Every serious official has been there: in a classroom, looking at a PowerPoint as a clinician goes over a rule or positioning principle. They’ve made the trek from the classroom to between the lines, where they’ve had that same official scrutinize every gesture, every call, and every interaction with every coach. They’ve grabbed granola bars and Gatorade and sat with those clinicians, seeking whatever further input might help them improve. They’ve heard knee-knocking war stories. They’ve been encouraged, they’ve been ripped apart, and they’ve been put back together again.
In short: They’ve been to camp.
But only a few make that switch from camper to become and effective clinician. Those who do require a unique set of skills: They must combine their officiating acumen with the patience and communication skills of the best teachers.
What does it take to make a first-class camp clinician?
Those who run camps who select only their top 10 officials to do all the teaching are probably making a mistake. Mastery of a skill is not all it takes to teach a skill. If that were the case, the best math students would make the best math teachers and the best writers would make the best English teachers. A number of us with memories of less-than-stellar college professors have evidence that is not true. In fact, sports demonstrate clearly there’s not much correlation between success as a player and a coach. Hall of Famers such as Bart Starr, Magic Johnson, Ted Williams and Tony Perez never saw success coaching their sports.
June Courteau, retired Division I women’s basketball official who was a mainstay in NCAA tournaments, recalls her own high school coaching experience and suggests that talent might even be a handicap to teaching.
“Playing basketball always came easy to me. I played volleyball and it was really tough for me to play. It wasn’t intuitive — it was something I really had to think about. I had to coach basketball when I was teaching high school. It was tough for me. But I was a very good volleyball coach because I could relate to them not getting it and not understanding it.”
The same is true of officiating. Natural-born officials who are unconscious of why they succeed will not be able to understand struggling officials, and may react with impatience rather than empathy.
“There are times and moments when those top officials, if they’re not good instructors, just don’t spend the time to dig deep enough,” Courteau said. However, all is not lost. Great officials can become top clinicians. Not all great officials have the awareness, or the ability, to parlay that into teaching.
The key is to determine the camper’s level of understanding and then to communicate at that level.
Teaching is not just speaking.
As the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association’s director of instruction, Todd Abraham has seen some great clinicians. He notes that successful ones don’t just read PowerPoint slides, sharing knowledge for a hungry crowd. They guide campers to that key point so they attain the knowledge themselves.
The best clinicians, he said, “are able to get the campers to that ‘aha’ moment where they realize something that they hadn’t necessarily thought about before. And the way they do that is they interact with the people in the room so that they come to that realization jointly with the instructors.”
Tony Thompson, who has run baseball umpiring camps for decades, agrees. The number-one trait of a great clinician, he says, “is that they can effectively relate to the student in simple, uncomplicated layman’s terms. Umpiring starts out with the basics for everyone. No matter how many years you’ve been umpiring, you had to start somewhere with the basics.”
To do that, a clinician’s perspective on what it means to teach needs to be turned on its ear. Listening is more important than talking: Ironing out individual campers’ misperceptions and hang-ups can’t happen if the clinician is too busy spouting war stories and arcane rules knowledge. That caseplay that comes up twice in a career is good to know, but if the camper’s brain is still contending with basic positioning, teaching that caseplay won’t help them.
“Good clinicians ask directing questions,” Courteau said. “It isn’t just a matter of telling people, ‘Do this, do that.’ Sometimes we have to challenge them to let us know what’s in their mind. Ask, ‘What caused you to blow a whistle on this play? What was your thought process?’
“If we can’t listen, if we cut them off, then we’re going to start solving a problem when we don’t even know what the problem is.”
So it’s not merely about the pearls of wisdom a clinician has gained through decades of game experience. It’s about getting into the mind of the official, and remembering what it was like to be in a state of confusion — and knowing the tools to fight through it. No PowerPoint slide or rule reference can do that.
Ideally, as Abraham points out, “you have a fairly uniform audience base,” such that rules and mechanics lessons can maximize learning for every camper. Calculus students aren’t taught alongside remedial algebra for that reason, and ideally the same situation will exist at an officiating camp. However, that ideal isn’t always real.
Within the classroom and between the lines, there will be differences in ability among campers that make a one-size-fits-all approach fruitless. The clinician who can’t adapt is one who can’t teach.
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