On The Training Of Judges In HEMA

Judging in HEMA tournaments is problematic. I think everyone can agree on that. It's been getting better over the past few years, partly because our group of good judges is slowly growing and partly because many events are adopting simplified formats that make the job easier, but it's far from a state that anyone would be happy about.

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There have been a number of attempts to address this problem head-on; the IGX organizers launched the aborted New England Judges Training Initiative two years ago, and a few other programs have been developed by other parties and may launch soon. But ultimately, a top-down approach to training judges is not going to solve our problems as quickly as we need. Training judges takes a lot of time, and bringing people together to be trained in person (especially on a regional or national level) also takes a lot of money. So while I wish those programs success, and I look forward to the day when there's a judging curriculum and certification program recognized across the tournament community, for now let's talk about what we can do today.

I'm the guy in the white vest that you sometimes see photobombing the fencers you're trying to take a picture of.

I'm the guy in the white vest that you sometimes see photobombing the fencers you're trying to take a picture of.

Even though it's been years since I fought in a tournament, I've been participating in the HEMA tournament 'scene' on an ongoing basis for quite a while now, and I've served as a judge, referee, and director at events around the country. I'm not the best judge in our community, but I've worked with the best judges and learned a few things about what makes them effective. Based on that, I believe that great judges (like great fighters) are built at their local clubs, not in the thick of things at tournaments.

Ultimately, when we talk about training judges we're talking about two (related) things: training a judge's eye, and training a judge's memory. A judge needs to be able to watch a fight and understand exactly what he's seeing, down to a high level of detail, and then needs to be able to hold that understanding in mind until the time comes to make a call. That's it really; everything else is just paperwork. And these are both skills that can be developed and sharpened every day, no matter the size and skill level of your club.

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Below, I will outline three different activities, each with a different scale and difficulty level, that you can build into your HEMA training in order to improve yourself and the members of your club as judges. (I had more than three, but ultimately the others were just variations on these.) If you have ideas that aren't covered here, feel free to post them i the comments so we can maintain this article as a living reference.

1) Judged Free Play

Venue: Any
Participants: 3-5
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Time: As desired
Frequency: As desired

Every club tends to include structured or unstructured free-play in at least some of their training sessions. For many HEMA fighters this is their favorite part of training. The general format is that fighters break when they believe that a strike has landed and then one fighter acknowledges the hit (or the other fighter waves it off and motions to continue). This is HEMA 101, and should sound familiar to everyone.

This activity provides a great opportunity for basic judge training. Break everyone into groups of three instead of pairs, and the one not fighting will act as 'judge' for the match. The fighters still stop and start their own action, but before the hit is acknowledged the judge has to call out what he thinks he saw. The fighters then compare it to their idea of what happened, and action resumes. It's generally a good idea to group people by similar experience level, so that the judge has the best chance of being able to follow the action.

Be careful in this activity to not get bogged down in conversation-- the focus should be on fighting for the fighters and watching for the judge, so keep talking to a minimum. Also keep in mind that fighters don't always realize when and where they hit or are hit, so in the case of disagreement between judge and fighters, simply move on.

Coached Free-Play: As I said above, the skills that make a good judge are also important for coaches. So a variant of this exercise is to use a group of four or five. Two will still fight, but two others have the responsibility of 'cornering' for the fighters and offering feedback after each exchange. This is especially good in structured free-play when the fighters have definite objectives they're trying to achieve. A group of four only has the two coaches (who continue trying to call the action after each exchange, as above), whereas a group of five also has a judge in the middle who is only watching and making calls.

2) Group Training

Venue: Club
Participants: 5-20
Difficulty Level: Beginner
Time: 30-60 minutes
Frequency: Monthly to quarterly

This is the type of training activity that is sometimes scheduled for judges in the beginning of events, but it is much more useful when conducted intermittently at home. Generally you want to set aside a discreet block of time (30-60 minutes) for this during a practice session. You should also mark off a ring.

Two fighters gear up and fence under quasi-tournament conditions, while all other participants act as judges. After each exchange, the judges should compare calls and have a conference if there is any disagreement. Once the exchange has been analyzed to the judges' satisfaction, the fight will resume again. If desired, the person conducting the event can give the fighters occasional secret instructions on ways to fence to further test the judges' perception.

Where the first format was about gaining experience in watching fights, this focuses on understanding them. Judges who saw different things should walk through the exchange and try to understand what happened and why their perspectives only showed them part of the action. If judges disagree about details (such as edge vs. flat), that should be discussed as well. If video equipment is available, that can also be used to replay the fight during the conversation. (This being 2016, we can even have every participant pull out a phone or tablet and take video from their perspective, to see how it matches their memory.)

This was the primary format that we used in the New England Judge Training series, and it worked very well for identifying exactly what mistakes judges consistently made and what situations were consistently hard to judge. If you're planning to devote an entire practice session to training judges, then this format can be used as the intensive training phase in the first hour, and afterward everyone can break up into groups of three or five and spend the next half hour or hour engaging in judged sparring as described above to practice further.

3) Judge Training Tournament

Venue: Multi-club gathering
Participants: 10+
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Time: 2-4 hours
Frequency: Quarterly to semiannually

This is a format that was formalized as part of the Longpoint program for the first time in 2016, though it's intuitive enough that we may not be the first to try it. The format is essentially a full mock-tournament, and can be implemented at regional sparring camps or other gatherings. Because of the amount of fighting involved, this is also a good way for a large club or group of clubs to train all of their personnel for an upcoming tournament (I would love it if non-competitors began feeling like staff roles were a thing to train up for in advance of an event).

The participants should divide into teams of four to five fighters each. During each hour of the event, one team will fight a full card of pool matches while the other team staffs the ring-- one acting as director and the rest as judges. These matches should be conducted under tournament conditions for both fighters and staff; the actual ruleset used is less important, but to avoid the rules being an impediment to the training it's good to use of the simpler rulesets (such as Nordic Rules or the forthcoming Longpoint Basic).

Throughout these matches, the team members not fighting should be acting as coaches in the corners of those who are, and likewise the team staffing should rotate through positions (unless one has a reason to specifically train as a director the whole time). After all of the pools have concluded, it's always fun to put together a small bracket-- such as the top 1-2 fighters from each pool-- and train fighters and judges in how that part of a tournament plays out.

Between each round, take ten minutes to debrief. The fighters should talk to their coaches and get feedback. The judges should talk to each other and compare notes about things that worked and problems they ran into. This feedback will make the training event twice as effective.

Alternately, instead of pool fights you can organize this as a team vs. team event, in which each fighter fights all members of the opposing team while a third one staffs (keep in mind for scheduling that all three teams need to cycle through the positions, so this takes will take a minimum of three hours). This variant is good if several different clubs are present, so that each can form a separate team and fight people they don't often see. The Longpoint Rookie Training Tournament is structured this way, and event instructors are recruited to act as team captains to coach a team of rookies through their fights and direct the ring when their rookies are staffing.


Ultimately, training judging needs to become a part of the rhythm of our community, just as training fencing is. It's a skill that is built up through hours and hours of practice over the course of months and years. It's also a skill that is perishable, and needs to be used frequently to be maintained. If you're in the thick of tournament season, staffing an event every few weeks, then that's probably enough, but during the long droughts it's important to continue training and developing.

As I said above, these are just three ideas that have been tested by various groups and seen a lot of success. If you have other ideas, sound off in the comments!

All images © 2016 Véronique McMillan

All images © 2016 Véronique McMillan