Perturbed. Agitated. Ticked off. Peeved. Whatever label you give it, we all know it. Whether the cause is a know-nothing loudmouth in the stands, a coach who won’t stop chirping or a mouthy player, every official has dealt with anger at someone or something during a game or match.
How did you react the last time you were angry? Did you hold it in? Did you lash back at whomever was getting under your skin? How did those strategies work for you? If you held it in, you likely spent the ride home talking to yourself about how you wished you’d have responded more aggressively. If you gave back as good (or better) than you got, it might have felt good at the time, but in retrospect, you might be worried about backlash from your assigner for losing your cool.
Anger is a normal human emotion and no one is able to keep his or her temper 100 percent of the time. Experts say the two main triggers for anger are stress and frustration. Few games you officiate will have absolutely no stress. If you are so fortunate as to have a cruiser — an absolute lollipop of a game — look out, because the officiating gods are saving a lulu for you down the road.
Psychologist Dr. Peter Sacco believes the best way to recognize your anger is to know yourself. “You need to take an assessment of your emotions to know what sets you off and what your limits are,” Sacco theorizes. “Anger management problems usually stem from repeated experiences with similar people and situations. Plain and simple: Individuals with anger management problems become classically conditioned to respond the same way over time, without having to really think.”
If that sounds familiar, you likely remember Anton Pavlov, who trained dogs to salivate whenever he rang a bell. Instead of bells, your trigger is criticism and instead of salivating, you become angry.
Take the example of the umpire who has worked several games over the past few weeks. At the same time, things at work are tenuous, there have been family issues and vacation is weeks away. If that weren’t enough, there have been some missed calls on the field and criticism is coming from every quarter.
But the umpire puts all of that aside and enters the next game with a can-do attitude. All is well until one missed call in the top of the fifth inning is followed by another in the bottom half and a third in the top of the sixth. All of that confidence is shattered, everyone is barking, and the umpire thinks, “Here we go again.”
According to Sacco, not only is the umpire perceiving that others are calling him a bad umpire, but he is interpreting things even deeper and believes others are calling him “bad” overall.
It’s not uncommon for players, coaches and fans to see the official or umpire as the “bad guy” who penalizes their team. “In their eyes, the referee is the one who costs them the game,” Sacco says. “Sometimes they treat the referee as an outcast. Depending on how thick your skin is, you may take that to heart and believe the players and fans also hate you as a person, instead of simply disliking your station and uniform.
“So when batters start questioning your strike zone, do you perceive them to be saying, ‘You are a bad umpire’? Or do you see them questioning your integrity as a person? Officiating, perhaps more than any other career, has that fine line.”
Avoid the argument. This column has already implored you not to get angry when things go haywire during a contest. Now here’s another concept out of left field: You can train yourself to not argue.
It’s not an easy thing to not argue. In fact, Sacco says, “It takes more mental toughness, emotional control and good old-fashioned restraint than it does to go on the offensive and fire when fired upon. But if you can train yourself to remain above the fray when a player or coach desperately wants to go nose-to-nose with you, you’ll be a better, more confident and more respected official.”
One word of warning from Sacco: Nothing recommended from this point forward is intended as a substitute for dealing with a problem head-on. “When a participant clearly steps over the line when trying to goad you into an argument, that’s another animal and you should deal with that appropriately,” he notes.
Here are some suggestions for taking control of a conflict before it turns into an argument:
1. Let the other person talk — and don’t interrupt.
In other words, have the courtesy to listen before you say anything. You may have made up your mind and there’s no way you’re changing anything, but by fully listening to what the coach or player has to say, you can at least empathize with the other person’s viewpoint.
2. Using your own words, repeat the problem back to the coach or player.
That lets the aggressor know you heard him or her and that you understood the message. It also gives that person a moment to calm down.
3. Don’t debate judgments.
You should always remain objective and not try to justify judgment calls once you have made up your mind.
4. Limit discussion only to the most recent call.
When the coach or player brings up a play from earlier in the game, it’s time to shut down the conversation. Make it clear that you’re only willing to consider the current conflict; the past is history.
5. Remain assertive and decisive.
Avoid being wishy-washy with agreements. You’re free to change your mind about a call, but it should never appear that you were talked into that change. And if you do change your mind, do it in a strong, decisive manner. The worst thing you can do is look like you’re going back and forth with your decisions.
6. If you can help it, don’t engage in any discussion when you’re very angry. There’s that word again!
You’ve probably seen a game or heard stories in which a player gets ejected, followed shortly by the head coach, then an assistant, and maybe a couple of other bench personnel follow. It’s easy to see how a person’s tolerance level would get shorter and shorter with each successive verbal assault. Situations like that call for an alert partner to step in, giving you a moment to cool your jets and let the adrenaline drain.
7. When discussing problems, focus on solutions.
For officials, that doesn’t mean changing a call, but it might mean acquiescing to a coach’s request to consult a crewmate. Or you might say something like, “It was a good no-call, coach, but I understand your frustration and I’ll keep an eye out for the sort of contact you’re talking about.”
In summary, remember that anger can be used as a motivator by invigorating you to get something done. Perhaps that something is a change in how you deal with anger. Anger tells you something is wrong and you need to deal with it. The best way to make anger work for you is to modify what needs to be changed, but don’t become an extremist and think you need to change your entire being. Put things in perspective, leave your personal life off the playing field and leave your officiating gear at the game.
The key to self-control is change, and vice versa. As Sacco says, “Always remember: No one can make you mad unless you want to be mad.”
Portions of this column were taken from the feature story, “How to NOT Argue,” which appeared in the 5/05 issue, and “Mad as Hell,” from the 9/00 issue. *
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