Referees and Umpires: They are Essential but Becoming Extinct.

Why appreciation for their contribution will make sure they do not go the way of the dinosaur.

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The best in-game officials are those you don’t even know are there.  

Unfortunately, that seems to occur very little in today’s youth competitions.   

They are noticed. It seems like a lot.

But I am not convinced it is only due to their actions on the field of play.

The increased level of anger and disrespect to officials in youth sports certainly is escalating.  

Reasons vary, one could be attribute to the overall intensity of youth sports competition by coaches and parents, especially in an age of sport specialization and pay to play situations.  Social media does not seem to be helping either, as everyone has a platform to voice opinions.

This was not the case 20 years ago.

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

While the reasons for this are multiple, we can be certain that youth sports will be changed forever if not fixed soon.  

There is already evidence of shortages of referees and umpires.

Early in my coaching and teaching career, I took up basketball refereeing. It was that time as a basketball referee that really opened my eyes to a different perspective than the one I had as an athlete and coach.

The experiences as a referee helped me become a better coach.  I learned communication skills in a competitive environment that were positive, which helped calm my players stay calm and focused.

Have you ever noticed that the teams with the mouthiest players have a coach that is very verbal as well?

Every coach should have an experience as an in-game official. When organizations host tournaments, coaches from their non-participating teams could officiate.

Umpiring and refereeing changes the perspective on the mental and physical challenges to keeping the games within the rules. You realize how hard it is to be an official and being in charge of keeping things on the rails. 

When you think of referees and umpires what comes to mind?

In youth sports we see all kinds. 

-        Rules Guy: the one who does not hesitate to let you know what rule 15.6 is whenever he gets the chance.

-        Good Time Charlie: the one who will joke and laugh and chat at every turn.

-        The Boss: the one who rules with an iron fist front the time he walks in: no small talk for fear of showing favoritism. Uses loud voice always and makes a point of letting everyone know who’s in charge. No smiling here.

-        Money Man: is present only for the money. Not too vested in anything, not moving much. There for the bucks. Has the pants nicely riding on the hips. May have started with good intentions years ago, but that has passed. Less and less of these as driving an Uber is way less stressful.

-        Spot Light:  needs to make sure everyone knows he’s the show. The flashy call , the demonstrative reactions. This ref is not so sure that people did not come to see him. Close cousin to the boss!

-        Fidgety Bob: always moving. Sprints to position. Usually in good shape and shows it off, often wear’s the sleeves up high on the arms.

-        The Veteran: been umpiring 100 years. A little long in the tooth but not fazed by much. Develops good rapport with players and coaches and shows good judgement always. When The Veteran retires from his full time job, he risks merging into the Money Man.

-        Hometown Hero: some towns have that one ref who has had family in the area for years, sponsors some of the teams and you just know you will have to be a few points/ runs / goals better to win.  The visiting teams starts down by 2 in this case. 

-        The Pro: every so often a true pro will come along. Knows the game, talks to players and coaches. Explains decisions and is a great communicator. Often this is someone who has played a high level or taught gym class.  Will not get rattled and he gets better in close and important games. Unfortunately having him in a tournament shows up all the others who struggle to meet this standard.

-        The Kid: might not be much older than the players. This kid makes an effort, but at the 16 and over level, might need a little more experience before he officiates some of his peers.

While those classifications are meant to be tongue in cheek, not sure if you have noticed what I have noticed?

That last category (the Kid) and The Veteran are becoming more and more frequent. 

There seems to be a decline from the other categories and a decline overall.  We also see the same officials repeatedly in regular regional play.

It’s no wonder we have a few characters and less of them. Officiating is not an easy job. 

Photo by Nathan Shively on Unsplash

What makes a good in-game official?

-        At some level, having played the game is an important skill to bring to officiating. Understanding how competition can evolve and athletes / coaches react helps in managing the games well. A good referee/umpire is a good manager of the game. He/she goes with the flow of the game and only intercedes when needed. The routine calls are kept routine.

-        Knowing the rules. Seem self-explanatory but not all regions have rules updates and training regularly.

-        Experience. The good in game officials rarely seem rattled. They don’t hesitate to explain or confer with others when needed. Their focus is to make the right call rather than wielding authority.  Developing referees/umpires should fall to a committee.  When refereeing with Basketball Quebec, I was constantly evaluated by senior officials and roaming instructors. 

-        Fitness and being able to move is an asset. Some officiating jobs are more physical than others: hockey, basketball, soccer for example.  The higher up the caliber of play the more this becomes important.  Many times an official needs to move quickly to get to the right position. This is a bit of a lost art. All could benefit from being in good shape as this helps judgement and focus.

Let’s dig into what can be done to help with the referee/umpire shortage:

1.     Appreciation: the work they do is critical to a positive in-game experience.  Expressing appreciation can come in many ways. Organizations can give out yearend awards. They  can re-evaluate training and pay scale to help recruit and retain quality candidates.  

There is a great ritual in baseball where the catcher introduces himself to the umpire at the beginning of each game at the higher levels.  It becomes a bit of a partnership in protecting each other and show respect for each other’s tasks. They need each other to get through the game as well as possible. The catcher wants lots of strike calls, and the umpire wants to be protected!

This should not be limited to one player or position. Players should all introduce themselves to officials at the start of each game or in warmup.


2.     Empathy:  if you have refereed, you know what I mean. Seeing things from their perspective. All coaches should have some experience officiating.

3.     Cooperation. All participants and parents need to have an officials clause in their code of conduct. Codes of conduct are no longer optional unfortunately. They can map out expectations and standards for all concerned.  This is discussed and enforced at registration.  No one should be allowed to register without signing off and to go one step further a short 5 step mini test for parents and families should be mandatory.

Let’s dig into the role of the coach around umpire relations:

-        Be professional and courteous. Appreciation for a coach is introducing himself. Not yelling from the sidelines and asking for explanations when needed.

-        Know the rules.  Often, I have witnessed coaches debating a call, only to be wrong about the rule.  I remember in coaching different sports, knowing all the intricacies of the rules was tough. I learned early on that asking the official for rules clarification was a good start to getting a clear answer and  building rapport.

-        Teach your athletes how to be respectful. They need to know what will be accepted and not accepted in terms of talking to officials, tone of the talk and when.

-        Remember your athletes maybe the next generation of referees/umpires. That evolution comes from a positive experience in their playing days and becomes an asset if they put on the stripes.

-        Keep your parents in line. Coaches can set the standard on what is and not acceptable at game time from the parents. I did have situations where as coach, I had to go to the stands and ask parents to be quiet.

Officials: What can you do to create a positive experience?

-        Practice servant leadership. The presence of in-game officials is to mediate the game, interpret and enforce the rules. It is not an exhibit to be the center of attention, it is not a demonstration of authority. Refereeing is needed for the competition to unfold. Don’t abuse that privilege.

-        Build rapport with coaches and athletes.  The best in-game officials talk to players and coaches. The ones who refuse to do so are often the worst.  While this is not great for introverts, it speaks to giving respect before asking for respect.

-        Humility. Admit mistakes. The best officials admit they may have missed that last call, they don’t deny it.

-        Keep learning: Officiating today is way more than the rules, and also dealing with conflict. Training is required to be equipped to be a good modern day referee/umpire.

If we all work together we can avoid the extinction of the referee.  

As coaches, parents and athletes we are currently feeling the sting of less competitive opportunities due to the pandemic.  What if they don’t come back?

Without referees & umpires, competition becomes a thing of the past.

We need neutral, qualified, experienced, competent, professional, courteous, humble officials.

This is a cornerstone to making the experience positive for all concerned.

Let’s start with some appreciation for the difficult job that it is.


Supporting resources for this article:

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