Fencer with protective mask

Tournament Guide

“My kid wants to go to a tournament, and I have no idea how this works. Help!”

Tournaments can be really intimidating. There are a lot of small details that need attention, and it can be hard to know where to start. This page is meant to work as a guide for parents and fencers who are new to the world of competitive fencing.

Am I (or my fencer) ready to compete yet?

First and foremost, ask your coach, as they will have the best idea of what level you are at. In general, this depends both on the fencer and the level of the tournament in question. If you have been fencing for a few months, regularly attending class and open fencing sessions, and maybe even taking some private lessons, then you might be ready for your first tournament. Keep in mind that for your first few tournaments, the goal is to get some training and experience. Fencing different people in a different location is a brand new experience, and is really important for growing as a fencer. Always talk with your coach about what your goals are for any tournament that you are attending. 

Okay, I am ready to fence… where do I sign up?

Right here! AskFRED.net is the main place to sign up for local tournaments. Here, you can see all the local posted tournaments. The easiest way to find events close to you is to go to "upcoming tournaments > browse tournaments" and then select Virginia under the “divisions” dropdown. After you hit “find tournaments," this will show you all of the events that are currently posted in Virginia. You can also select nearby divisions if you want to travel to Maryland, DC (the capital division), or North Carolina. AskFRED is an invaluable resource. It not only provides the means to sign up, but it also shows the location, extra information, and who else is pre-registered for that tournament. You can also check the Virginia Division of USA Fencing website for a complete schedule for the year as well as other helpful info. 

NOTE: if you pre-register for an event on AskFred and a conflict comes up and you are unable to attend, then you need to unregister. Clubs and tournament organizers use pregistration to determine how large a space and how many referees they need to hire for the event. Large numbers of no-shows can cause them to hire more people that they might not be able to afford without the full anticipated turnout.

What is the difference between a Y12, E and Under, and an Open?

Tournaments can be divided by age, gender, and skill level. Most of your local tournaments are only going to be divided by skill level and a handful will also be divided by age.

Youth tournaments are for fencers who are 10 and under (Y10), 12 and under (Y12), and 14 and under (Y14). You are always allowed to “fence up” one age bracket. Once a fencer is 13 (determined by birth year), they are eligible to fence in “senior” events. Ratings Rallies and Opens are all senior events, and are by far the most common local tournaments. In an Open tournament, anyone 13 or older can compete. There is no restriction on rating, gender, or age beyond the minimum of 13 years old. On the other hand, you can have a tournament that is restricted by skill level or rating. From lowest to highest, the ratings are U (unrated), E, D, C, B, and A. This loosely correlates to a belt system like other martial arts, but ratings can only be earned at tournaments. You will see tournaments that are listed as being “E and under,'' or “C and under,” which will exclude the higher level fencers from competing. You might also see a division break down. Div1 is for A and B rated fencers, Div2 is for C rated fencers, and Div3 is for D rated fencers. Sometimes you will see a Div2 tournament. All this means is that it is a C and under event. Likewise, a Div3 event is a D and under. It is just a different way of saying the same thing.

Okay, I am signed up for the right event. What do I need to take?

Things a fencer MUST have with them AT THE STRIP during a tournament (these are minimum requirements):

  • A clean jacket in good repair (for National tournaments, the jacket or lame MUST display the last name of the fencer)

  • A mask with an electric bib

  • A PADDED chest protector (required for women, optional for men)

  • A glove

  • Fencing knickers (sweat pants, warm-up pants, jeans are NOT acceptable). The jacket must overlap these knickers by 10 cm.

  • An underarm protector (sometimes called a plastron)

  • Tall socks that overlap with the bottom of the knickers. (Dark blue to represent BRFC, white to be classic, or something crazy like superman socks to be fun)

  • Shoes (do not have to be fencing shoes, but some sort of athletic shoes)

  • At LEAST two body cords

  • At LEAST two working weapons

  • For foil and saber: a lame in working order (the metal jacket that goes over the fabric jacket)

  • For foil and saber: at LEAST two working mask cords. 

All gear must be free from rips, tears, holes, or dents. For weapons and cords, it is recommended that fencers have more than the minimum required. If one breaks or fails a test early in the tournament, the fencer will still be required to have extras for the next bout. 

Things a fencer SHOULD have with them at a tournament, probably somewhere near the strip:

  • Bottle of water or some type of Gatorade-like drink

  • A towel for sweat.

  • Some sort of warm-up suit, track suit, or sweats, esp. at National events, which are generally in very air-conditioned buildings.

  • Light, healthy snacks.

  • Tightening tools for their weapons (outside hex wrench, allen key or inside hex wrench. Ask an experienced fencer or a coach to show you what this tool looks like.) Sometimes grips get loose and need to be tightened during a bout. Time and focus gets lost when trying to scramble to borrow one in the middle of a bout.

  • A note pad for keeping track of their bouts and the bout scores; a writing utensil to go with it

  • A book or game or something to do between rounds

Things a parent should have:

  • One of those cheap, collapsible camping chairs (real chairs are often valuable commodities)

  • Something to read. There is a lot of "hurry up and wait" that happens at tournaments, even the best run ones.

  • Something to eat

  • Something to drink

  • Patience, enthusiasm, and a generally positive attitude

How do tournaments actually work?

Formats may vary depending on what the organizers have decided will be most appropriate for the event. Generally, however, the following format is observed:

The entire field of fencers who have entered a tournament are divided into groups called "pools." Pools are balanced as much as possible in strength of competitors (where classifications come in), and to separate teammates as much as possible by the bout committee who are the organizers of the tournament. 

Pool size varies between 5 and 7 fencers per pool, depending on the size of the field. Each fencer fences all of the other members of the pool. The bouts last a maximum of three minutes (start-and-stop time, not continuous time), or until one fencer scores 5 points. If time runs out and the score is tied, the referee will flip a coin or otherwise randomly select one fencer to have "priority". One minute of overtime is added to the clock and the fencers fence one minute of "sudden-death" overtime. If one fencer scores a point, they win the bout. If time elapses, and no point has been scored, the fencer with priority, as randomly determined at the beginning of the one minute, is given the victory.

Once all of the bouts in the pool have been completed, the referee has all the fencers from their pool verify that everything has been recorded correctly. The bout committee will then count up all of the scores. The bout committee then lists the number of victories each fencer has earned, the number of points each fencer has scored in all of his or her bouts combined, and the number of points that were scored against each fencer in all of his or her bouts combined. The final calculation that the bout committee determines is the differential between points scored by and against each fencer. This is the number of touches scored by Jane Doe minus the touches scored on her by everyone else. This last number may be a positive or negative number, depending on whether Jane scored against people more times than her opponents scored against her. These sets of numbers collectively are often referred to as indicators, although really, the differential is technically the only part called indicators.

These sets of numbers are used to determine the "seeding" of fencers into the Direct Elimination (DE) table (also referred to as the bracket or tableau). The DE table is very similar to the brackets used to show the progress of basketball teams throughout the course of March Madness. Fencers with the highest percentage of victories are seeded highest. It is important to note that it is the percentage of victories used, not the actual number of victories. The win-loss percentage is calculated by dividing the number of victories earned by a fencer, divided by the number of bouts he or she fenced. Percentages are used so that Jack in a pool of 7 does not have an advantage over Jill in a pool of 6; they could both win 100% of their bouts, but if it was broken down by pure number of victories, Jack would have 6 and Jill would only have 5. 

If fencers are tied based on their percentage of victories, the tie is broken based on the "indicators" or differential between the number of touches scored and touches received for each fencer. A higher number means a higher seed. If fencers are tied on percentage of victories and on indicators, the tie is then broken by whomever has the highest number of points scored. If there is still a tie after this point, the fencers are considered tied for that placing. Once the seeding has been completed, and the bout committee has arranged the fencers on the DE table, the next round of fencing will commence.

For initial seeding, pools, and the DE tableau, the bout committee will either physically post a sheet of paper somewhere in the facility, or there will be QR codes where it can be tracked online. At large events, there are sometimes screens posted around the facility that will also display that information.

DE bouts last for three three-minute periods (9 minutes total), with a one minute break in between the first and second periods. If one fencer reaches 15 points, that is also the end of the bout. Sometimes bouts end because time has elapsed, but more often they expire because the score has reached 15. If all three periods expire, and the score is tied, then the same overtime procedure takes place as was described above. In a standard DE table, if a fencer has lost, they are "out" of the competition. If they win, they advance to the next round of DE bouts, until eventually a winner is reached through this process of elimination. Staying around to support other teammates is strongly encouraged, but not specifically required. Most tournaments give awards down to 8th place, so if you finished in the top 8 you should stay around for your award. 

What role do parents play at a tournament?

Win or lose, a parent should support and cheer! Tournaments and bouts are won and lost long before the fencer walks in the door to the tournament. The role of parents is to be as supportive as possible for their fencers. Have water, snacks, and seats handy between bouts. Take video of bouts to watch afterwards with the coach. It really helps if you can keep the score box in frame when taking video. Having a water bottle and possibly a sweat-towel near the strip where the fencer can reach it without leaving the strip is very helpful as well, so they can hydrate and dry off mid-bout. If you want to say helpful things to your fencer, things like “distance,” “point first,” “slow first step,” and the best advice of all, “hit ‘em in the shiny part!” are all helpful. Just ensure that you are not being disruptive and you are quiet while they are actually fencing. Each fencer is unique and for some, the best support is quiet. Competition can be very emotional, and making sure that you are attentive to your fencer’s emotional needs at a tournament is one of the best ways that you can help them be successful. Obviously, it is never appropriate to boo the opposing fencer, or make comments concerning their fencing or conduct. Remember, you are there to provide positive support for your fencer. 

What role do coaches play at a tournament?

A coach provides much of the same support as a parent, in that they are there to support and cheer on their fencers. There might be some technical tips or tactical advice that can be given by a coach or teammate between bouts or during the one minute break in DE’s. During the one-minute breaks, only one person is allowed to approach the fencer. However, this mid-bout advice will generally have a negligible outcome on the actual placing at the end of the day. Tournaments are won and lost in practice during the week. Additionally, your coach might not be able to go to every tournament with you and you should not assume that you will have a coach at every event. Make sure to communicate with your coach leading up to a tournament so you know if they will be going, or if other club members will be there. Also, there will likely be several fencers from the club at the same tournament. As much as a coach might want to be everywhere at once, they might be working with another fencer and unable to come help yours every time they have a break or a bout. If your coach is going to be at a tournament, make sure to communicate about how much they will be able to help. And remember, at a competition, the coach has the least effect on the outcome. 

Special thanks to Allen Evans and Dominion Fencing Club for letting us use much of the information that they have on their website. https://dominionfencing.org/