Pregame conferences during the pandemic were often short or non-existent. Many schools asked us to come dressed and masked and arrive at the game site approximately 15 minutes before game time. A year later, as we start to get back to a more normal officiating experience, it might be a good time to review the goals and expectations of what a pregame conference is supposed to accomplish.
Create an open, honest and safe environment for crew communication. Every member of the crew should be encouraged to contribute to the pregame discussion. The crew chief’s job is to draw something out of everyone to make each member feel valued and useful. Every official, regardless of experience, has something worthwhile to contribute. I would argue it is the single most important part of the pregame conference.
Get on the same page as a crew. No matter how much we try to standardize officiating, there are always going to be some minor differences in how some procedures are handled. Getting consensus on how we are going to handle those little variances can be discussed in the pregame. An effective crew chief will offer a little give-and-take to make everyone feel confident and included.
Take the court (or field) feeling like a team rather than disparate individuals. If the two steps above are done effectively, the crew will leave the locker room as a unit, all feeling like an important cog in the wheel. No officials will feel they are “working for” the referee. Everyone knows they have a job to do and all members need to pull their weight to make the entire crew as good as possible.
Psychological safety is a term often used in corporate America. It means you won’t be punished or embarrassed for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. It also means opposing viewpoints can be shared openly and constructive responses can be expected. Put simply, management needs to create an environment where employees are not scared to speak up to management with concerns and ideas. To transfer that intention to officiating, the pregame conference in the locker room needs to be an environment where all members of the crew can speak up without fear of being criticized, shamed or silenced.
In a basketball crew of three, the referee quite often starts the pregame discussion. That sets the tone for the entire night. If all three officials take the floor feeling they are part of a team that is going to work together to keep the game safe and fair, success usually follows. If one or more officials take the floor feeling they are subservient to the big dog(s) on the crew, success is less likely. One effective technique is for the senior official to talk about a scenario that had a less-than-optimum outcome and get input from others on how it could have been better handled. Having humble crew chiefs who admit they made mistakes in the past is a great way to establish trust and openness. Building a team also requires the crew chief to notice anxiety and bring out quieter and/or less-veteran members. Additionally, politely limiting the effusive official whose chattiness might preclude others from getting their voices included might be needed. If some of the officials on the crew are familiar with each other from past experiences and someone else is new to the crew, that needs special attention. We are most comfortable with those with whom we have experience, therefore it would be easy to make the third official feel less than one-third of the crew. Make sure they are included and encouraged to contribute.
Early in my career, I was assigned as the U2 with a couple of well-established officials who spent the entire pregame exchanging war stories while I sat and listened. When we took the floor, I felt like an outsider, not part of any cohesive team. The same can be said for the sage veteran who espouses “game keys” for 30 minutes without letting anyone else contribute to the discussion. It is great information to share, but it’s a one-way dialogue that doesn’t contribute to team unity.
I can also recall a crew chief emailing a PDF pregame document several pages long a couple days before a game. The expectation was that I should read it all before arriving at the game. That made me feel as if the crew chief was staking out his dominant position and his pregame points were the only ones that mattered.
Another ineffective technique is the old one-sentence pregame, “Don’t bleep it up!” That might draw a laugh, but it is neither fitting, appropriate nor unifying.
One final thing: Listening is an important aspect of leading. In addition to helping the less-experienced (or confident) officials feel like part of the team by hearing them out, the veterans can gauge how much experience unfamiliar officials have by hearing their input. If they only are talking “Officiating 101,” it would be fairly safe to assume they are just getting their feet wet and might need help working through some difficult situations. Reassure them you want to hear their viewpoints and ask them what they need from the rest of the crew to help them have a successful night. By contrast, if their input makes it obvious they have some fairly high-level training, you might sense that official is not going to need a lot of extra help from the rest of the crew.
As officiating starts getting back to a “new normal,” let’s make sure normal includes great communication, teamwork, inclusion and openness. It will make for a much better officiating team.
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