When a sports official goes to camp, it’s about whistles and rule books rather than swimming and s’mores. Referees and umpires choose to invest the time and money in camp attendance because they want to be better officials but also, in many cases, because they realize networking in officiating is vital. They want meet people who can help them progress.
While it is imperative to perform well during both classroom sessions and on the field or court during the day, it’s also important to perform equally well during the “after hours” networking and socializing sessions that are part of virtually every contemporary camp.
“When I started camps back in 2010, my main goal and my main focus was all about the training,” explained Billy Haze, college baseball umpire and president of Collegiate Umpiring Experience. “I quickly realized there certainly needs to be a focus on training, but people are also here to showcase their talents for a coordinator or evaluator. Now, our camps are almost equal part training, networking and prospecting.”
Make Personal Connections
The word “networking” is often perceived as synonymous with “politicking,” a word loaded with negative connotations. The current political season, which is managing to be both thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly horrifying at the same time, lays bare the aspects of politics that most people find abhorrent.
People speak derisively of “office politics” as a process by which the most obsequious get recognized and promoted at the expense of the most competent. Laying the blame for one’s failure to achieve an objective on office politics has the advantage of making one’s lack of success appear to be the result of an excess of character rather than a shortage of skill. It also serves to subtly demean the accomplishments of those who do reach a particular goal by implying their success is the result of something other than talent.
An official who is unwilling or unable to distinguish between politicking and networking puts at risk his or her ability to advance. When done properly, networking is simply a way to make useful personal connections with others. Those connections can lead to opportunities which might otherwise be unavailable or invisible to an official. A prestigious opening on an officiating staff won’t be advertised in the newspaper or on the Internet; it will in many cases be filled before it is even officially vacant by a coordinator who has in place a mental succession plan for each member of his or her staff.
Recognizing the value of networking and shaking off the negative connotations is an important first step toward making networking a useful and, eventually, enjoyable part of the officiating avocation. It is a skill like any other, and one becomes proficient the same way one becomes a capable official — study and practice. We meet and talk to people every day, and every person with whom we have contact provides a chance to expand our knowledge.
Attending an officiating seminar is, obviously, a marvelous opportunity to improve one’s mastery of the nuts and bolts of officiating, to include rule knowledge and application, positioning, performance under stress, and inter-personal relations. However, becoming a better official is not, by itself, sufficient to guarantee advancement — people who make staffing recommendations and decisions need to know about an official’s abilities, commitment and personal goals, and no one tells our own story as well as we do. Networking is about making a connection and telling that story in a time, place and manner where it can do the most good.
People aren’t routers, but networking among human beings is quite similar to the way computer networks pass data. The most important element of successful human networking is that it must be two-way; the official, like the Cisco box, must be willing to transmit and receive. Successful networking delivers benefits to both parties involved in the process. One’s willingness to help others creates a positive and mutually beneficial cycle, and in analyzing one’s own network it is important to evaluate the quality of each relationship rather than merely the quantity of connections.
Know Your Goals
Since most camps and seminars now build in time specifically for socializing and networking, it is essential for an official to have specific objectives in mind prior to entering the scrum. Unless we are clear in our own mind about what we want and able to express our goals concisely, the people in our network won’t be able to help us.
If one is serious about networking, one must be organized. Years ago, our networks consisted of a handful of friends and colleagues whom we saw regularly and were, as a result, simple to manage. Today, of course, one’s network can be global — an official residing in North Carolina can, thanks to LinkedIn and YouTube, be as well known to a coordinator two time zones away as he or she can to a local association president. Thus, one’s officiating network can now be multiple orders of magnitude larger than it could previously, and it takes time and organization to manage the relationships so that they are an effective network rather than just a pile of unanswered LinkedIn invitations.
A network map is a useful way to organize one’s contacts. Why is each person in our network? Do we work the same sport or live in the same area? Has that person taken a game for me in the past or have I helped him or her out of a tight spot? Does his or her desire for advancement and level of commitment to officiating coincide with mine? Does that person make decisions or know people who do make decisions about making the move from high school to junior college? Answering those questions about each person in one’s network can help identify which relationships should be given the most care and feeding. Performing that kind of analysis prior to attending a camp or seminar will help one prepare to take maximum advantage of the networking opportunities when they arise.
First Impressions Matter
The coordinators, evaluators and recruiters in attendance at a camp or seminar are going to be in high demand during the social/networking events, so it is crucial to be able to introduce yourself and make a positive impression in a short period of time. That impression starts with one’s appearance, which should go without saying but doesn’t.
“You’d be surprised at how many people show up with caps that look like they need an oil change,” said Art Hill, a softball assigner for multiple college conferences and camp clinician. “You need to dress like you know what you’re doing — clean shirt, clean pants, shined shoes. That’s the number one thing for a person coming to a camp.”
It’s impossible to speak with anyone associated with collegiate officiating without hearing some variation on this theme: Looks matter. A lot.
“If you want to be taken seriously, you have to be in shape,” Haze said. “Once basketball is done, college baseball takes over all the networks until the College World Series in Omaha. With all of the games that are on television now, you have to look the part.”
“It doesn’t matter if you are tall or short,” said Gerald Austin, former Division I football official and current Conference USA supervisor. “You don’t see too many young officials who are overweight getting hired.” Attention to one’s appearance needs to extend beyond the field or court and into an officiating camp’s social environment as well, according to Haze.
“The socials are a great opportunity to see guys off the field and see how they handle themselves,” he said. “You’re in a social setting where there is alcohol involved, so you (as an evaluator and coordinator) get to see how people manage their behavior. I tell people who attend our camps that if you want to see the best examples of how to conduct yourself, just watch the camp staffers when they are off the field. Watch everything; how they deal with staff, how they drink, how they talk with other umpires and coordinators, and how they dress.”
Thanks to network mapping and some pre-seminar reading about the prominent people in attendance, a properly prepared official should know before that first handshake exactly what they want to get from the encounter. The 30-second “elevator pitch” is just as relevant and important with a cocktail in one hand during a social encounter as it is during an actual elevator ride during the work day.
“The thing that makes the best impression on me is when a person introduces himself at an officiating camp the same way they’d introduce themselves at work,” Austin said. “Shake hands, look me in the eye, and say, ‘I’ve been officiating for seven years and I’d love to work in your conference.’”
Deliver the Perfect Pitch
A useful pitch will usually contain some or all of the following elements, tailored to the specific person and circumstances:
- Who you are.
- What you do in “civilian life.”
- What your current officiating goal is and how the person you are speaking to can help you accomplish it.
- What you have to offer that may meet the needs of the person you are talking to (or someone they may know).
Remember that initial conversation is known as an elevator pitch because it needs to be concise. “Sometimes people want to provide their entire biographies as they introduce themselves and that’s not really what we want,” Austin said.
The third element can give pause; while some people are quite comfortable discussing their own greatness, and asking directly for an opportunity, self-glossing comes less naturally to others. During conversations with coordinators and evaluators at camps, it is important to overcome any natural reticence about one’s officiating ambitions. It is not off-putting or excessive to let people you are speaking with know precisely what you want.
“People who are in officiating are happy to see people who want to get better and achieve more,” said Orrin Anderson, clinic director for South Dakota’s Sioux Empire Football Officials. “The people who advance aren’t just satisfied with one camp. They search out other camps and they always have questions. When we see them, they keep us informed about what they’ve learned at other camps, including what they should do to get to the next level.”
The ideal conversation under those circumstances is one in which the person to whom you are introducing yourself has something to say to you in return beyond mere pleasantries. The best way to facilitate an actual conversation rather than a monologue is to build a question in to the pitch. The value of the question is two-fold; it should prompt an answer which will be useful in and of itself, and it is also a way to invite an extended conversation. An example of a useful question: Ask the person you are speaking to what two key things they focus on when evaluating an official. It expresses your interest in knowing how things operate at a higher level, and you open the door for them to talk about the very thing they were invited to the camp to do — evaluate officials and provide guidance.
The brevity of the elevator pitch is also a tacit acknowledgement that the time of the person to whom you are speaking is valuable and you don’t want to monopolize it. As you prepare to disengage, have an officiating specific business card ready to hand over with the departure handshake. The human brain is capable of many great and wondrous things, but remembering names is not always one of them. Make it easy for people to find you, whether it be the next day or the next year.
The most challenging part of the pitch is the final point — it’s relatively simple to talk about who we are and what we want from officiating. It can be much more difficult to speak to a coordinator with major college assignment responsibilities and convince ourselves we have something of value to offer them. In fact, a camp attendee does by definition have traits of tremendous value — ambition and potential.
“I’m constantly looking to refill the Division II and Division III officiating ranks,” Hill said. “It’s not like we don’t need college officials. We can always use more. There’s attrition, and as I say to people, if you can ‘build the better mousetrap’ as an official, people will beat a path to your door.”
Opportunities Are Out There
Sports in the 21st century is always about more; it’s never about less. Summer basketball, “fall ball” for baseball and softball, autumn and spring lacrosse, men’s and women’s volleyball are just a few examples of the constant and growing number of high-level prep and collegiate sporting events which need to be officiated. Haze notes Pac-12 baseball is transitioning from three onfield umpires to four. That clicking sound is not the rotation of a ball and strike counter; it’s the quiet but unmistakable sound of opportunity knocking. While it’s easy to be intimidated when speaking to a conference coordinator who may have officiated at the Division I or pro levels for multiple decades, it is essential to remember the coordinator is just as interested in finding officiating prospects as the prospects are interested in being found. Look the part, know the rulebook, employ proper mechanics during the onfield and oncourt training sessions, and the evaluators and coordinators will find you after hours.
“It’s enthusiasm that catches our eye during the day,” Anderson said. “You can spot the officials who like what they’ve done to this point and want to get better. As you watch people move through a camp, you can usually see the people who are going to do well at whatever level they pursue.”
In the physical world, one of the defining characteristics of any network, whether it be telecommunications, food distribution, or some other supply chain process, is that it provides more than one way to reach an objective. Hill noted that sometimes an official will distinguish himself or herself as a “diamond in the rough” and his first question to that official at a camp will be “Why aren’t you working for me already?” In most other cases, however, it takes time for an official to, as Hill said, “put all the pieces together and demonstrate readiness for the next level of ball.” Officials wishing to advance frequently attend the same camp multiple times, and Hill and Haze both note evaluators like to see people returning because it shows their commitment to officiating and it also provides an opportunity to determine if the official has incorporated feedback and advice from the previous session into their officiating. Repeat camp attendees also have the opportunity to strengthen their network by being a familiar face.
“The networking piece is vital,” Haze said. “I tell the guys it is extremely important, and systems are now in place to allow the evaluators and coordinators to ‘follow’ a good prospect even after camp adjourns. The camp system has a tremendous record of getting motivated officials great opportunities at the junior college, NAIA, and Division I levels.”
Sometimes words can obscure rather than clarify. Networking is simply another word for speaking with other people, an activity most of us pursue every day of our lives. Networking, however, is more than just conversation; it is conversation with a purpose. According to networking authority, best-selling author of the book Networking Is a Contact Sport, and serial entrepreneur Joseph Sweeney, “Networking is a place we go to give and serve others. The real secret of great networking is to figure out how you can serve others and help them get what they want.
“The quality of our lives is based on the quality of our relationships, and the quality of those relationships depends on how deeply and effectively we network with others.”
Sweeney has a four-step networking model which includes asking, listening, acting and believing in the networking process. One common misperception about networking is that the effective networker talks a lot. Actually, says Sweeney, the best listeners are the best networkers because as we listen we learn what the person we’re talking to needs and with that information we can position ourselves to meet their needs. (Hint: All coordinators in all sports need officials who look the part. Is the message about being in shape getting through?)
Sweeney’s third step is “acting” and he says that step is the downfall for many because of “fear — we fear rejection and we have a fear of failure.” When one seeks the challenge of higher-level officiating one accepts the possibility of failure. More than one locker room features the famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt in which he credits the man in the arena whom, if he fails, “at least fails where daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” The risk of failure applies to officiating as well as to athletes.
Belief in the networking process is easy once it has produced results, but if one networks half-heartedly it’s unlikely to produce the results to validate it. Network relationships don’t always produce the desired outcome immediately, but it is important to maintain and nurture the relationships nonetheless.
“Sometimes in the early fall you’ll get an email or a text message from someone who came to camp and a couple of years later got that call for a tournament championship game or their first college game and it was because of someone they talked to at the camp,” Haze said.
People who recruit and ultimately assign officials to the larger stages of their various sports share one critical characteristic, whether their sport is played indoors or outdoors, by men or by women, by natural light in mid-summer or by halogen bulbs in mid-winter: They trust the officials they have assigned to an event. They trust the officials will represent themselves, their association and their assigner in a calm, competent and professional manner. That trust was built in part by how those officials presented themselves with that initial handshake, which may well have taken place during a social event at an officiating camp, years earlier.
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