Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Are All Ratings Created Equally?

         Several times over the last eight months a friend and I have ended up talking about perceptions of ratings. Most fencers and parents are aware that USA Fencing has a system of rating, A being the highest, E being the lowest, and U for anyone who has yet to earn a rating. For those unaware, our rating system is a purely USA Fencing thing. Internationally, and also domestically, there are multiple ranking lists whereon fencers achieve a numerical ranking through earning points based on placement in significant tournaments.
          For ratings, placement in a single tournament determines an earned rating. The tournament strength is decided by the number of people and the ratings of those people along with the number of rated people who place in the top eight. A rating lasts for four years. Any local event can give out a rating, even if its entirely attended by people of a single division, or even a single club, as long as the event is one of the appropriate age categories for giving the rating. Whether you earn it in a senior, a junior or a vet event, or if you earn it in a mixed, a men’s or a women’s event does not impact the rating. They’re all the same.
          Rankings are earned through points given based on placement in certain types of events. The number of points awarded may be determined by the nature of the event, or by the size of the event. Events which give out points are broken down between age groups, division, and gender. Your ranking only applies in the category where you earned points (Junior Men’s Foil, Division II [Senior] Women’s Epee, etc.). Your ranking will be the result of multiple performances, potentially, and points drop off after 12 months, or at the end of the season, depending upon the category.
          Because points reflect, potentially, multiple performances, are category specific, are earned in larger “more official” events, and exist for a shorter amount of time, many people feel rankings are a more meaningful system. It’s definitely the system which impacts more important stuff. But the rating system is more visible and is easier to comprehend, so it has an importance as well. Both systems can result in weird attainments. A fencer might have an unusually good day, or they might fence in an unusually easy tournament, or they might get a bizarrely lucky path through the DE table or an unfairly easy pool. In both systems random factors can impact performance so neither one is fool proof. The basic idea for both systems makes sense though, and both rankings and ratings can both be good determiners for an athlete’s ability to perform in a tournament setting.
          But are all ratings created equal? This is the question my friend has brought up after discussions with fellow competitors. Rankings get more specific, you’re given a particular place relative to everyone else. You earn that placement by performing in a regional or a national circuit event, which will often be pretty big, with – hopefully; national referees who know what they’re doing. You ranking is again for a specific category. So, when someone says “I’m in the top 50 Cadet Men’s Epeeists in the country,” it feels specific. You can guess how they qualified for that status. But when someone says “I’m a B,” are all Bs created equally?
          Some parents who don’t fence and some younger athletes take the view “Hey, if you earned it you are it, and it’s all the same.” They don’t consider whether you just had good luck, or opponents had bad luck, or if you got it in an easy event, or if the category of event makes it easier or harder. Those factors all exist though. So, yeah, sometimes a rating might get earned before a fencer is ready. Sometimes a fencer deserves a rating but keeps running into an unusually tough opponent in DEs, or the event strength drops mid-tournament due to upsets, or someone doesn’t show up or pulls out during pools and it just doesn’t hit the expected event rating. Again, it’s not fool proof.
          My friend, maybe questions his rating, he earned his B super-fast after earning his C, and that was pretty fast after his D. But, he spent two years training five to six days a week. In his case, he beat a B who was a former A and a former National Team member to earn his B. He did it in a large event with people from several divisions, and way more Div1 ratings than were needed for the event to have its strength. Half the referees had international referee ratings, including the one who refereed his pool, and the one who refereed most of his DEs. He was in a fairly strong pool as well. His rating was well earned. Conversely, I’ve seen people earn ratings in events where referees were throwing calls in their favor, or where it was all club mates, or events that were so mismanaged and so poorly refereed that many bouts finished in ways that defied logic. I’ve seen people earn ratings by being tall, skinny, and left-handed while fencing so awkwardly that they end up haphazardly getting past better opponents who just can’t adjust to hit them. It’s a mixed bag.
          In most cases though we can say a few things about ratings. Between an E and a D in foil and epee there usually won’t be a ton of difference. There is frequently a big jump between the D and the C in foil and sabre. In all three weapons there is, usually, a big jump from the C to the B, and from the B to the A.  
          Even with those trends…does that mean everyone with the same rating is comparably good? Obviously not. Some Cs routinely lose to some other Cs, some Bs routinely lose to some other Bs. The space for difference is real and unquestionable. Just because you’re on the weaker end of the Cs doesn’t mean you should be a D, or just being on the stronger end doesn’t mean you should be a B. There’s a fair shot your rating makes sense. Sometimes though, people are weaker or stronger than their rating suggests.
          The real thing you want to look for isn’t did you earn the rating, it’s what does your performance usually look like. After all, the rating is an exciting moment, it’s a great thing to celebrate, and it’s a great goal to motivate you – but your performance over time is the real thing you want to make good. So, you earn a C, are you routinely placing such that you would re-earn the C? If you’re in a larger event where re-earning is less likely – are you outplacing most of the Ds and below? Are you finishing amid the Cs? If you’re a C and you’re outplacing the bulk of the Bs routinely that can tell you something too. That’s what I look for. I’ll celebrate the win, but then I’ll look for the trend.
          If the trend isn’t immediate though don’t worry. You earned the rating, and if you did it in a meaningful context, it might just be a matter of getting your sea legs. The game changes a little. People will adjust the effort they put in because they expect you to be a harder opponent. Relative pool strength shifts, which should be an advantage but it can still weirdly adjust what your first DE bout is like. Adjust your training to your new context. Keep at it. Find the trend.
          For parents and team mates, when athletes get a rating they don’t expect and they doubt themselves, it might not be useful to just tell them that they earned it so it’s theirs. Point to the context, show them why it was deserved, and remind them they now have something to work towards fulfilling rather than to work towards earning. If they get too excited and their head swells up too much, remind them they need to be able to repeat it, and their access to tournaments is changing in a way to encourage that. All in all, celebrate the win, strive to prove the win through continued success and growth.

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