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Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

When people say, “There’s no need to get emotional,” that’s probably more true for officials than for the average person. Put a regular guy or gal referee in front of hundreds, maybe thousands, of screaming fans, a couple of intense coaches and a bunch of psyched-up, keyed-up and fired-up athletes, and emotional control is easier said than done.

Don’t ignore your emotions — control them

You, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury to feel what the average person feels — you’re an official and there’s a job to do. But emotions shouldn’t be ignored, either. Controlling your emotions means controlling your game and controlling your game is your job. To be effective, an official needs to be a rock, but not a robot. A listener, but not a passive abuse-taker. A professional, but not an egomaniac.

Confidence is one of the “good” emotions that you probably don’t need to control too much (unless you become overconfident, which could lead you to become arrogant, which leads to egomania!).

Being able to handle pressure starts with confidence in your ability. You have to develop a level of confidence that you know the game and you know what you’re doing out there. You develop a feel for the game and what’s going on around you. It allows you to defuse problems before they happen. Knowledge is power and when you’ve mastered your game, a sense of control will follow.

Stay cool when the pressure gets hot. All the knowledge in the world will only take you so far when there’s a lot on the line. Let’s face it, the outcomes of some games have outrageous implications. Some officials are put in charge of events involving tens of millions of dollars, with maybe hundreds of millions of people watching — and careers often hang in the balance. There’s pressure there and you can’t deny it.

Don’t think that only happens at the pro, international or major college levels, though. The folks sitting in the stands at a local high school football or basketball game, or a Little League baseball or youth league soccer game, can be just as — and sometimes more — personally invested in the outcome of a game. The ire of a handful of parents can be more disquieting than the anonymous roar of 20,000 spectators.

Develop personal stress management skills

It is essential to develop stress-management skills so you can keep focused during the actual contest, when the pressure gets turned up. A big mistake officials make is trying to pretend they have no emotions and nothing can get to them. Though it doesn’t pay to display your emotions for everyone to see, denying your feelings exist can lead to trouble.

Self-talk can help. Instead of trying to be an unfeeling robot, you’re better off being able to identify when you’re feeling stressed and then having a strategy to deal with it.

It can be as simple as developing a quick conversation with yourself:

  1. Acknowledge the pressure, direct your mind to focus on the game and assure yourself that you’re in control in a relaxed, calm way.
  2. Fairly assess your performance and commit to minimizing mistakes, but also be prepared to move on and develop a tolerance for being less than perfect.
  3. Be wary of when your internal conversation becomes hostile. If you find your self-talk starts to run along the lines of, “Damn, I blew that one!” “I don’t belong out here!” “I stink!” or other similarly denigrating comments, stop it immediately, and approach your thinking in a calmer way by turning an intense focus back to the game.

When it gets really ugly. Let’s face it, as an official, you’re not going to be the most popular person in the building or on the field. You’re often going to be the scapegoat for the frustration of players, coaches and fans. You probably already know not to expect hugs and kisses, but what about when the people involved really start to push your buttons?

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Maintaining composure can be a real challenge when the words get unkind and the talk gets personal. It’s not enough to have tough skin; you have to anticipate what might come and deal with it. The most important skill to have is the ability to avoid taking anything too personally, which you can do with some mental strategy.

Officiating is not designed to get people to like you

It is essential that you keep in mind up front that officiating is not an activity designed to get people to like you. You may love the game; you may love staying close to it, but don’t come into it thinking you’re going to make friends. If you have a strong need for approval from others, spending your nights and weekends officiating sporting events is going to be a nice introduction to hell. Take an inventory of what draws you to the sports you officiate and be honest with yourself. If getting lots of slaps on the back and camaraderie from the others involved in the game is what drives you, maybe your time would be better spent driving the team bus or manning the Gatorade bucket.

Women often face challenges men do not, especially if they’re officiating games involving male athletes. On top of the usual, “You’re blind!” comments, women will hear catcalls suggesting they aren’t good enough or should “go back to the kitchen.”

In those cases, focus your energy into the game, not on the negative comments or even desperately trying to prove anything to anyone. Whether it is a personal attack, unfair criticism or just plain harassment, the key to keeping cool and performing well is maintaining your focus where it should be — on the game.

When you know you blew one. Every official kicks one once in awhile and everyone knows it. The adage that no one’s perfect really isn’t much of a comfort in our business despite its truth, but there are steps you can take to keep your focus after the occasional and inevitable mistake occurs.

Sometimes — not always — admitting a mistake to a coach earns their respect. But doing that too often destroys your credibility. Insisting on perfection in your own performance will backfire, not just in the relationships you develop with the players and coaches, but it will also interfere with your performance. It sets you up for unrealistic expectations and you’ll wind up trying to convince yourself that you’re always right or feeling that you’re incompetent and don’t belong in the profession.

It’s often said that the legendary Bill Klem, the late Hall of Fame baseball umpire, could often be heard proclaiming that during his entire 35-year NL career he felt he “never missed a call.” Officials who hear that story usually roll their eyes.

Instead of demanding perfection of yourself, your focus should be on doing the best you can and searching for ways to improve.

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All things in balance. Keeping your emotions under control is a matter of keeping everything at the game, and in the rest of your life, in perspective. Balance is the key. Too much of anything — mistakes, ego, abuse from the spectators, etc. — can throw your emotions all out of whack. Not everyone is born with the skill to perform with grace under pressure, but it is something you can learn. The key is to know your game, know yourself and understand human nature.

If your motivation is to be the best official possible — and that’s a pretty good motivator for any official — putting it all together is simply a matter of practice and self-awareness.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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