On Penalties – HEMA State of the Art in 2024

Penalties have become a focus of attention for HEMA competition in the last few years, and for good reason. As we grow as a sport we cast a much wider net every tournament, and it’s no longer guaranteed that  an event will be populated exclusively from the same “old boys club” who all have similar standards. (Not that any of us who have been doing this for a while can ever recall someone from the old boys club getting away with behavior because no one was ready to properly have them face consequences for it…)

With the higher focus on carding recently (I’ll use the term penalty and card mostly interchangeably), I can’t say it’s been smoothly implemented. And I don’t mean that in a bad way! Trying anything new has challenges, and we are learning as we grow and develop. The purpose of this article isn’t to present a perfect scheme for handing penalties, because no one (including you) has a perfect system that doesn’t have any situations it struggles with. 

Instead I have three goals here:

  1. Present the current best practices in penalty implementation;
  2. Highlight some ways that differ between tournaments, and tell you why I think my way is better;
  3. Talk about some of the difficulties we still haven’t overcome, and what makes them challenging to address.

So let’s dive into the good, and discuss best practices that we see being implemented.

Disclaimer: I’m not going to be talking about where you put your line on things like excessive force, influencing judges, or unsportsmanlike conduct. I’m assuming that you have made a decision based on your own criteria, and this conversation is around how you handle people who are crossing that line.

Part 1: Things That Most People Agree On

Warnings vs Cards

The first topic is a relatively easy one, as most mature tournaments have come to the same consensus: a ‘warning’ is a card. There should be no untracked verbal warnings, because people can just basically just keep doing the same thing over and over again without any consequences. 

It’s my strong preference that this is what the yellow card is. A warning doesn’t need to be its own thing. The yellow card is your warning of “you just violated the rules, don’t do it again or stiffer consequences are to follow.” 

De-Stigmatizing Penalties

Historically you would only get a penalty in HEMA if you did something unconscionable. Which then followed that someone getting a penalty was way out of line. Fortunately, most events are starting to course correct on this, and realize that penalties are the more effective way of keeping conduct within the “box” officials want the game played inside.

By de-stigmatizing penalties and making them an ordinary part of match conduct, there is continuous correction of fencers when they start pushing the limits. Another benefit to normalizing penalties is that if you have less of a shock factor when issuing cards, a director (especially a less confident one) will be less reticent to do the typical “I really don’t want to make them mad” approach to issuing penalties.

Important Note: Penalties have two functions: Game related and safety related (which I’ll talk more about philosophically later on). Game related penalties are about making sure everyone is playing the same game, like a penalty for ring-outs or unsportsmanlike conduct. Most of this article is about safety related penalties, which I’ll let you deduce the purpose for by name alone.

Preventative Feedback

I’m going to get philosophical on the nature of penalties a little bit lower on, but we all know that one of the major goals is participant safety. And when it comes to safety, I firmly believe in the adage of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Of course having grown up in a metric country I don’t really have a good sense for what an ounce is, but I know it’s less than a pound. And what it means is that it’s better to stop something before it happens, than to deal with the consequences of it happening. 

  • Worst -> Injury
  • Better -> Penalty thrown on infractions that have potential to cause injury, in hope they don’t repeat.
  • Best -> Fighters don’t do infractions that could cause injury

So while I don’t think you should ever give a non-card warning for crossing the line into a penalty, I think that a good director will intervene before someone crosses the line. 

A good example of this is when two fighters are amping up over the course of a match. As the director notices that they are just on the cusp of getting an excessive force penalty they can say “that was an acceptable level of force, but if you exceed it you will be penalized.” Less of a verbal warning, and more like a preventative reminder of the rules.

Tl;dr: You can give verbal reminders that say “that was fine, you can keep doing it. But if you go further it’s a problem.”

Negating Actions

If someone scores a penalty on an exchange, they shouldn’t be able to get points from it. If you penalize someone for exposing/hitting the back of the head and then give them points anyways, you aren’t exactly sending a strong message about not doing that thing.

Actions vs Consequences

Penalties should be assessed based on what people do, and not what consequences this has. If someone throws a wild swing with excessive force while out of measure it is just as much of a penalty if someone throws the same attack and it hits someone. If someone is wincing from a strike it shouldn’t factor in the judge’s decision. Maybe that individual just got hit in a weird way, and happens to have a more expressive demeanor. That shouldn’t give them a relative advantage in a match over a more stoic individual.

What’s the worst that can happen if we base penalties off the reaction of the ‘victim’?

Likewise “they should get a penalty because their opponent got hurt” is not a good benchmark. Maybe it was just an unlucky location to be hit. The strike may have been too hard, and worthy of a penalty, but just because there was bad luck to have an injury isn’t the criteria that should be used.

As mentioned in the previous section, a gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure. The goal is to penalize when the behavior first appears, not when someone gets hurt because of it. If someone is exposing the back of their head to their opponent, don’t wait for a swing directed at the back of the head to penalize it!

Judge-ability of Penalties

All penalties should be judg-able. There are three main areas where I see this fall down consistently.

Attention

Will the judges actually be able to notice this? Just because you write something in the rules, doesn’t mean the judges will actually call it. Judging is a hard job with a lot to remember, and every tournament has different rules. So if you have something that only you consider a penalty, and doesn’t happen very often, there is a high chance that judges will miss it when it does occur.

Some of the solutions to this are training & culture. Naturally if we only use things we are already good at there is no capability to add anything new. If you are including something different to keep track of, make specific – and repeated – note of it in the judge training/briefing. And also have the tournament manager constantly watching and giving reminders to judges in between matches. Although, even if you do manage to stay on top of all of this, keep in mind there is a limit to what the judges can keep track of. So hyper focusing on your new penalty will likely lead to decreased attention in other areas. 

Subjectivity

Subjectivity is a death kneel for all sorts of sporting actions. Even at the highest level of professional sports there is constant controversy about getting calls wrong. Once we scale down the experience and rules familiarity of the judges by an order of magnitude it gets even worse. 

You may be tempted to remove the subjectivity of a rule by adding more description. Protip: adding more words to the rules document won’t help. Rather than adding more words, think about distilling the standards down into a clearer and more judgeable metric. This is not something that you will ever be able to “solve”, but be sure that the ability of the staff to distinguish the illegal action is something you weigh when deciding on how it fits into the tournament. Also remember that, while judges get a lot of experience in seeing normal fencing exchanges, penalty actions happen infrequently and most judges don’t have a ton of experience on recognizing what should and shouldn’t be flagged.

Consider using video clips of the Ok and Not Ok actions.

Intentionality

I would be VERY cautious about any rule that has “intentional or deliberate” in it. These are notoriously poorly judged, and in my mind should be eliminated unless you have some very strong proof that the judges will be able to call them.

For example “ring outs are non-scoring unless deliberate” is something I have never once seen called as a penalty against a fighter who backed out of the ring. Something like “intentional targeting of the groin is illegal” is also something I don’t think I’ve ever seen a penalty thrown for. Because the conclusion is always ‘not intentional’. Well in that case just get rid of the rule!

Excessive Force Safety Net

Having read the last part about me wanting to remove rules against intentionally targeting the groin, you may wonder if I’m looking to create tournaments where people are wailing on each other in the groin intentionally.

The answer is yes.

But aside from amusing hypotheticals, the answer is that any behavior that is clearly a risk to participant safety should already be bundled into your excessive force/brutality card.

Part 2: Things That Everyone Has Personal Preferences On

In this section I’m going to talk about things that different organizers approach in different ways, and are inherently a little bit subjective. But I think my way is the best, and I’m now going to tell you why.

Nuclear Super-Card

Nuclear Super-Card is a much more evocative term for what might be more commonly described as “director discretion”. In this context it means that if the director sees something they view as unsafe that is not addressed in the rules they have the means to card at their discretion.

Some people are opposed to this for valid reasons. It introduces subjectivity to the match based on the directors feelings over the rules author. However:

  1. It is laughable that people don’t think there is already a ton of subjectivity and judgment going on by their diverse lineup of directors. (Another Protip: adding more words to the rules document won’t help.)
  2. A small chance of a call that is disagreeable is much better than the chance that someone gets through doing something unsafe that isn’t technically covered in the rules.

As you can see from the tone of this section, I’m strongly in favor of a high degree of director discretion. Invest in your directors, and get people whose judgment you have confidence in.

Regardless of the freedom of the director to judge safety infractions, “Refusing to Obey the Director” should always be a penalty. If the director tells you to stop doing something, you do it. If you wilfully disobey directors it is a safety violation. (And if the director is overstepping and out of line, the fighters should complain to the Tournament Manager – not stage a rebellion in the ring!)

Awarding Points

Should penalties take away points from one fighter, or give points to their opponent? I prefer the latter, because subtracting points means you can’t have someone win a match based on a penalty point. Which is very unsatisfying for everyone involved, but both ways of doing it are completely functional.

Negating Actions

While I think that not giving points if you get a penalty is pretty enshrined in best practices, there is some nuance between “you can’t get points if you get a penalty” and “if you get a penalty it invalidates your scoring action” that was only brought to my attention recently. I favor the latter because it makes something like doubling your opponent with excessive force even worse, as they now have a ‘clean’ hit against you given your hit didn’t count. But I think both are serviceable.

Example of the above: It is a full afterblow tournament, and [Fuschia] hits [Grey] on a 2 point target, while [Grey] hits [Fuschia] on a 1 point target. Normally [Fuschia] would get 1 point on the exchange. If [Fuschia] had performed a cardable action there are two possible outcomes:

  • [Fuschia] can not score when they get a card. No points awarded.
  • [Fuschia] has their action invalidated by card. [Grey] gets 1 point for their ‘clean’ hit.

On an oft unaddressed point, how do you handle “Yellow Card to Fuschia, Red Card to Grey*”? 

  1. Fuschia should get a point advantage to punish Grey for getting a red card.
  2. But Fuschia can’t get points because they got a card. 
  3. But then Grey got off on their red card with no consequence.
  4. Go back to #1

I don’t have a good answer to this at the moment, but it’s uncommon enough that I’m not super worried. Also the directors won’t remember the procedure and will just do whatever seems intuitive.

Card Colors/Escalations

What color cards should you use? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, you can choose whatever. But the yellow/red/black is very common in sports, and thus intuitive to most people. In HEMA tournaments the two most common are:

Escalation LevelType 1Type 2
WarningYellowVerbal Warning
Points AppliedRedYellow
Match LossBlackRed
Tournament ExpulsionNothing. Event organizer tells you to go home.Black

While it isn’t a huge deal, I’m going to go out and say that Type #2 is worse in every way. I generally prefer that warnings come with yellow cards so that it’s clear that the director can’t give out an untracked verbal warning. Also having tournament expulsion be a card seems unnecessary, does it happen often enough that it needs its own distinct card?

Tournament Expulsions

While we are at it, how do you handle tournament expulsions? These happen so rarely that we haven’t had to come together with a good procedure for it. My preference is:

  1. Director Awards a Black Card indicating match loss
  2. Director calls for a conference with the Tournament Manager
  3. Tournament Manager makes the call if the fighter is ejected from the tournament, or can continue.

In most cases I would imagine that a black card leads to a tournament expulsion, however it is ultimately a tournament level (rather than match level) decision and should be in the hands of the Tournament Manager. These situations are rare and unique enough that having some discretion is warranted, though by default I would assume that a Black Card ultimately leads to tournament expulsion unless there is some mitigating factor at play.

It also takes the pressure off the Director, who didn’t necessarily sign up to make that level of stressful decision. 

Part 3: Things We Don’t Have Figured Out

And now that you’ve arrived at the depths of the article, we get to some more thorny philosophical issues and parts of penalties that I haven’t seen a good solution too.

How Can You Tell How Hard Something Was From Watching?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

This is a hard one that I don’t have a good answer for. A lot of the things that cause some directors to flinch and get antsy are not necessarily reflective of the hardness of the hit (like noise). Likewise you can have blows that are coming in super stiff but don’t look that much different.

The best advice I have is to look at the follow through from the body. Something coming super fast, but without the bodyweight driving into the impact, is less of a problem than something coming in a little slower but with all the weight driving past the initial impact and into the opponent. It is far from foolproof, but can help sort out the ‘they are just going really intense’ form ‘this person is hitting in a potentially hazardous way’. Because as people get better, swords move faster, and will always have a bigger impact.

More Consequences = Less Enforcement

If you have something that you really don’t want to happen you might be tempted to think “I’ll just make the penalty super harsh, so people don’t do it.” However by making the penalty so harsh you’ve also made judges more reluctant to use it. 

If a rule is “if you hit someone too hard, then GTFO you are DQed” you are all but guaranteeing that no judge will call any excessive force penalty. Something like excessive force always has some subjectivity to it, and if a judge knows one bad call has catastrophic consequences they won’t do it. Whereas if there was a light penalty directors would apply it more liberally, and fighters (those in the ring, and those watching) would get constant reinforcement to not go over the line.

All will be addressed in time.

Why Do We Penalize?

At a high level we have two main objectives with our penalty regime:

  1. Influence fighter behavior to have them do what we want (including being safe).
  2. Remove dangerous individuals from the tournament.

Unfortunately, while we can generally come up with a good system that deals with one of the two, it will typically produce a sub-optimal result in the other. I’ll start with a case study of two systems and highlight the strengths and weaknesses.

In-Match Escalation Only

Rules: The first offense in a match is a yellow card (warning). Subsequent infractions in the match are a red card (point penalty).

This works well for influencing behavior and getting directors to actually call penalties. Because the consequence is quite low you can expect anytime someone creeps across the line they get carded for it, and have incentive to stop.

But imagine this not too far-fetched scenario. Fighter (D) in a pool consistently swings too hard.

  1. Pool Match #1: 1x Yellow Card (warning) for excessive force and 1x Red Card, (-2 pts) for excessive force.
  2. Pool Match #2: 1x Yellow Card (warning) for excessive force and 1x Red Card, (-2 pts) for excessive force.
  3. Pool Match #3: 1x Yellow Card (warning) for excessive force and 1x Red Card, (-2 pts) for excessive force.
  4. Pool Match #4: 1x Yellow Card (warning) for excessive force and 1x Red Card, (-2 pts) for excessive force.
  5. Pool Match #5: Injures opponent on the first exchange. Director: “Sorry, I don’t know what we could have done to avoid this”.

In this case the system would have worked to try and keep most people under control, however if there was an individual who didn’t learn their lesson they can mostly work their way through the entire event.

Cross-Match

The alternative is to have penalties accrue across matches. In this way, problematic competitors are identified by their patterns of behavior using a much bigger sample size. However this also has its drawbacks. Two major issues are:

  1. It is more complicated. Oftentimes the staff are not well appraised of what prior penalties are, or directors completely forget about it when making the call because they already have a million things to keep track of. And having a system that is inconsistently applied is about the worst experience you could have for participants.
  2. You run into the same problem with high severity penalty systems. Because safety infractions can compound quickly people are much less likely to give a card unless the behavior is very egregious. This means that the constant feedback of correction is not there, and things can escalate in undesirable ways. 

Basically this method gives you a much better ability to remove problematic individuals from a tournament, but worse ability to influence the behavior of the participants overall.

The Solution?

This is in the ‘no good solutions’ pile for a reason. MOF attempts to balance this with two classification of red cards. This is problematic, but not prohibitive, for HEMA in a few ways:

  1. Having two classifications for a single color card instead of just adding another color is a little crazy. Like, we have a whole rainbow. This may sound like me being pedantic, but directors struggling with confusion over how to escalate cards is a very real issue.
  2. We invest far more of our safety in behavior than MOF does. They have simulators that don’t require as many behavioral controls (excessive force penalties, etc) and so the safety aspect of the penalties isn’t as relevant as the gamesmanship aspect of penalties.

So while I’m not saying it’s explicitly bad, I don’t think doing some more MOF cargo culting is going to fix this problem.

Conclusion

Where was “targeting the back of head” in all of this? Split into its own article is the answer. It was getting too big.

Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to summarize what is already a summary article in and of itself. I think your main takeaways should be::

  • If you’re not doing the stuff in Section #1, you should really, really consider looking into it. Often “we don’t do it because we don’t have any problems” really means “everyone looks the other way whenever someone steps over a line”.
  • If you’re already on top of the stuff in Section #1, spends some time thinking about the stuff in Section #3 to really understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. And once you’ve come up with an amazing system try to reduce the complexity by 50% so it’s actually implementable.
  • Everyone should do exactly as I say in Section #2 because I’m amazing and always have the smartest ideas.

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