The psychology of being a coach lends itself to an “us-against-the-world” mindset. As a game or a match wears on, tension inevitably mounts. Soon enough the coach who during pregame shook your hand, asked about your family and how your season was going has become a red-faced, foot-stomping, vein-popping human powder keg.

“You’ve got to be kidding me with that spot … that’s a first down!”
“She missed the tag!”
“Where’s the foul?!”
“Blow the whistle!”

Officials can see it coming from a mile away, and the ability to lower the temperature of any situation is something of an art form. For some officials, it comes naturally. For others, it comes only with experience. But once mastered, having the knack to talk a coach off the ledge is a skill that can turn a good official into a great official.

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From an official’s point of view, sports are games of answers. Coaches often yell and scream because they want answers. “Why can’t we get that call at the other end?” “Are you going to let him do that all night?” “How many times is she going to push my player?” It’s possible that no answer to questions like these will be satisfactory, especially if they’re asked in a fit of rage. Answering any question from a coach, however, should always be a rules-based answer. The rulebook is the most effective defense an official can use in any heated discussion. And if the blood pressure of the conversation is rising, a properly referenced rules-based answer will give the coach no leg on which to stand.

It goes without saying the best way to counteract a combustible coach is to not let it get to that point in the first place. In instances when that’s not possible, recall the lesson parents have attempted to teach children for years: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” In other words, don’t stoop to the coach’s level. Easy to say. Hard to do. But a reaction equal to the coach only makes the situation worse.

It requires an incredible amount of patience not to talk over or attempt to out-yell a coach. A calm, non-reactive voice can defuse a heated exchange and make it clear that until the coach gets his or her emotions in check, the conversation will go nowhere. No official wishes to be perceived as a pushover in front of a packed gym or a full stadium, but if the coach is making enough of a spectacle, it will be clear to anyone watching who is acting irrationally.

Too often when a coach is disciplined for unsporting behavior (a technical foul, a yellow card, penalty flag, etc.), the cries of: “Quit making it about yourself, ref!” or, “Come on, Blue. you baited her into that call!” come from everywhere. Even if the punishment is completely warranted, officials are often accused of having too much ego. It’s a perception that officials may never shake, unfortunately. However, to make the optics of this call seem less ego-centric, a more nuanced approach can help.

Without saying a word, the “stop sign” is a simple gesture that can send a loud-and-clear message: enough is enough. To avoid the perception of baiting the coach, add distance to create a buffer. By giving a coach the stop sign when not standing next to them, it’s easier for everyone to see the conversation is over. If the coach persists and the proper unsporting penalty is assessed, the cries of baiting the coach will have less bite, as it will be clear to everyone that the official told the coach to knock it off.

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Some sports lend themselves to this tactic more than others. Bigger fields naturally create distance between officials and coaches. For those played in smaller venues, however, taking a few extra steps can enhance the message, making it clear that a line is about to be crossed.

Many officials have played the sport they officiate. That gives them a unique advantage. They have a good feel for the flow of a game, the strategy, and the intensity from the team perspective as well as that of an experienced official. Coaches who have little or no officiating experience may lack that multi-dimensional point of view. Officials should use that to their advantage to increase the effectiveness of their communication with coaches. That advantage, and being the final arbiter, should not be taken lightly, but it can be a way to effectively manage a game. Without question, mastery of this skill can start an official’s career on an upward trajectory.

Try these tactics the next time a coach starts raising their voice and see how it works. Having the reputation of someone who communicates with coaches effectively and can manage games with a calm demeanor is one of the highest compliments an official can receive.

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