Rhythm generally means a movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite/different conditions, and every sports official knows there is a rhythm to games as well. However, have you given thought to the rhythm of your officiating season? The term “life-work balance” has been a corporate mantra since the 1980s that in today’s world causes the rolling of eyes because people know it is merely a slogan. We think a more realistic approach is understanding how to navigate the intersecting rhythms of your personal life and your officiating life.
Think of your season as an imaginary trip to the best amusement park ever built that has the most amazing roller-coaster ride known to man. The long line to the ride allows us time to prepare for the ride — we feel the excitement, our mind projections can be overwhelming, yet with every step closer, the anticipation grows like when your season is about to begin. We finally get to the starting point and see the machine that will carry us — our focus and awareness is at a high level. We get in and buckle up — like you do as you prepare to officiate. The snail-like movement to the top seems to take forever — similar to preseason scrimmage games — then the downward speed seems beyond control. There are twists and turns, our stomach gets wheezy, the head is spinning and the season is in full swing. For some, the excitement of the ride may wear off before the ride ends, and how do we interact with those feelings? At times we may want the ride (season) to end before it does. How do we navigate those feelings?
Like every roller-coaster ride, the rhythm of your sports officiating season will eventually come to an abrupt halt. It may be due to injury or some other life event, and there will be a last game of the season for sure. Do you recognize the need to refresh and reconnect with family and friends?
If you are not working a high school state tournament, a college postseason game or a championship game, do you feel unfulfilled?
Let’s take a closer look at the officiating roller-coaster ride. An official must learn to deal with the erratic behavior of coaches, players and fans. Officials must learn how to control their emotions in the heat of competition, rather than have their emotions control them. Stress management and anger management are also mental skills that are crucial for officials to develop to be effective in their work. Another area that is challenging for officials, and is less discussed, is the need to learn how to handle the feelings and thoughts that come along with a job that has a very different emotional rhythm. That is to say, most jobs are typically 9-5, Monday-Friday, with weekends off. If not exactly those hours, most jobs have a more structured and predictable rhythm to the work day. The work for officials is anything but predictable. For an official, each day is different from the day before. Each game is unique. Within any moment of a game, there can be a play that is controversial. Whereas in most other jobs, one’s attention and focus can lapse for a few minutes and there are no consequences to it, for an official, even a momentary lapse in judgment can significantly change the outcome of a game.
In addition, stress is cumulative. Therefore, as a season progresses, the stress inherent in an official’s job can build each day from the beginning of a season to the end of the season. In many other jobs there is no carryover of stress from one day to the next, but stress for an official can be like a snowball rolling down a hill — it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Also, in most jobs, there may be a vacation to break up the 12-month work year. For officials, however, there is the in season and out of season. Therefore, for an official, it can feel like you’re going 100 mph in season, then, overnight the season ends and you’re going zero mph. This kind of change for an official can be an emotional jolt to the mind and body.
For all of the above reasons, it is important for an official to practice self-awareness during a game, between games and after games to better process “what am I feeling, what am I thinking?” By doing so, an official can learn how to act on his or her feelings and thoughts in the most professional way. Mental skills and strategies such as positive self-talk, relaxation, focusing and visualization can be very valuable for officials learning how to better manage their emotions. In terms of dealing with the unique rhythm of an official’s work/life, balance is the key. It is important to develop effective habits to sustain one’s emotional balance and not to wait for emotions to pile up. In our experience, the challenge for many officials is to learn how to develop a more balanced lifestyle, both in season and out of season.
For officials, a season is often mentally and physically described as a marathon, as opposed to a sprint. The rhythm of an official’s in-season and out-of-season life is also significantly different from the average person’s. As in other challenges, there is also opportunity. In this respect, the unique rhythm of an official’s work life can be an opportunity to learn how to develop mental skills and lifestyle rhythm that can improve an official’s on-court/field performance, as well as off-the-court/field life satisfaction.
There are three teams in every game — the two competing and the officiating team. Being part of the competition is part of an official’s driving force and we cannot discount our own competitive drive. We want to be recognized as one of the best and in our minds that means tournament games. However, there are only so many assignments and not everyone will or can work. Disappointment is part of every officiating career and the ability to use disappointment as motivation is key. Sports officials experience rejection every game from fans, coaches and players, yet when rejection comes from a supervisor, the feeling is different. Unlike most professions where promotions are made a few times a year, an official knows it will be one full year before he or she gets this opportunity again. Our belief is that every sports official is a professional referee or umpire; it just so happens that some work professional sports games. Embracing and addressing your intersecting personal and officiating life will bring higher levels of happiness to both.
Dr. Joel Fish is a sport psychologist and licensed psychologist who has worked for more than 25 years with sports officials/referees/umpires in all sports from youth through the Olympic and professional ranks. He is the director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia.
Stay On Track
The 21st century approach to learning is similar to how we should eat — small bites for proper digestion and absorption to nourish our bodies.
The same process will allow us to create effective mental health habits for emotional balance, allowing us to better navigate the unique rhythm of an official’s life. We are not suggesting major drastic changes; rather think of change as one percent at a time that eventually leads to a larger percentage change over time. The following areas may be of help:
Positive self-talk is a first step — monitor how your inner voice speaks to you; we are not suggesting that positive self-talk will make life full of gumdrops and lollipops, however we do know that negative self-talk will create negativity. Negative thoughts will create a negative environment.
Resiliency can be broken down to three sections: 1) Confront the reality (we must identify an issue before we can respond to it). 2) Search for meaning — look at the why/how — why a habit works and how it can be repeated/why a habit causes problems and how it can be changed. 3) FIA = flexible, innovative, adaptive — a willingness to have all those in our lives will promote resiliency.
Techniques and exercises for visualization, mental conditioning and relaxation strategies to help manage emotions, on and off the court, include:
Having a key word or key phrase to say to oneself during stressful moments of a game can help officials to remain calm and to maintain their composure in the midst of a competition. Key words and phrases can serve as an “anchor” for an official’s thoughts in moments of game intensity. Examples of key words and phrases include: “Give me the courage to do the best I can do,” “trust myself,” and, “stay cool.”
Identifying the signals that your body gives you that you’re feeling anxious, tense or stressed is the first step toward an official being able to calm down. Common body signals that indicate stress include rapid breathing, body stiffness, pressured speech and frustration coming out in angry speech patterns. Strategies for officials to use when feeling anxious, tense or stressed include: deep breaths — slowly breathing in relaxation and exhaling tension; slowing down — pausing, standing still, waiting three seconds before responding to a player or coach; relaxing body language — taking an “at ease” posture, bending the knees, squeezing a tense muscle and then relaxing it.
An official is better able to focus when coming from a place of choice. For example, instead of saying to oneself, “I should have made that call differently,” say, “I choose to move on to the next play.” Other examples of officials coming from a place of choice would include saying to oneself: “Choose to let go of a mistake,” “choose to move on to the next play,” “choose to be in the present moment.”
The night before the game, or an hour before a game, imagine three game situations that are likely to come up during a game — an easy call, a controversial call and an end-of-game call. Imagine yourself making these calls with confidence, pride and conviction. When you visualize yourself being in a situation, if during the game you are in that situation, you can feel as if you have been there before. This can lead to officials making calls with more confidence and certainty.
Remember, the above mental skills, strategies and techniques take practice in order to be effectively applied in game situations. Develop a plan to practice positive self-talk, focusing, relaxation and visualization as a way to manage your emotions. If these strategies and techniques help you as an official in one out of 10 game situations the first week, the goal is to have them help you in two out of 10 game situations the second week. That’s the way mental skills develop — one step at a time.
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