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Guest Column: Best Practices for HEMA Tournament Judges


By Matt Galas

Recent years have seen a sharp rise in the popularity and number of HEMA tournaments. Not only has the level of interest grown, but the amount of attention which these events receive has drastically increased. Recent livestream broadcasts of HEMA tournaments have only magnified this trend. As a result, tournament winners not only enjoy enhanced reputation and exposure in the international HEMA community, but also benefit from the substantial prizes now offered at these events.

A natural consequence of the raised stakes is that both spectators and fighters now expect a corresponding increase in the level of professionalism at these events. Nowhere is this demand for professionalism more important than in the field of HEMA judging. However well-organized an event may be, it is all for naught if the judging is so poor that the results are called into question. The single most common complaint in every major tournament held over the last decade in HEMA has been the quality of the judging.

Judging is a thankless task. It is mentally exhausting, since the judge must pay close attention for hours on end. It is physically demanding as well, since the judge must remain standing for long periods of time. Worst of all, it is an uncomfortable experience at best, since the judge’s decisions will inevitably be second-guessed by the audience and by fighters who have lost their bouts. It is bad enough when a judge finds himself labeled as incompetent; but far worse, he may have his moral character called into question, and find himself accused of bias or favoritism. Adding insult to injury, the HEMA judge receives no reward, no pay, and scant recognition for his travails. Small wonder that most fighters avoid this task.

These problems are exacerbated by the lack of a standardized rule-set for HEMA tournaments. While opinions may vary on the desirability of standardized rules, the undeniable result is that HEMA judges must re-learn the rules at almost every event, making it extremely difficult for them to develop a high degree of competence.

The end result of this situation is that tournament organizers have a very limited choice of judges; those who do serve in this capacity are often poorly trained and inexperienced. Sub-standard judging could be overlooked when HEMA tournaments were small, local events, and the rewards were few. But now that tournaments have become an increasingly important focus for many HEMA practitioners, the need for better-trained and more competent judges must be given high priority.

This article is intended to be used as an aid in training programs for HEMA judges, by listing best practices which should be observed by judges in carrying out their functions. Hopefully, this will help to increase the professionalism and quality of our judges, who form the single most important element in determining whether a tournament is a success or a failure.

This article is based on the author’s extensive experience as a judge and tournament organizer. It also draws upon a series of classes on judging taught along with Scott Brown at various events over the past few years. It presents best practices in the following areas: Selection of judges, training of judges, preparation for the event, judging of bouts, and standards of ethical conduct.

Selection of Judges

– Whenever possible, judges should be selected based on experience, training, and merit, rather than on reputation as a fighter or status as an instructor.

– Judges should be fencers themselves, ideally with substantial experience in tournament fencing.

– Tournament organizers should avoid selecting judges at the last minute, when there is no time to prepare them.

– Tournament organizers should avoid selecting judges who will be competing in other events on the same day, to prevent distraction or fatigue.

– Tournament organizers should ensure that judges are selected from a variety of different sources, and not only from the club which is sponsoring the event.

– In international tournaments, judges should be selected from a broad selection of nationalities, and not merely from the nation hosting the event.

Training of Judges

– Judges should receive some form of general training in HEMA judging, including best practices and ethical rules.

– Training should include familiarization with the most common rule-sets which are currently in use.

– Judges should receive detailed, specialized training on application of certain technical rules (e.g., double hits, after-blows) and certain common situations (dropping weapons, falling, leaving the ring, etc.)

– Judges should also receive some kind of hands-on training, which requires them to actually judge several bouts and be critiqued by a panel of instructors.

– Training materials should include videos of bouts, including excerpts showing common problems and issues.

– Judges should receive training on various issues which may affect their performance, as well as measures to counter these (fatigue; angle of view; etc.)

– Ideally, training material for judges should be posted online so that it is viewable by the public, to increase transparency and confidence in HEMA judges.

– Tournament organizers should work towards a standardized system of certification for HEMA judges. In the interim, however, the adoption of best practices are a way of moving towards that goal.

Preparation for Specific Events

– Tournament organizers should provide the rule-set in written form to the judges as far in advance of the event as possible.

– Judges should be thoroughly familiar with the rule-set to be used in the tournament. They should make a conscientious effort to familiarize themselves with the rules before arriving at the event.

– Shortly before the event begins, the tournament organizers should hold a detailed briefing on the rules for the judges. Ideally, the tournament organizer should also hold a training session for judges, to reinforce best practices and to ensure that new judges have a minimum baseline of competence going into the event.

– Whenever possible, a small number of “test-bouts” should be held immediately before the event, so that judges can warm up and “get into the groove” of judging. This will also allow them to familiarize themselves with the specific rule-set used in the event. This is important, given the lack of standardized rules in the HEMA community.

– Judges owe it to the fighters to ensure they are in good condition for the event. This means minimizing their alcohol consumption and getting enough sleep the night before, and eating a full breakfast before the event begins.

– Tournament organizers should ensure that judges are well supplied with drinks, energy bars and the like to keep up their energy and attention levels. Judges should ensure that they partake of these throughout the event.

Judging of Bouts

– During the bout, judges should avoid distraction, directing their focus on the fighters, and pay no attention to events happening outside of their arena.

– Judges should vote using their sense of sight and hearing, interpreting the visual and auditory data in light of their experience as judges and fencers. Judges must not base their votes on mere guesswork. In such cases, they should abstain from voting.

– Judges must apply the rules as written, and according to the guidance given by the tournament organizers. They must avoid re-interpreting the rules to suit their own preferences.

– Judges should remember that their job is to accurately judge the performance of the fighters based on results; they must refrain from letting their votes be affected by their own personal preferences, such as a like or dislike of a particular fighter’s individual style.

– Judges must vote independently, basing their votes on their own perceptions, and must not be influenced by the votes of other judges. To that end, judges should avoid looking at the flags raised by other judges.

– Judges must be conscious not to be influenced by the spectators or by coaches. In particular, arena managers and referees should keep an eye out for any attempts by coaches to influence the judges, and take prompt action to prevent this.

– Voting systems in which judges consult with each other before voting should be avoided, since this maximizes the chances of undue influence, discourages independent thought, and easily leads to “group-think”.

– As much as possible, judges should remain stationary, in the same position, to create a consistent judging environment for the fighters.

– To ensure consistency of the judging environment, tournament organizers should avoid changing the judging staff during the tournament. The same judges should work together in the same arena throughout the entire tournament if possible. If a change is made for a legitimate reason (e.g., replacement of a judge who is the coach of one of the fighters), the original judging staff should be reinstated as soon as possible.

– Judges should comport themselves in a confident, assertive manner. When calling a hit, they should do so in a loud and confident manner, avoiding hesitation.

– Judges should ensure that their facial expressions and body language remain professional and impassive, and do not convey the impression that they are bored, inattentive, biased, or that they do not take the proceedings seriously.

– Judges should dress in a uniform manner that conveys professionalism and authority. Their dress should also make them easily distinguishable from spectators and coaches. Accordingly, athletic gear should be avoided; some form of semi-formal attire (for example, white shirt, black vest and tie) is preferable.

Fairness & Ethical Conduct

– Judges must be fair and impartial. They must be conscious of the natural human tendency to pick a favorite, and avoid this.

– Just as importantly, judges should avoid any behavior that could be interpreted as biased. (Examples: Clapping or cheering for one of the fencers during a bout; giving advice to one of the fighters during or after the bout.)

– Whenever possible, judges should not judge bouts in which their students or fellow club-members are fencing.

– Judges should be conscious of potential allegations of bias or favoritism, and should alert the arena manager of any potential issues. (Example: a judge is on very bad terms with one of the fencers, or is married to one of the fencers.)

– Especially in the elimination phase, tournament organizers should ensure a well-balanced mix of judges to avoid bias or favoritism. In international tournaments, different nations should be represented on the judging staff.

Accountability of Judges

– In developing rule-sets, tournament organizers should include some kind of mechanism for dispute resolution. Among other issues, this would allow challenges of calls made by the judges. To avoid excessive delay and abuse of this right, fighters should be given a limited number of challenges that they can make over the course of a tournament (e.g. three challenges). If a fighter’s challenge is upheld, that challenge does not count against his three.

– Tournament organizers should work towards a system of evaluation for HEMA judges, so that skilled judges are rewarded, and those with a poor record can be provided further training or removed when necessary.


2 thoughts on “Guest Column: Best Practices for HEMA Tournament Judges

  1. This is a decent set of guidelines. (but oh no, the physical demands of standing).
    I find that judging will be hampered in HEMA as long as there isn’t a standardized tournament rule-set (obviously inclusive of different types of formats).

  2. The primary issue I see in HEMA tournament judges isn’t in knowing rule sets, it’s in seeing hits at all. Short edge strikes, rising-line strikes, thrusts, and afterblows that are low following a high line hit (and vice-versa) appear to be the most common mistakes in the last two years of tourney judging that I’ve seen.

    Just my observations from many, many HEMA tourneys in the last few years.

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