Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

In any game, coaches and referees usually agree on several things:


  1. The time of the game
  2. The location of the game
  3. The teams playing in the game

That’s a little flippant, but it can seem that any mutual interests of coaches and referees are going to be few and far between, for good reason. Referees often train on their own outside of association meetings. Coaches learn from working as assistants or through peers via social interactions and workshops. Both earn knowledge through experience, although certainly not shared experience.

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The buzzwords given during interviews would seem to enjoin the two professions – ‘consistency,’ ‘fairness,’ ‘communication.’ Words that seem to have similar meanings, but actually don’t in our world because coaches actually care about who wins.

If you get beyond the superficial interactions and differing objectives, however,  we actually agree on some very important things. We agree on the language used. Rule 4 spells out the shared language of basketball, and every other sport has a rule chapter based in definitions. Part of the officiating assignment is to provide definitions to coaches when there’s confusion, in a manner suited to the conference room (and not the bar-room). When the coach insists his player was executing a ‘speed dribble,’ our job is to redefine the travel rule and illustrate why this particular instance was a violation. Using the term “By Rule…” is taught in every officiating camp, and while coaches may seem to tire of the terminology, you can’t go wrong when quoting what’s right.

This communication is therefore the most important universal for referees and coaches. In today’s game, especially at the higher levels, coach understanding of the game is quite competent, forcing officials to be soundly based in a deep knowledge of the rules. Teachers must know their subject matter deeply, of course, but then they learn how to break the matter into lesson plans comprised of small easily edible bits of information for the learner. Officials must have this educational psychology as well. Too often referees come to depend on a series of ‘one liners’ to fall back upon when questioned. The coach points out “It’s 8 to 3 on fouls, ref!” Followed more than not by the supposedly clever “Hey, I’m not a mathamatician, coach!”

For too many years (and from too many YouTube NBA videos), the mistaken belief becomes ‘if we can make the coaches laugh, we’ve done a great job.’

Surprisingly, this isn’t true when it comes to definition, game communication, or call explanations. Unsurprisingly, referees overall don’t want to be armed with quips and clever sayings. When the coach says “It’s 8 to 3 on fouls, ref!” they don’t want to hear your cute comeback. To be honest, we don’t want to speak in jokes, either. Our true response in our heads is “Well, stop your team from fouling so much!”

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Coaches actually want an honest reply. What they don’t want is to be demeaned in any way. So we must strive to speak to coaches as if in a corporate board meeting, providing honesty without condescension. We must be able to earnestly educate the coach who seriously seems to misunderstand the call on the floor. We must also respect every coach and player as if we were college educators dealing with peers, administrators, and students.

The proper communication, broken down into bite-sized bits where necessary, using the shared language of the game, is step one towards gaining consistency and ‘fairness’ throughout the contest. Your whistle is a strong communicative tool, as are your signals. They should be presented evenly and consistently, as a teacher’s voice needn’t be raised to any student, even during disciplinary actions.

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Use that composed demeanor when calling and explaining fouls and violations. A bit more ease and acceptable workplace humor when in casual conversation. The whistle should start strong, the signals more demonstrative than you think, consistent throughout the game, no matter the score or situation.

When called upon in a professional demeanor, we respond with thoughtful and quick answers. When chastised unnecessarily by someone reacting emotionally, we try to ignore the behavior. When distracted from our work, we present even and tempered discipline exactly as called for by the shared documents provided to all coaches and officials before the season.

Step out of that organizational structure, and now you’re the problem. Now you’re the cause of more emotions, more distractions, and when in error, a violation of the core value of the game – the agreed upon rules.

In the end, the core of your success as an official really is about those crucial elements coaches and officials may define differently but absolutely agree upon: Consistency. Fairness. Communication. Caring about the game in front of us, about the people we’re serving. A shared knowledge of the rules and language of the game.

And most importantly, agreeing to walk away with no hard feelings whatsoever. Postgame we usually discuss the coaches. Certainly coaches talk about officials almost endlessly.

But when the stripes walk onto the floor, and the coach sends his teams forward, we agree on much more than we disagree.

Respect that, and you’ll win the game. No matter which team scores more.

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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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