I met with a friend last year who I heard had gotten out of officiating after only a few years. I thought perhaps his departure was for health reasons.

It wasn’t.

The officials shortage is growing. More and more games are being canceled due to a lack of officials.

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The average age of officials in many sports is above 55. It is difficult to get new and younger people involved in officiating. It’s even harder to keep them. It takes quite a bit of time and effort to recruit and train officials. It’s frustrating bringing on new officials, investing time and resources in them, only to have them turn in their whistles after just three years. We lose them too quickly once they are out of those initial training classes and in the system.

Sometimes officials feel they are not moving up quickly enough. Other times they stop officiating due to the time and travel commitment, but mostly it’s frustration — feeling once they are past the first year, there is a very limited support group. Then there’s the increased lack of respect from fans, coaches and students. It’s borderline abusive at times and not all can take the growing pains of moving up through the ranks.

Our association decided to try to change this. We thought we could work on keeping officials once they are in the system.

To keep officials engaged, we implemented a mentoring program. This is a voluntary program for officials who want extra guidance in their avocation. We offered it to officials in our association in their first five years, with hopes of expanding the program in the future.

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With the mentoring program, we adopt the interested officials into our officiating family. We have them travel with us to observe our pregame, the contest and postgame discussion. We observe their games in the same manner and provide positive and constructive feedback on where they are doing well, and where they can improve.

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It’s important to have friends to turn to for support

The goal is for three mentors to observe the official throughout the year. The mentee must observe three mentors’ games in the same manner.

The official is given a written evaluation of each game with strengths and weaknesses that were observed. We try to help the officials feel connected to a group of experienced veterans. We want them to know they have access to us for questions, rules knowledge, game management and how best to handle situations. We’re hoping that by keeping the officials connected, it provides a support group. Instead of feeling lost and on their own, they have a group of veterans who have had similar experiences and can keep them moving forward instead of throwing in the towel.

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It’s a new system, but the response has been very positive. We are hoping it provides a long-term bond that will help keep these officials on track.

The next step is to turn these mentees into future mentors. They need to understand that fellow officials took time to help them develop the skills and mental toughness they might not have found on their own and they can help others do the same — pay it forward.

Those of us who survived past our fifth year usually had a friend or group of friends we could turn to for the needed support.

The friend I thought left for health reasons didn’t leave due to health reasons. He left officiating due to the disrespect shown by a fifth-grade athlete to the official and then by the coach (dad), who not only didn’t take action, but also condoned his son’s behavior.

The official had enough.

Maybe if the official had a mentor or someone to talk him through the situation, we might not have lost another good official for the wrong reason. We can’t save them all, but we need to try.

This time we lost, but with effort and attention, we will win more in the future.

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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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