Call it what you want: The funnel, the meat grinder, the system, the process; whatever the metaphor, the concept is the same: If there’s something worth doing in life, chances are there are more people who want to do it than there are places for them all. Some will be discarded. Not everyone who goes in one end comes out the other.
The world of sports takes no prisoners in that regard. If you’re an athlete, the odds are far better that you’ll be a starter on your high school team, then the number three person in regional sales before you retire from your last pro athlete contract. When the talent is that good, and the opportunities so few, you don’t have to be that bad to fall by the wayside somewhere.
Arguably, officiating has become the same way. There might have been a time when hard work, spunk, knowing the game and a willingness to make the commitment was all it took to move up. If you were willing to sacrifice your home life for your avocation, there were more people willing to let you try. Nowadays, we seem waist-deep in fellow officials who always want more than they have and, in the true spirit of the rat race, will do whatever they can to get to “The Show.” But it isn’t always clear who will succeed: Some of the can’t-miss people we know wash out, while others less gifted slug it out and eventually wave to us from the tube every Sunday afternoon.
Referee development has become such a concerted process today. One of the consequences is that the people who identify and promote officials can point to many different ways that someone in the mix can do him- or herself in, despite their ability. Rising players derail themselves with bad choices, immaturity and burnout mostly. So do promising officials. They lose sight of the fact that assigners have plenty of people willing to work with them; they can do without people who think they have diplomatic immunity to the law of the jungle. Here is a list of nine such showstoppers to fine careers and some feedback from people who work with the up-and-comers about how it all really works.
1. Fail to Adequately Prepare
To many of us, that may sound like nothing more than not staying in game shape or keeping your uniform and appearance in order. There’s an element of truth in that and, particularly as we all get older, the people who realize that it’s easier to stay in shape than get in shape carry the day. Darrin Sealey, however, thinks poor preparation runs deeper than that at the higher levels. Sealey is the college baseball umpire coordinator for Mid-Atlantic Officials and is well known in NCAA circles; he worked the 2009 College World Series. His job is to identify and develop umpires along parts of the East Coast and has worked with some who were their own worst enemies. He says he sees some umpires with good potential become stranded at the lower levels for reasons having nothing to do with balls and strikes. He thinks some umpires fall into a “high school” mentality of squeezing games into their schedule and not devoting the level of preparation to them they require.
“A lot of people think pregames happen an hour before game time,” Sealey says. “Pregames start days, if not months, before that first game. If (an umpire) is showing up 30 minutes before game time because he’s not leaving work on time and driving through D.C. traffic and then he’s rushing to get his plate gear on, he’s going to have problems. His mind-set then is ‘everything’s sped up; everything’s sped up’ and everything does speed up in his mind.”
That makes his onfield work suffer because he hasn’t had the time to focus and get into the groove that’s required to perform at that level before the game starts.
J.B. Caldwell is an NCAA basketball official who also assigns and trains college officials in Florida and he agrees with Sealey. “One of the biggest issues I’ve had with people trying to sustain themselves at the college level has nothing to do with being on the floor but managing issues off the floor,” says Caldwell. “I lean on saying that someone that fundamentally is not well organized is going to have a tough time.”
In an eagerness to move up, some officials take on too much and don’t give themselves the hours in the day necessary to mentally prepare for their assignments. Succeeding at the upper levels requires a strategic approach to travel, study, exercise and rest that some handle better than others. Some try to work beyond their limitations and their work suffers.
2. Don’t Follow Through on your word
Gil Urban wears a number of hats around Michigan soccer through his work with U.S. Soccer and says moving up in the soccer world requires a couple of things. One is meeting the requirements of U.S. Soccer’s assessment process. The other is keeping up your image and the demand for your skills through all the games you have to work in the process. Urban calls it being unprofessional when officials start missing assignments they agreed to work.
“Someone who has a tendency to be late, or even worse than that, misses an assignment,” gets a rep he or she doesn’t need, Urban explains. “People will say, ‘He’s a great ref, but there’s a 10 percent chance he won’t show up,’ because he’s just not professional enough to manage his calendar, his time and his lead time.” Many assigners will take their chances with Jimmy Olsen if they’re worried Superman might have to flake at the last minute.
Being reliable extends to more than just making it to assignments, however. Nowadays, competent officials are called upon more to help evaluate other officials, attend meetings, show up for camps and whatever else their bosses deem desirable. It’s all part of the deal and it’s no longer acceptable to play elitist and tell your boss what you will or won’t do.
3. Trash Talk
Some would call that biting the hand that feeds you. Whatever the term, it’s never good to run down your boss to others. The way things work today, the grapevine will strangle anyone who thinks slagging others is an anonymous crime. When that kind of intrigue gets back to Sealey, he says it isn’t so much a question of his own sensitivity to criticism; more that it’s a symptom of a more serious disease.
“One in 10 guys is always complaining,” according to Sealey — about his assignments, his partners or even how they came up with the names for the planets. “Two or three out of 10 will always have some complaints, too.
“Zero of the hardcore complainers ever makes it because they burn themselves out,” he says. Officials who choose to take issue with others eventually end up having too many demons to fight and their reputation collapses. That happens because they’re guilty of the next item on the list.
4. Shirk Accountability
Caldwell says there are some officials an assigner can never do enough for and it manifests itself in a lack of self-effacement. “Not accepting responsibility or taking ownership,” for your success, he says, is no way to operate. “If you’ve got people in denial when you’re working with them, it’s hard to overcome their deficiencies.”
Face it, every official has work to do to get better and some officials either don’t see that or believe any admission of weakness will lower them in the eyes of the assigner. Sealey contends that just the opposite is true. “The first thing I’m looking for,” he says, “is an eagerness to learn.” And that, for him, implies the understanding that you have something to learn.
“I want the new guy to love the game of baseball,” Sealey adds. “If he doesn’t, he has some other motive for working for me and that scares me.”
5. Don’t Pay Attention to the Boss
A good way to learn is to consider that the assigner, assessor or crew chief has something worthwhile to say. Urban sees officials who will instead react by blowing off the credentials of a trained assessor when a less-than-glowing report is turned in. OK, maybe one afternoon can be a bit rough, but Urban believes you have to look at all your evaluations as a body of work, often presenting a recurring theme. Give the people who pass those judgments some credit and heed what they tell you.
There’s more to it than taking criticism well, though. Sealey has had people come to camps who say, “I’m just here to be evaluated, not to do the education sessions.”
“Ninety-nine percent of mechanics are the same way everywhere,” says Sealey. “Different coordinators have their own interpretation of the other one percent and, if you don’t educate yourself in your assigners’ expectations, you’ll have trouble.”
Maybe that’s the Me generation at work, rebelling against anything we didn’t think of first, but one can see how that causes problems. Working on any officiating crew is not an exercise for mavericks. If an official is glugging his or her own bathwater instead of working within the system, everyone suffers. That is generally followed by the boss having strange phone conversations when he or she should be in bed sleeping. If you establish a reputation for not serving the boss, it will be a short-lived one.
6. Be Fake
I remember Andy Dufresne offering some career advice to a fellow inmate in The Shawshank Redemption. That fellow had been in and out of jail since the age of 10. “Perhaps you should consider another line of work because you’re obviously not a very good crook,” Dufresne said. Caldwell has similar advice for officials who choose to be less than truthful with him or anyone else.
“People that give me fantasy reasons why they can’t attend meetings or manufacture excuses that simply are not true — I don’t go on missions to check these people out but the grapevine is healthy and alive,” says Caldwell. Most assigners can handle the truth and accept that life sometimes gets in the way of officiating. As long as it’s still an avocation for 99 percent of all officials, Caldwell would prefer people tell him what he might not want to hear than manufacture something they think he does want to hear. It’s called credibility.
Sealey is amazed at how many people will lie on their resumés when they apply for a job with him. They’ll say that they worked in a certain league or with certain partners when, charitably, their memory apparently fails them. “Especially with the Internet these days,” he says, “it’s so easy to go online and check people out.”
To continue the Dufresne analogy, Andy created an alter-ego as an imaginary financier to help launder money extorted by the evil warden. He eventually took on that identity to abscond to Mexico with millions. It helped that he really had been a bank president before going to prison; it made it so much easier to have other people take him seriously. Those would-be officials, who tell prospective bosses they’re something they’re not, will eventually be found out … probably the first time they step on the field. Typically, they pad their resumés to gain an edge, and that’s because they’re trying to …
7. Force the Close
“I’ve never had an umpire tell me he thought he was moving too quickly in his career,” assures Sealey. There might be some officials who prefer to take a little more time to pause and smell the flowers along the road of life, but most are willing to have it all thrown at them: Bring it on! In fact, some of them are so sure of their abilities that they tend to reject the process for being checked out by a potential new boss.
Caldwell says there are a lot of things he can do to appraise talent, including evaluating their athleticism, spending time with them, giving rules tests and the like. He can also find out a lot anecdotally about their relationships with their peers and things like aptitude, values and character … but until he sees them in a pressure-packed situation, he never knows for sure how they’re going to respond.
“And you really can’t manufacture that in a summer camp setting,” says Caldwell.
So, that is the rub. Officials have to accept that they won’t get to work for someone without having been personally observed by that person or someone he or she trusts. Sealey says, “I’ve had people who said, ‘I don’t try out for anybody,’” when asked for their schedule to check up on their application. All of them have been wished the best of luck in their future endeavors: they won’t work for him.
Relax. Networking among assigners is very common and that means the fear of “trying out” shouldn’t be that big of a deal: The assigner’s probably heard enough favorable things already about a candidate to warrant a look-see at all. The flip side of that is that sometimes officials just don’t work out in some leagues. Caldwell and Sealey say that’s not often the end of the road. When somebody inquires about the ability of an umpire who’s seeking greener pastures than his, Sealey has no hard feelings. He says he’ll give an honest assessment of the person’s strengths and weaknesses but never render a personal opinion in the process. Most assigners see an official’s success as a combination of ability and the right environment, so moving on from a bad situation isn’t necessarily the kiss of death.
8. Misidentify Where You should be in your Career
Urban sees officials who view progression as a sort of checklist to be ticked off, as tasks are completed. “You hear, I’ve now worked 122 games at this level, so I’m ready to be upgraded,’” he says. Perhaps because an experience factor is defined in the U.S. Soccer progression, some officials take it as the only thing they have to do — especially if they don’t like the tone of some of their assessments. In fact, a lot of sports have their share of officials who believe that “time served” should be the only true measurement of promotability. In that case, maybe the system is as often to blame for the official’s frustration. The human mind, in absence of the concrete, can conjure tremendous fantasy. Competitive officials need honest and actionable feedback and, if they don’t receive it, make things worse by guessing at their true weaknesses and fixing the wrong things.
Urban, Sealey and Caldwell all agree that the systems now exist to provide feedback from myriad sources — coaches, officials, assigners, observers — and present it coherently to the officials who need it. At the high school level, some states do a better job than others, however, due to the availability of resources: That’s a problem, and it may reflect itself in the retention rates of officials. At the college and professional levels, the case is usually one of ample feedback, sometimes brutally rendered. Those organizations have realized the value of, and invested in, developing officials thoroughly and keeping them for the long haul.
9. Don’t Self-Analyze
Ultimately it all comes down to the effort of the official to improve. You can reduce your chances of lung cancer by quitting smoking. Same with cirrhosis of the liver and quitting drinking. But you can’t avoid disappointment by quitting listening. No matter what you say on your resumé, what you think of the assigner and how bad the coaches are in your league, some officials still succeed, while others don’t. If you find that things aren’t going well for you as an official, ultimately it comes back to what you have decided to do about it, or not. If you aren’t prepared to be honest with yourself about what has to change and then commit to do it, all of those other issues are moot. And in some cases, it really is the end of the road; you’ve reached your level of incompetence: Get used to it.
When officials have conflict and trouble in their careers, the experts say that it often stems from asking the wrong question: “What’s in it for me?” Conversely, the great officials continue to persevere and to learn and they never think it’s about them. Sealey remembers finding that epiphany when he went to Omaha in 2009 and looked around at all the great umpires he worked with. To him, flourishing as an official is now simple: “Focus more on who you’re with and what you’re doing than where you’re at and who’s playing,” Sealey says.
Never be bigger than the game.
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