Questions officials face in contests include: How and when do you interact with players? Do you nip brewing bad behavior in the bud? Do you warn the player who is lingering in the free-throw lane? Do you say nothing when the guard grabs the jersey of the onrushing defensive tackle? If you let fouls or violations go the first time, what do you do the second or third time it happens?
Conversely, is it a good idea to praise a good play or positive behavior?
The issue of when to teach, prevent, warn or praise a player may seem more relevant to the contact sports like soccer, football and basketball. But there are certainly situations in baseball, volleyball, softball or others as well.
Early in my basketball officiating career, I had an interesting situation in the Washington, D.C., area. I had the ninth grade boys’ championship game for the Catholic League, some high level basketball for that age group. I was in my second or third year, and my partner, though he had officiated in Wisconsin before moving to D.C., had a similar level of experience. We were skating on our own.
As the game progressed, whining from the players increased to a crescendo. I didn’t know what to do, having never faced that situation. My partner was in the same boat and was deferring to my seniority.
Whether I did the right thing is something to be debated. I wouldn’t recommend it. But here is what we did, and how it affected the game. Early on, when kids complained about calls, I’d talk to them and let them know we’d keep an eye on the plays that bothered them. It was a physical game and we were consistent in letting them play, but it appeared they wanted to whine more than play. By the middle of the third period, I’d had enough.
I brought both captains and my partner to mid-court, then read the captains the riot act at the top of my voice, so the coaches (who were also complaining) and parents (ditto) could hear every word in the suddenly silent gym.
My rant went something like this: “We’ve listened enough. Next peep is a technical foul, regardless of who we hear it from. You got it?” The captains nodded. “Now go tell all your teammates and your coach.” They did. Several parents applauded. I remember parents yelling to their kids, “You listen to that referee and just play ball.”
I don’t advocate that method, but it was an eye-opening experience and speaks to the role we play on the court or field. The result of my extremely loud lecture was that we didn’t hear a word the rest of the game and the kids played at the highest level possible. The last 10-12 minutes was some of the best basketball I ever experienced officiating the sport, and I went on to work 12 years at the collegiate level.
What’s the takeaway? First, there is no golden rule when to send a message to a player. You can take a moment to speak to someone during a timeout, between innings or as they’re heading back to the huddle. What you must do is get their attention. A good rule of thumb is talk to them earlier rather than later. It’s just like parenting: Let them (verbally) know the parameters, then enforce.
At younger-age levels, a warning might not be appropriate. There are more teachable moments working 10-year-olds than there are with 14-year-olds. It’s up to you and your partner to decide when to send a teaching message to a player rather than meting out rulebook-sanctioned discipline, and a lot depends on the level and age of play.
I happened to bump into the home high school athletic director (AD) near the end of a bitter rivalry game while living in Columbus, Neb. It was a spectacular game, played intensely. During a timeout near the end of the game, I quickly told the AD what a joy it was to officiate.
On Monday, I got a call from the opposing AD (who lost), accusing me of having the home AD as a good buddy (I barely knew his name), and threatening to blackball me. I gave him the state supervisor’s information and told him to go ahead and let him know, but the takeaway is that someone is always watching, so watch who you talk to, and how you come across.
Praising falls into a similar category. There’s nothing wrong with praising a nine-year-old who just hit a home run. Do that in a high school game and when the opposing coach hears about it, you’re in trouble. You’ll never hear the end of it.
Don’t confuse that with complimenting players for doing something positive like helping to quiet down a noisy teammate, helping an opponent off the ground or retrieving an errant game ball. That sort of communication is encouraged and is often reciprocated.
Even with the older kids, there are times to praise and teach. You just need to be more subtle. Sometimes it’s best to let everyone in on it: “This is a heckuva game, let’s keep it up, guys.”
Teach and praise with the younger kids. Warn and prevent with the older ones. Where you choose to make that line of demarcation is key.
Feel out each game. Know the participants and environment. Is it recreation ball or for the middle school championship? You can teach and praise more in a seventh grade recreational league game than in the game for the conference championship.
Know the difference and choose your words carefully.
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