Play your cards right: Penalties in HEMA

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By: Mariana López Rodríguez

Last month I refereed for the first time in the USA. I had refereed before in Mexico, but it had been a while since that happened. I was slightly nervous, yet since I´ve been judging for so long and on such a regular basis I was confident I could do it. And I did it, and I got an unexpected response.  Not only did I give more red and yellow cards than I’ve ever seen any other ref give during the initial pools, people, including some of those who were carded, thanked me for it. (Some others, not so much.)

Now, if you don’t want to read this entire (long) blog, here is the abstract( and going forward just read the sentences in bold):  Giving penalty cards should be normal, it should happen often, and without mercy. Regardless of the intentions of the fighter, rules are rules and you stick to them. Whether the foul was intentional or not, whether you’re a famously nice fencer, or the dark lord himself is irrelevant. Because that’s how rules work.

 As a ref I did not discriminate. I yelled at absolutely everyone on an equal standard, to men and women, to new fencers and experienced, to known popular people and to fencers I had never seen before in my life. I got hated and loved for it, and people called me the “meanest ref” and made comments to me like “I made very clear who was in charge” (which shows that, in fact, refs can be overpowered). This attitude of mine came from the following self-awareness:

1.-  I’m 1.53 meters (4”ll) tall, and I weight about 43 kilos  (96 pounds). I was, and still am not willing to let a fight go past the point in which I can control it, and by that I mean, before I need more than a stick to separate them. How to do that? If you reach the point of having to use the stick, that’s a clear verbal warning.  If it happens again, or even if you feel the first time was out of line, that’s a yellow card (or whatever warning system you use).  

For those worried that someone as small as me shouldn’t ref as a safety measure: my judges (who were specially selected for me due to their size and strength) had the instructions to just drop the batons and help me tackle them if the situation came to that.  To be honest, the fact that we can easily imagine that happening (because it IS happening at events) is embarrassing and unacceptable. What we do is an inherently dangerous activity.  I’m unwilling to put other people at any further risk, so again, my first goal is, to not let things get there.

“BUT BIG GUYS PLAY HARD” Honestly? Controlling your anger, blows, and yourself in general is a better display of skill than showing how creative in the field you can get with the displays of intimidation, strength, desperation or piñata blows, and if you can’t control yourself either deal with the consequences, or don’t fight.

2.-  If it feels wrong, it’s wrong. If during a fight something happens that gives you an adrenaline rush, and you have a moment of panic then you should pay attention to those alert bells. Don’t just exhale thankful nothing happened, it is your task to do something that exact second, or else something WILL happen. There is a very bad habit of rushing against the other opponent like we are playing rugby, to force them out of the ring, and or intimidate them. This not only is dangerous to the opponent, is dangerous to the public. There was a fencer who barely avoided running into the spectators. The second time,  yellow card.  Third time, red card and loss of the match. I heard he did that again in other pools… in mine? He stopped. And while I know that fighter probably hates me for life. I don’t care, I have in my conscience that the public was and is still with their faces intact.

This specific habit is not that uncommon and yet almost everyone recognizes it as dangerous.  Why do we keep seeing it? Because we let it go, and we keep awarding the points for it. Give them their well-deserved yellow or red card for rushing (intentionally or not) and let´s see if they keep doing it.

3.- It’s not my problem that they didn’t read the rules.  A lot of people either don’t read the rules, or “test” breaking them at least once per fight as they only get a “reminder” before they get carded, while also getting the score. Verbal warnings should be given when something is borderline and there’s no definitive way to do the call. Yellow cards should be given at the first incident of breaking rules, regardless of how intentional or accidental it was.  If you didn’t read the rules? Not my problem.  You forgot?  Not my problem. You got too excited and couldn’t control yourself? Not my problem. Can’t hear out of adrenaline? Well, you better calm down, because: not my problem, you still get a card. (Heck, I can even tell you right now I know I’ve earned a card or two for forgetting to stop after the halt)

4.- All of a sudden an event is full of people who got yellow carded? CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE DOING IT RIGHT! We shouldn’t be scared to give cards, giving cards should be a habit, regardless of you looking at tournaments as test for a martial art, or as a pure sport, the fact is that the competitive environment gets to everyone, and all of us will and have made mistakes and stupid decisions at tournaments. Everyone gets mad at some point during their HEMA career. It is nearly impossible to find someone who hasn’t lost it at some point in a fight, including all those fighters you admire. In fact, let me repeat: DO NOT HESITATE TO GIVE A YELLOW CARD TO A FIGHTER JUST BECAUSE THEY HAVE A GOOD REPUTATION.  If their reputation is real, they will deal with their mistake and move forward.   

“But refs will abuse this! And it will get out of control! And they will manipulate results!” And blah blah blah.  If a ref is going to manipulate a fight, they will do it with or without cards. “IT´S TOO SPORTY! IT ENDANGERS THE ART! THIS IS FIGHTING NOT SOCCER! YOU´RE ALL A  BUNCH OF SISSIES!”: No! Part of martial arts is supposed to be about self-control and discipline: It endangers the art and peoples lives that you don’t learn to behave like a decent human being and have the self-control to stop when you are fighting dangerously.

We have to face it, carding is a common and regular practice in any kind of competitive activity for a reason, and the truth is that we won’t be able to grow as a healthy (larger) community if we don’t have the pants and skirts to tell someone they are going overboard. Carding and calling out people for misbehaving won’t break the community/family environment HEMA has; allowing people to fight unsafely and unjustly while getting away with it will.


4 Comments on “Play your cards right: Penalties in HEMA

  1. I used to referee in modern fencing and am getting back to it now that I have a few years on me. It’s a lot easier now to be firm, dispassionate and fair now, partly because I’m more passionate about the sport than I am about winning. I want the sport to win much more than any one fencer.

  2. This is why we need weight and gender categories.

    Simply put, heavier people with longer reach will hit harder if something goes wrong. You need to hit with force to beat the opponents blade and control the bind. The control factor comes in when you are guaging how much force is required to beat the blade and when you will need to pull the strike after that point for the scoring blow. Out of necessity, you will use more force than is required when entering the bind and then adjust to the new information you recieve after making contact. If something goes awry in this rapid series of calculations – i.e. the opponent feints the initial strike but does not move out of the way of the provoked response – or else the opponent makes some other movement that brings them towards the arc of your strike – then you have an incredibly small window in which to remove the impetus of your now unsafe blow.

    In an instance such as the above, which other large fencers will agree are far from uncommon, I do not believe it is reasonable to blame the control of the bigger fencer. As a standard, weightier and taller fencers have to exert a far higher level of control than a shorter and lighter individual to take part in the hobby at all. To take it to a logical extreme imagine a rugby match between a university 21s side and a senior school’s under 15s. If the objective was to still play rugby to the best of all player’s abilities but without anyone getting hurt then you are going to see two things. Firstly that the under 21s aren’t going to be able to play to their fullest ability for fear of hurting someone and secondly that the under 15s are going to be able to give 100% and upwards but are still going to be naturally disadvantaged. For the spectator, coaches, and the teams, this would not be a “good” game of rugby. Many may be inclined to argue that it isn’t sporting either.

    For this reason, I believe that until weight categories are put in place (which is hardly uncommon for martial arts) then all a disspassionate carding system will achieve is to unfairly advantage shorter and lighter fencers and put unreasonable expectations and handicaps on larger people. It isn’t martially valid and it isn’t sporting either, and I would argue it isn’t helping those larger fencers learn the art. If we are to continue without categories we need to accept the risks involved and that there is going to be a degree of referee discretion when it comes to what is deemed as “unecessary force”. Generally speaking, the agreed intensity of a fight is determined by the two fencers as and when they start fencing – and this differs depending on the opponent. Referees at present should strive to recognise that agreed intensity so that it becomes clearer when a participant is exceeding it unecessarily.

    1. Alright fuckers, listen up.
      I’m sick of the way HEMA tournaments are done. As we all know, we’re supposed to be simulating Real Sword Fights™ here. We’re not sport fencing or ACL or SCA. We’re HEMA. We’re fighting a MARTIAL ART here. A martial. Goddamn. Art.
      I should know what I’m talking about. I’ve been doing HEMA for about 6 months now, so I know just about everything there is to know about Liechtenauer’s Germanic longsword Art. In that time I’ve broken over 20 feders in my sparring sessions. If I had to use one word to describe myself, it would definitely be “warrior.” Once, I pommel-struck someone in the face so hard that they had to be sent to the ER. It wasn’t my fault they didn’t defend themselves. We are fighting a MARTIAL ART here, and a Real Sword Fight™ isn’t gonna end just because some director calls “halt.
      So what am I saying? HEMA tournaments need to be more like Real Sword Fights™. To that end, I propose a radical new ruleset: lock all fighters in a room with sharp longswords and have them fight to the death. Whoever still lives at the end is the winner. No artifacts. True Art. Deathpoint 2018.
      See you all at Deathpoint!

    2. She is not speaking about of intensity, or force.
      What she is not tolerating, is bad sport.
      Not stopping when called, not following the rules. Being a danger to the public, lack of control.
      That shouldn’t need any category of weight. Just following the rules.
      The only data on weight we have of this article, is the one of the referee. And that should have no importance.
      If the situation is bad enought that the referee have to use force to stop you from breaking the rules, that mean that you are clearly out of control, and should be allowed to participate.

      Yes, bigger, stronger people may have more opportunity to break them, but that not a excuse for breaking them, and this don’t seem to be the point of this article.

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