There are a lot of things I know now that I wish I had known when I started officiating. One area that I needed attitude adjustments involves my relations with players and coaches. Back then (early ’70s), I was often too confrontational and took too much of a hard-nosed approach in dealing with them. I had swallowed the Kool-Aid that one got at professional baseball umpiring schools, one of which I attended in 1973. Players and coaches were called “rats” and were seen as the enemy, and I carried that over to football officiating. It was my way or the highway, as I wasn’t above letting people know, maybe from the middle of the football field and at top decibel level. Add to that a stern look (some would say mad) and it’s a wonder I wasn’t involved in a war on a regular basis.
As I matured and, somehow, moved up the ladder, I mellowed. That was the case especially when I began working in the college ranks in the mid-’80s with officials who had been around the block, from whom I soon realized I could learn a lot. Listening to those guys at clinics and in our meetings and watching them work without attracting more than an occasional yelp about a call, I saw that I needed to re-do my approach to things. To list all the things I focused on to improve my dealings with people would fill this magazine, but I want to address three things: establishing and maintaining a good relationship, solving problems instead of fixing blame and having a sense of humor.
For the benefit of aspiring officials who want to know what college supervisors look for, those aspects have been points of emphasis everywhere I’ve worked.
Dealing With Others
Some degree of friction will inevitably be a part of what we do, because there is no way to satisfy everyone 100 percent of the time. The key is to keep the pot from boiling over. By establishing and maintaining a good relationship with others with whom we come in contact — coordinators, assigners, school personnel, coaches, players, etc. — we have a better chance of accomplishing that goal.
Don’t fight your coordinator or assigner, gripe about assignments or give back games unless there is no other choice. Let it be known that you’re the proverbial team player who’s available if needed. Don’t talk negatively about other officials. Have a positive outlook and be friendly with the folks in your group. Be the one that others point to as someone whose demeanor should be emulated.
When you go to stadiums or schools to work, don’t complain to onsite personnel about the facilities, lack of drinks or snacks, etc. If it’s really bad, email or call your assigner or local board the day after the game is over and ask them to deal with it. As best you can, leave the dressing area as you found it, not looking like a pig sty.
In terms of dealing with coaches and players, the most important thing I finally learned is that they’re not the enemy. To be cliché, we’re all human. On occasion we may have to take care of business, but that should be the last resort, not the first option as I too often made it. We’ll be better off in the long run if we try to start off on a basis with them that is, if not friendly, at least cordial. What we ultimately want is respect, and we can’t get that if we act like Attila the Hun. They may learn to fear us, but fear and respect are not the same thing.
If you’re the crew chief, greet the head coaches with a smile and firm handshake when you see them before the game. Feel them out to see if they want to engage in jokes or small talk (some do, others don’t) and steer clear of that if you sense they are in an all-business mood. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to take a one-size-fits-all approach. I know first-hand that the wrong thing said to the wrong person at the wrong time — an off-color joke or attempt at humor, etc. — can mar a game. Let the coaches know you’ll communicate with them. Don’t insult them by reciting the rulebook. Have a checklist to follow, touch on what needs to be touched on and get out.
If applicable through the mechanics of your sport, non-crew chiefs should find the head coach and greet him or her before the game starts. Smile, firm handshake, be clear that you’ll communicate and that you’ll ask for help in dealing with situations that arise if need be. They appreciate that.
Be respectful to the players. That can be tough at times, especially the younger ones, because they’re often not respectful to us. But the chances of gaining respect are greater if we treat them with dignity than if we come across as arrogant or condescending. No one likes to be talked down to, especially young folks who have a difficult enough time with authority figures. If they get out of line, penalize as appropriate in your sport, but otherwise try to maintain a positive attitude in dealing with them. Once I started doing that I found out I liked the results.
Solving Problems Rather Than Fixing Blame
It’s easy to just bark at a coach who’s giving us grief and, perhaps, lay down some ultimatum like, “If you don’t knock it off, I’m going to eject you.” Or just penalize the coach without saying anything. A lot of newer officials do that because they don’t yet know any better.
The better approach, however, is to try to work with the coach. “Coach, I’ve heard enough. We really need to turn the page.” Or, “Coach, your assistant has been wearing us out. I need your help in calming him (or her) down.” Or, “Coach, (insert player’s number) is getting out of control, getting into it with the other team on almost every play. I need your help.”
Several years ago I worked a college game in which a team was about to punt at the end of the first half but then brought out the field goal unit. The three deep officials realized they had to adjust their positions. The problem was that while they were scrambling around, no one counted the defense. Turns out the opponent had 12 players on the field. We didn’t catch it, the field goal was missed and the half soon ended. That kicking team ended up losing by less than a touchdown.
Two weeks later I had that team on the road. When the umpire and I went to see the head coach before the game, he was in a small dressing area, and the first thing he did was slam his clipboard to the ground and say, “Jon, you guys screwed me a couple of weeks ago.” Rather than getting defensive, I replied, “Coach, you’re exactly right. Now, I could give you a lot of baloney about what went wrong and what we’ve done to fix it, but you don’t care about that. You’ve been waiting two weeks to chew my backside, so have at it. There’s no one here but you, me and my umpire. Get after it.” He was so astounded that he calmed down. Instead of getting all bowed up, which could have led to an escalating back-and-forth, I managed to defuse the situation by offering to let him vent.
Sense of Humor
That’s important in dealing with players and coaches, especially the latter. Nothing is more off-putting than officials who are so full of themselves or militaristic that they can’t crack a smile and are always issuing commands. Obviously, we have to pick our spots, because problems can ensue if we come across as not taking things seriously, and it helps to know the audience.
But sometimes a little levity works wonders. Many is the time that I’ve told a coach who was ranting and raving about a call that if it was really as bad as he says, we totally screwed the pooch (or some such thing). He might not calm down instantly, but he’s far more likely to do so more quickly than if we act like we’re taking ourselves too seriously. Sometimes they will even chuckle, and a few times I can remember them whacking me on the backside (in a friendly manner) as I returned to my position. This isn’t life and death, and sometimes it helps to act as if we realize that.
In sum, there’s an old saying that attitude is everything, and I think it applies in spades in officiating. There are always going to be people who don’t like us, and we’re always going to irritate the devil out of folks with our calls. But we’ll have far fewer problems if we treat people courteously and with respect, try to establish a good relationship with them instead of seeing them as enemies, and occasionally be willing to laugh at the situation and even ourselves. Good rapport with others can be the name of the game, and once I got that into my thick skull I became a much better official than I was when I just issued commands.
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