Guest Post: How to Keep Your Referee Cadre Happy

I’ve been a practicing referee on the national and regional circuit for over a dozen years, and I regularly travel to tournaments around the country – NACs, SYCs, ROCs, and the like. I also have been a tournament organizer for successful regional level events, and I want to share some of my thoughts concerning keeping your referee cadre happy. Keep your referee cadre happy, and they will work exceptionally well for you, and they will come back and work for you. Build a reputation as a tournament organizer who has a happy referee cadre and you’ll be able to attract better and better referees, and word will also get out among the fencers. This leads to long term success in running tournaments!

It really doesn’t take a lot to keep referees happy. Most of us are NOT in this for the money – you really can’t compensate us properly for the time we spend. This is not to say you should attempt to nickle and dime us on the honorarium, but when attempting to hire your cadre, clearly state up front what the pay rate is going to be. If you’re hiring referees from outside the immediate area, compensate them for their travel, and give them a hotel room. Double occupancy is ok – we’re used to it (although, its a nice perk for senior refs when the organizer gives you a single!). If we’re flying in, it’s ok to ask us if we don’t mind being reimbursed for a plane ticket, but many refs can not afford to do so, and we’ll need you to purchase it for us.

Speaking of hotels, yea we’ve seen it all. I’ve stayed in every level of hotel from fleabitten trap to five star suites. We don’t really need the swankiest hotel in town, but please keep us out of the scary ones. Honestly, we’re looking for a comfortable bed, with clean linens, not a lot of noise, with wi-fi, breakfast and stuff to do in the general vicinity that we can walk to. And yes, a hotel bar is a major plus…

Breakfast – did I mention breakfast? Folks, you may not realize this, but refereeing actually a pretty strenuous activity. You want us sharp and able to work our best. A breakfast of coffee and donuts really doesn’t cut it – we need protein (would you expect your athletes to compete on carbs alone?). That’s why I suggest getting a hotel that has a continental breakfast included – it will save you some time in the morning and give the refs the fuel they need for the full day of work you expect from them. Coffee though is still helpful – its our lifeblood. Pro-tip: Find someone in your organizing group with a Keurig Machine and get them to bring it in along with a variety pack of Keurig Cups from Sam’s Club or the like. If you must feed your cadre breakfast on site, breakfast sandwiches or tacos, fruit trays, etc. Please. PLEASE!

Speaking of food, lunch. Ok, so I know, cold cuts or pizza is easy and cheap. I did mention that refereeing is a lot of work right? A hot meal goes a looooong way towards keeping us happy. And it doesn’t have to be a fancy catered lunch: A crockpot of chili and salad is awesome referee food. Find a local Mexican joint and get some fajita meat, beans and rice. A tray of lasagna or baked ziti from your neighborhood Italian place. If you simply must do cold cuts, at least give us some good bread – Wonder bread with Kraft Singles and Bologna leads to an empty pit in the stomach about halfway through the afternoon. And an afternoon plate of cookies is a great morale booster as we’re slogging through the pools of the 70 person Y12 foil event that you scheduled for 2 PM in the afternoon…

Two other things go a long way towards keeping your cadre happy: hiring enough of them, and giving them good space to work in. Referee hiring and the appropriate numbers of refs is something of a dark art to be sure, but skimping on numbers of referees, especially at bigger events, just leads to headaches (Yes, our national association has many times chosen to balance its books on the backs of the referee cadre, but that’s no reason for everyone else to follow their model). If you’re running 6 events in a day on 20 strips, and you expect them all to be in use most of the day, you really need more than 20 referees in order to properly handle things like lunch rotations, DE table management, shifting to different events, and all of the rest of the things that refs need to do during the day at a large regional event.

Giving referees good space to work in is a touchy subject, but an important one. As someone who runs big events, I am painfully aware of the cost of space, and how important it is to put as many strips as possible in a given space. And refs do understand this, and fully expect to be working back to back in pool rounds, and early DE’s (but please, at least 10 feet, or even better, 4 meters between strips is a bare minimum – more if you’ve got a tough A4 competition). And when it comes to the round of 8 and so forth, spread out the strips a bit so we’re not back to back, and we can step back enough to clearly see the action. And if you’re going to have a “highlight” strip or gold medal strip – figure out a way to keep the traffic away from it, so we’re not trying to do a tough gold medal bout with athletes and coaches pressuring us while dealing with the distraction of people constantly walking back and forth a foot behind us.

And finally, a the end of the day, an appreciative demeanor and a sincere handshake before you send us off to the airport is key. Keep us happy, and we’ll keep coming back to work for you!

David A. Sierra, USFCA, AAI

Head Coach, Cutting Edge Fencing Center
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