Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

Guidelines for personal and professional etiquette stress the importance of good eye contact.

It’s no different in officiating. When communicating with partners, players, coaches or administrators, good eye contact is an effective officiating tool, one that can prevent a small issue from becoming a big problem.

Providing a helping hand.

When you’re working with partners, it’s necessary that each of you know where the others will be. It’s important to utilize the proper mechanics, of course. But making eye contact with a crewmate, perhaps along with a hand gesture, can serve as a reminder that “I have the runner,” or “You have the throw-in.”

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Bob Gallagher of Harrisburg, Pa., has been working high school and college baseball for more than three decades. He says good eye contact with a partner is useful in a number of circumstances, but never more than when avoiding the dreaded double call.

“It’s critical on those bang-bang plays where two umpires are in the vicinity,” Gallagher says. “It’s essential to make eye contact with your partner so you’re both on the same page on a call, regardless of who is going to make the call.”

That kind of non-verbal communication is especially necessary when you’re working in special circumstances, such as a playoff game when your crew might expand in numbers and is utilizing different mechanics.

Don’t let there be a failure to communicate.

If you’re reporting an infraction to table personnel, do your best to catch the eye of the official scorer.

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If you and the scorer have made eye contact, there’s less likelihood the wrong player will accidentally be charged with a foul or penalty. Some scorers may even help you out by mirroring your signal of the number of the player who committed the infraction.

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Making eye contact might be particularly necessary at lower levels, where scorers and timers may have little or no experience. But it’s no less important elsewhere.

Erica Bradley has been officiating basketball since 1996. A resident of Knoxville, Tenn., she’s worked at the college level since 2002 and today works in an assortment of NCAA Division I conferences, including the Southeastern, Big Ten and Atlantic 10.

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“I don’t leave the table until I’ve made eye contact with the scorekeeper,” she says. “We always tell them, ‘Make sure you make eye contact so we’re sure we have the right number.”

Bradley says taking an extra moment to make contact with the scorer can prevent big problems. “There are situations where there could be two kids who could have fouled,” she says. “We could have it on somebody and they might put it on somebody else in the book.

“So we don’t leave until we’ve had eye contact and make sure they’ve seen the number we’re reporting. I’ll stand there until they look at me.”

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If you’re holding a conference with your partner or partners, make eye contact with each one of them individually.

If there are just two of you, fewer issues may arise. But if the crew numbers three or more, it’s important to visually interact with your rookie back judge the same way you do with the umpire you’ve worked with every week for the past eight years.

Nothing builds a young official’s confidence more than being treated as an equal by veterans.

St. Louis resident Reggie Smith has been working high school and small-college football for nearly four decades. “If (a new official) has a better look, we’re going to listen to him,” Smith says. “He might have a better angle … I trust the guys. If they say that’s the way it is, I believe them.”

Communicate, don’t dictate.

If a coach or player wants to ask you about a play or a rule interpretation, be sure to look him or her in the eye. Avoiding eye contact creates the impression that you’re unsure of yourself or your decision.

Don’t glare at the coach as if he or she is an undesirable intruder or look past him or her as if he or she doesn’t exist. Adopt the same expression and demeanor you would if the two of you were conversing in a business meeting.

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If it’s necessary to call a technical foul, issue a card or eject someone, your facial expression shouldn’t change. Don’t give a look that implies you’re enjoying yourself.

“You’re dealing with a school situation,” Smith says. “The coach is usually a teacher, a member of the faculty. Hopefully he or she will remember that because their youngsters are watching them.”

Officials don’t work in a vacuum. They continually interact with those around them.

Eye contact may seem like a minor point. But done properly it conveys a message of competence and professionalism that will enhance your game management skills.

Additional resources on the importance of eye contact:

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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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