Developing judging skills

AHA fencers judging at the recent Broadsword Tournament Trial Run

AHA fencers judging at the recent Broadsword Tournament Trial Run

One of the skills that is very important for a HEMA practitioner is judging. The overall quality of a tournament will be affected by poor quality judging, and fencers will enjoy an event far less if they feel the judging was inaccurate, especially if they feel that they, or another fencer, should have won a fight which they lost, and vice versa.

It should be said that judging is difficult, and very often under-appreciated. Judges are more likely to be criticised for poor judging calls than they are to be thanked or congratulated. Additionally judges are often sacrificing their own ability to take part in tournaments by judging.

I believe therefore that criticism of judges should always be moderate, and that any criticism given directly to them should be constructive. However, this is not to say that criticisms about judging don’t have merit, as there are often valid criticisms to make. This means that all judges should try to improve their judging skills.

Even a HEMA practitioner who has never been a judge, and may not be plan on being a judge, should work on their judging skills. Some events ask fencers to act as judges, such as FightCamp, where tournament pools are entirely self judging, or the upcoming AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament, where the fighters will rotate through as junior referees under a consistent senior referee. Additionally, fighters should practice judging as that will help them to understand the judging process, hopefully making them more understanding of judges when they might want to give harsh criticism.

Rule one: practice judging

Practice is, of course, the only way to get better at anything. If you never practice judging, you’ll never be get better at judging. This doesn’t mean you should start by volunteering as a judge at a large tournament; you should practice judging in your local group practice. This can either be done formally, where the judging is an integral part of a sparring practice, or it can be informally, simply by getting in the habit of watching fights when you are not fighting and judging them in your head. Another good way to develop this skill is by coaching. Coaching and judging are not exactly the same, and there are differences in how a judge and a coach will watch a fight (a judge will not care for instance why a fencer has been hit, whereas this is very important for a coach). There are many similar skills in both activities however; and simply get used to watching a fight and thinking about what is happening will help your judging ability.

You could practice judging at home by watching videos of fight, although this is often problematic given things like lack of depth perception, an inability to move around and change your angle etc. Judging practice with videos is better than nothing, but judging practice in person is greatly preferable.

Rule two: have some knowledge of the weapon being used

A judge does not need to be a high level instructor or competitor with the weapon, but they should have familiarity with the weapon and style that is being used. If a judge has some idea about how the weapon is typically used, they will have a much better idea of what to look out for.

Additionally, I believe it is critical that judges distinguish between hits of sufficient and insufficient quality[1], which will be much harder if the judge has not done things like test cutting with that particular weapon.

For some tournaments, it may be tempting to train people with less HEMA experience as judges, as they might be less interested in competing, although I do not think this is a good idea. Ideally judges should be well experienced in the weapons they are judging. As judges become more experienced, they can start to branch out to judge other disciplines as well.

Rule three: give yourself time

There is no rush to call out “hold” or to display your flags or whatever else as soon as you see an exchange. Unless a hit is obviously very clean, rushing to make a judgement will not help things and may confuse the issue. It is better to give yourself a second to compose yourself, think through what you just saw, and make sure you’re making the right call. One of the worst things I could see a judge do is keep changing the positions of the flags they’re holding out, as they visibly think through the exchange and change their mind on what happened. Do not make a call until you are confident that that is the call you want to make.

Additionally, not rushing to call “hold” the instant a hit happens gives a more natural time window for an afterblow to happen.

Rule four: construct a narrative

Sometimes exchanges can be complicated, and deciphering them can be a challenge. What you do not want to do is have a muddled image of an exchange in mind and then try to pick out the one hit that scored points amongst that. If you need to, construct a narrative of what you think happened, going through what each fighter did step by step, for example: “red attacked with several strikes, blue parried and countered with a stab to the torso, red was hit and struck back against blue’s head”, and so on. This is a more useful account of the fight than thinking “some stuff happened, then there was a thrust and a hit to the head”. Simply going through the exchange step by step, and composing a mini narrative can help you to be clearer in your mind.

Rule five: be confident

If you display confidence in your judging, the audience and the participants will be more confident in you. If you do not look or sound confident as you make calls, you will undermine your authority as a judge. If you want to make a call, hold out your flags confidently, or describe what you think happened confidently. You might be wrong, but don’t worry about it, and don’t let self-doubt effect how you present your calls.

It might be that you don’t know what happened, and in a case like that, you should announce clearly and without undue hesitation that you don’t know what happened. So rather than saying “um…I’m really not too sure…” confidently convey that you don’t what happened and just say you had a bad view and couldn’t see.

Additionally, if you are a junior referee, confidently displaying your flag positions will be of much more use to the senior referee. Slowly and timidly extending a flag to an unclear position will not help them make their call.


Judging is difficult, although like all skills, it can be trained and improved. All HEMA practitioners should actively work on their judging skills, even if they do not normally act as a judge, and keeping these few rules in mind should help to make that a little easier.



[1] I’ve written about the importance of this before. For more information, please see:
– Alex Bourdas. “Cutting with the German Longsword.” In: Keith Farrell (ed.). Encased in Steel Anthology I. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2015. Pages 153-166.
– Alex Bourdas. “Cutting Mechanics in Cutting Practice and in Sparring.” Encased in Steel, 29th July 2016, accessed 1st  September 2016.

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