Professional Bias

Bias finds its way into our work and it is most often based on significant past experiences that influence our current agendas as fencers, referees and coaches. As a fencer and coach I have developed an attunement to two types of biases: technical and social. Technical biases in refereeing and coaching cannot be ignored and are often overlooked obstacles to growth in US Fencing and within our own clubs.

Technical Bias

Technical biases are most commonly noticed in referee development. In sabre land you would think we are taking about politics when priority is discussed. The attack that starts with fast footwork and a stiffer arm might as well be called a Republican’s attack and the slower footwork with more quick acceleration of the arm, the Democrat’s attack. Who is right? Well, it depends on who started first. But, depending on which party you were brought up in, you are biased towards one attack over the other.

When a referee declares, “I am going to call it this way.” Boom! Technical bias stated and shared up front. This is information on how to fence your bout. This may not be the best referee, but they’ve declared their bias and are going to stick to their technical bias come hell or high-water. It’s safe, sure, and everyone knows beforehand the outcome of the bout is in part determined by referee inadequacy. It’s called fencing to the referee. We teach it exists, we have to deal with it and sometimes it’s really not fun. At least you know, right?

Cheating and Ineptitude


Cheating in referee land is an intentional call given to favor one group or person over another due to personal favor, national pride. I am not sure if it is cheating or referee laziness when social status of the fencer determines who gets awarded points. Social status of a fencer? Yes, I remember when I got status as a fencer, I loved it. Once day I wasn’t getting calls that were mine, the next day I was getting calls that weren’t mine. If points awarded to me were intentional, it would have been cheating. Club bias more than likely than referee laziness, I think. Hard to say what the intentions of referees are sometimes. It could also be social bias (see below).

Along the lines of lazy referee there is the unskilled referee. If makes me sad to watch my fencers lose when directed by an unskilled referee. NC’s next referee training seminar will be held at Mid-South with Mary Mahon in just a few weeks. Please come support referee development in our region by attending this event, we have very few quality referees and they are often taxed over the weekends during seasons. We need your help!


The internal dialogue of the referee probably goes something like, “oh, I don’t want that coach to yell at me so if I give their students a few touches, they won’t bother me.” Get off the freakin’ piste! You don’t have the guts to be a referee. Make the damn call and let the coach yell at you. I would not take it personally at all. Card them if they deserve it. Watch your card be revoted by the bout committee. Due to bout committee bias these interactions are still allowed to keep continuing. One day soon perhaps the leadership will stand up and say enough, stop with this bias!

Socially-Based Bias

Social bias does tend to have more emotional triggers attached to it. As a female fencer I can recall earning the attack and not getting the point because a referee didn’t want to “call it too tight.” There was and still is a clear gender bias among several referees who call it differently for women. Slower and larger priority window. This pisses me off. Because of these experiences with numerous referees, I have a bias. Almost every time I referee nationally I am told by another coach or mentor referee that “you call it too tight” particularly when I am refereeing women or Div II/III events. Well, screw you. I am calling it this way. Fine, don’t hire me anymore because I am not changing. Clearly, I have an emotionally-based social trigger in reaction to my own experiences. I can categorize a list of referees who will make a call gender neutral. I can name, in order, the coaches who have complained to me and I can start listing bouts in which I refused to change my actions due to feeling this bias. Yes, I was stubborn!

Coaching Bias and Professional Responsibility

In coach land cheating is a bit less subtle and for me easily discernable. Just this past weekend I observed a student testing before getting en garde. He held the mask close to his chest and gave a glance at his coach as he stepped forward. The coach nodded. The student gave a salute and presumed en grade knowing his mask cord was iffy. In this exchange I witnessed the coach supporting the student in gaining knowledge on how to cheat. I teach my students about cheating and I don’t suspect cheating if something went wrong, but I am always surprised when cheating is revealed.

A good coach has checks and balances in place to keep their perspective biases in line. When I referee in the club I tend to punish actions I don’t want to see and reward ones that need developing. I have learned to develop a referee mode and coach mode approach when refereeing our local tournaments. I know my bias is to slightly less favor my own students so as to make sure I appear unbiased.

It is a good exercise for all coaches and referees to check themselves and have a good friend look over your work as a referee or coach as our biases are part of our history. We should challenge our biases always. Our biases do hurt us and limit our ability to be impartial and fair particularly if we are unaware of them. If you are actively teaching a student to cheat, either by modeling it or teaching it, do the world a favor and quit.  You don’t deserve the honor of being called a coach. If you’ve read his and realize you have a bias and someone taught you to cheat and you thought it was ‘just they way fencing was.’ Stop. How do you want fencing to be? Is fairness a value you hold? If so, check your biases, don’t be lazy and make the call that is hard to make.