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Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

It’s been one of those games. Every stop in play, someone from each team is complaining, and that doesn’t even include the coaches, who have been riding you since the start. If that isn’t enough, you have players bickering with one another as well. A few times things have gotten so heated that pushing was close to becoming a full-out brawl. And then the brawl happens …

You need that like a hole in the head! You’ve done your best to control the climate of the game, but inside you are reaching a boiling point — the danger sign light is flashing!

You knew the game had the potential to get ugly and out of hand. You rationalized that you were “just the official” and not the warden. After all, it is just a game, so you should just let the players do what they do best — play!

Hopefully, the game would come and go quickly, and you could leave. After all, if things did get too bad, actually like they were now, you swore to yourself you would throw down the gauntlet, show everyone who is boss and reel everyone in. Unfortunately, raising your iron fist doesn’t seem to be working — too little too late, things are far too out of hand.

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What type of official are you? Some believe it is the “tough times” that define who you really are. Others feel it is the other way around — you define who and what you are, and how you perceive the moments that you are experiencing. Why allow things to “get tough” or out of control when you have the ability to lead and manage? After all, you are the one who is there to officiate and facilitate the happenings in a game.

When it comes to officiating, do you let every game, player/coach interaction influence you and who you are as an official? Do you “dictate” the game when officiating or does it “dictate” you — who or what is really in control? Maybe you prefer to be an effective leader and do your best to manage the game. To manage means to facilitate the game from start to finish.

Many officials are comfortable in their own skin and know who they are as officials — consistent in their style or set in their ways. There is no such thing as a perfect official or officiating style that works best for everyone. Rather one has to be open to evolve and grow as an official, because the sport is constantly evolving. Are you ready to expand your style to be a better official on the playing field and court? Do you know what type of officiating style best suits you or is one you want to grow into?

There is little doubt if you have chosen to officiate you did so, at least in part, because you like sports. Perhaps you chose to officiate because you felt you were not good enough to play professionally or at an amateur level. Maybe you felt you were past your prime to compete and it was the next best thing. Then there are those who enjoy enforcing the rules of the sport they like. The reason that led you to become an official is one thing, but it is your personality that determines how you will act and behave during a game, as well as how you treat others.

Officials have roles to play and there are expectations and responsibilities they must carry out. Furthermore, the role the official plays should be one of a “facilitator,” as there are many personalities involved in any given game that influence it. The official can very quickly give a game a positive or a negative persona based on his or her own influence.

Always keep in mind that you are who you are and you take yourself with you no matter where you go, even on the field and court. So who are you when it comes to being an official?

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What’s Your Style?

Generally speaking, officials can be broken down into three distinct styles — the autocratic, the democratic and the laissez faire (hands-off approach). You may also fall within an “eclectic style,” using a combination of the three styles depending on the various games or teams involved. But for the most part, referees will fall into a distinct style.

Autocratic Officials

Often, when you hear the term autocratic, you are most likely to think in terms of a “dictator.” For those unfamiliar with what a dictator is about, basically it is a “my way or the highway approach.” Apply that to officiating and that type of referee is one most likely taking charge before the first whistle is blown and most likely until the final whistle or buzzer sounds.

The autocratic official decides how the game is to be called and dictates that not only to the coaches and both teams, but also his or her own team of officials.

Those helping to officiate the same game are often not allowed to participate in the decision-making process. There are rules that are applicable to each specific sport and, obviously, they are to be enforced.

With autocratic referees and umpires, they often call the rules by the book, meaning they are defined 100 percent by what they are intended to be and no lapsing. If you are a part of a crew of officials and the leader is autocratic, you may feel added pressure knowing there is zero-tolerance for mistakes and screw-ups, which means your goal is “refereeing the perfect game.”

Those who work with autocratic officials will find that they are “yes” people. What that lead official says is the law of the land, no bending. Players and coaches will quickly learn that they are less likely to have the respect of that type of official in their freedom to express opinions or displeasures. Autocratic officials are likely to eject more from a game for arguing or other reasons.

The problem with that type of officiating style is that communication between officials and coaches/players, and even the officials themselves, gets compromised. In fact, it often creates undo conflict, which can get out of hand quickly.

People want to express their opinions and feel respected and heard. Autocratic styles are often officiating monologues — those officials are the only ones allowed to speak or be heard. When someone is always shouting out orders or saying how things are going to be without acknowledging the feelings and input of others, no matter how powerful that might make the official feel, it undermines the perceived respect the official thinks he or she is getting.

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Enforcing the rules is one thing, but acting like an officiating dictator is another and will tend to create conflict and turmoil. When you officiate from a “Do as I say or else!” mind-set, you are not making the game enjoyable for anyone.

Democratic Officials

Democratic officials take the feelings and needs of others into consideration whenever they officiate a game. To use a democratic officiating style means you believe that other people’s opinions matter, even when they are wrong. There are actually two types of democratic official types — those who facilitate and lead by example, and those who allow the players and coaches to dictate the flow of the game.

Those who lead and facilitate by example are officials who outline from the outset of the game what will be tolerated and not tolerated. Basically, they let both players and coaches know what is expected. That type of official “facilitates” games by letting players operate within a system of what is acceptable and is only there to enforce the rules of the game and not to punish.

Whenever instances of confusion arise during a game, that official offers explanations and definitions for the rules and decisions. They clarify the situation rather than add to the confusion, because they answer appropriate questions. Players and coaches are allowed to have their say, and know that they are being heard.

There are democratic-style officials that allow players to set the tempo of a game. They basically allow athletes to dictate how a game is to be played, even if it is chippie with much aggression, as long as the rules are not violated and no one is getting hurt. They may discuss what players can and cannot get away with prior to the game, but in the end, the players are in essence allowed to create the flow.

Those officials are not viewed as pushovers, rather they trust the players and coaches to perform responsibly and are ready to step in and issue penalties when they are deserved.

Laissez-faire Officials

Laissez-faire (hands-off approach) officials are the antithesis of dictator-type officials. Whereas dictators like to be in total control of the game, seen and heard throughout, laissez-faire styles welcome the chance to blend in and rarely be seen and heard.

That type of officiating has sometimes been referred to as “allowing the inmates to run the prison.” The dictator-type officials lets everyone know from the beginning who the warden is, while the laissez-faire officials are extremely passive.

Those officials are often nothing more than figure-heads on the field and court and rarely demonstrate enough or any authority. Whether it is due to lack of confidence in abilities, or perhaps just apathy in that they don’t care about the quality of their officiating, the playing field is often one of confusion and mayhem. When it comes to rules and regulations, some get enforced (the obvious blatant ones) while others get completely overlooked.

Often, the games get out of hand because there is an obvious lack of officiating consistency as well as frustration/anger from all involved (players and coaches). The games usually turn into a sideshow. Officials wielding that lack of authority foster little from players, coaches as well as other officials in their sport. They would likely need to be paired with an official of a stronger personality to have any success.

Improve Your Style

If other officials, athletes or coaches were to describe you in terms of one of the aforementioned officiating types, what do you think they would say about you? Furthermore, if you had to tell others what type of official you are, how would you describe yourself?

The three distinct styles of officiating covered demonstrate the extreme characteristics for each style. Rarely is an official on the extreme side of either autocratic or laissez faire, as they will usually not last long in their sport or prove to be successful. The most efficient officials are those who operate from the premise of democratic — enforcing the rules of the sport, while being a good facilitator to all involved. The reason they are very good officials is that they are effective communicators.

If you fall at least somewhat in the autocratic or laissez-faire styles, you can improve by focusing on upgrading your communication skills. Communication is the hallmark of being a successful leader when facilitating a game. Effective communicators listen to what others say and seek clarification when they are in doubt.

Officiating relies heavily on communication. Good officials are information seekers. They are always taking in as much information as they can by observing and listening. Leaders who make great facilitators identify that no two people or situations are the same. That same principle applies to officials by treating all games and those involved as unique.

When you take that approach, you are opening yourself to possibilities and embracing ongoing changes. That is what a democratic official is all about — seeing all sides of the game and adapting.

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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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