to a page.

The round results are copied, posted, and announced. The BC chair/strip manager, the FOC, and the event chair confer to discuss how many strips will be used for the next round, and how they will be arranged. The number of strips depends, once again, on how many events are running that day and how many have yet to start, and how many referees are available (and whether they've had a chance to eat lunch yet). Most often, DEs are run on 8, 12, or 16 strips, though 24 and 32 are not unknown at SN.

We mark the strip numbers on the DE tables, get those copied, posted, and announced, give a copy to the FOC, and sit down for the slicing and dicing—cutting and sorting the bout slips to give to the referees. (We also mark them with the event color, of course—this is the stage where the colors can really make a difference keeping all the paper sorted properly.) Once we have the slips grouped and ready, with a copy of the portion of the table that each referee or group of referees is handling, we call the referees and send them out to the strips.

Once the referees are out for the DEs, we can finish sorting the remaining bout slips for the event, so we'll be ready to handle the incoming slips as the winning fencers bring them back to us. When fencers bring their bout slips, we ask their name, verify the score, and record the result on our paper table in front of us. The ritualized nature of this process is deliberate—it's not that we can't read fencers' names on their uniforms or the scores written on the bout slips, but that fencers often sign slips that say their opponent won, and we want to catch those errors before they get into the computer. (Catching those errors is also one of the most fun things we get to do, too—asking a fencer to read a slip that says he lost a bout he *knows* he won elicits some wonderful facial and verbal expressions, and a fencer who signs a scoresheet that says his opponent won is not likely to repeat that particular mistake.)

The returned bout slips are handed off to the computer operator for entry, and as we fill in the table, we send more slips out to the strips for the subsequent rounds. As the number of fencers remaining in the event gets smaller, the strip manager may pull some strips for use in another event just starting. Eventually, the table will be down to the final round of 8, which might continue on some of the original assigned strips or might be assigned to completely different strips, depending on the current conditions. As the 8 finalists are determined, we hand out bio forms for them to fill out, to be read later at the medal presentation.

From the round of 8 on, referees are usually assigned individually, and the bouts are usually announced on the PA system. If possible, we try to get these last few bouts on strips with timers and scores, and at the ends of pods, to make it easier for spectators to see. And if we've got a raised finals strip, we'll try to get the gold medal bout there.

Once the event is over and the last bout slip turned in and entered, the medal presentation is held, and all the DE slips and bio forms are added to the pool sheets, the printed and completed DE table, and the rest of the paper for the event in the event folder, which is shipped back to the national office at the end of the tournament. A copy of the final results is provided to the LOC, which posts all the event results as they are completed, and at the end of each day, the day's complete results are emailed to the webmaster for posting on the USFA website.

At the completion of the event, the bout committee staff member who ran it may be released for the day, or, more likely, will finish running another event that started its pools while the first was in its DEs or help prepare for the next day's events.

Once the last events of the day are down to their last few bouts, all the bulletin boards are cleared, and the seeding for the next day's events is posted. If we're lucky, we'll manage to get five or six hours of sleep before we start the whole process over again in the morning.

This assumes, of course, no disasters—no reseeds, none of what I think of as the "honking big rules discussions," no serious injuries, no tornado warnings or fire alarms, no appeals of rules, and no major errors. What happens with those is what I'll talk about next time.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

SN: The First Half

I was definitely right to suspect that daily blogging would be difficult this week. I knew I would be tired each evening, but I'd hoped to have enough energy to post at least a couple of paragraphs daily.

Of course, that was assuming that I'd be done during a part of the day that could legitimately be called "evening," which has mostly turned out not to be the case, with the last touches occurring well into what most of us would call "night."

Last night (Monday), the final touch occurred at about 11:30 pm, about four hours later than we'd planned. Each day this SN has ended substantially later than planned.

So what's the deal? Why can't the bout committee keep things on track and run tournaments more efficiently and competently? Why can't they get things done when they're supposed to be done? What is it that the bout committee does, anyway?

First, let's take a look at who's up on that platform in the middle of the hall:

— the bout committee chair: This is the person who is in charge of running the tournament, and decides how any unexpected problems will be handled.

— the strip manager: This is most often done by the BC chair, but is sometimes handled by another staff person. The strip manager keeps track of strip usage, and assigns groups of strips to each round of each event. Strip management at national tournaments is an arcane art, almost entirely learned by doing. There are perhaps no more than half a dozen of us experienced with managing strips at SN in its current size and configuration — certainly fewer than ten.

— the bout committee staff: The BC staff falls into two groups — the computer side and the table side. Computer side are the computer operators; they set up each event in the tournament software, enter results as they come in, file all the event documentation (not just the pool and DE slips, but medical withdrawals and injury reports, black card information, if any, referee reports, and anything else relevant to each event as it occurs. Table side staff are the people who run each event, allocating their assigned strips, sending out pool sheets with their referees, collecting them as they are returned, "slicing and dicing" — cutting up the sheets of DE slips when they are printed, sorting and distributing them to the appropriate referees, and recording the results on paper tables before sending them back to the computer side for data entry.

— the FOCs: FOC is technically the acronym for the Fencing Officials Commission, the committee with oversight over referee development, but in practice at national tournaments, it is also shorthand for the group of individuals who work any particular tournament and for the specific individual who assigns referees for each weapon. The FOCs are the people who decide which referees work which events, assign them to specific rounds and strips, and evaluate referee performance. The FOCs also handle questions about the rules of fencing and their application, and deal with complaints about referees.

That's the quick overview of the staff. Next time, I'll get to how we all actually work together in practice. (After all, I've an early call tomorrow morning — I'll be the table side person for Division II Men's Saber, which is supposed to have 180+ entries. Definitely time to get some sleep.)