Come on ref! You need glasses! What game are you watching?! What kind of call was that?! How are you not going to call that!
If you have ever spent time at a sporting event, chances are you have heard one or more of these expressions used during the game. Officials are fundamental to the success and growth of recreational sports nationwide, yet, on a regular basis, they are treated poorly. As recreation professionals, it is our job to encourage the positive and proper treatment of our officials.
Organized team sports play a significant role in the communities we serve, and without referees to officiate games, these leagues would not be possible. For over a decade, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of youth sports officials nationwide. While the impact of this shortage can be felt by all, recreational organizations are hit the hardest. Official assignment associations prioritize competitive and high school games, leaving park districts to compete for the remaining available officials.
Studies have shown that there is a major correlation between the shortage of youth sports officials and their treatment while on the job. As a player, family member, coach and league supervisor, I have witnessed the offensive and undesirable treatment of referees. I have heard countless expletives, demeaning expressions and seen blatantly aggressive attitudes toward referees, all while watching children try to grasp the concept of dribbling a basketball without traveling. What’s even more disturbing is that many of the officials facing this abuse are teenagers — a fact that gets lost in the heat of the moment!
Parents, while not the sole individuals responsible for the mistreatment of officials, are habitual violators of the proper code of conduct. This behavior often seems to stem from a lack of knowledge of league rules and/or of the game itself. Simply posting your league rules publicly can prevent a large number of ill-informed shouting from the sidelines. By establishing, publicizing and enforcing a code of conduct that all spectators must adhere to, you can further reduce the number of emotional outbursts.
Coaches as First/Last Line of Defense
Our biggest tool in fighting this increase in hostility toward game officials lies with the proper training and selection of coaches. This seems like it’d be an easy thing to do, but sometimes just finding enough coaches to fulfill a league’s needs is also challenging. While coaches are our first and last line of defense against the verbal abuse officials face, they can also be guilty of engaging in the same behavior toward them. Competition is and will always be a huge undertone of organized sports, which can lead coaches to inadvertently lash out at officials for calls that are not in their team’s best interest. This is where the proverbial line in the sand needs to be drawn.
Providing a pre-season training for your coaches is a great way to set expectations. A short investment of your time to establish a code of conduct and inform coaches of possible implications if policies are not adhered to can have a dramatic impact on their demeanor.
During a past flag football season, I had a coach who was relentless in his abusive behavior toward the officials. Despite talking to him multiple times, he would not correct his behavior. After the game, I informed the coach that his behavior was not in line with our goals and objectives as a district and asked if he was available the next weekend before his game. With his availability confirmed, I said, “Great! It seems like you are very versed in the rules and we could use your experience. Would you be able to officiate one game for us?” After a slight pause, the coach walked back his criticism of the young officials, shook my hand and apologized. Not only did I not have another issue with this coach the rest of the season, but even observed him standing up for one of the officials during a game.
When it comes to youth sports, “perfect” is a word you will not often hear, especially when it comes to officiating. What is a perfect game? It’s entirely subjective and rarely echoed by two competing coaches, as, naturally, only one of them is on the winning side. It is human nature to search for reasons for a loss. And, for some, it’s also easier to blame a loss on those officiating the game than to accept the outcome and find the issues within their team that need to be addressed.
Officials are only human and their job primarily relies on their visual acuity to uphold league rules in real time. This can be incredibly challenging, especially when multiple people are yelling in their direction. It is inevitable that officials will “miss” calls, and at times, make the “wrong” call. This does not give players, parents and coaches an excuse to berate them. This kind of negative behavior is toxic to a league and undermines the objectives and goals of league organizers. Instead of booing an official for a call that you don’t agree with, cheer when they make a call you do. By shifting the way we react to decisions on the field, we can have a dramatic and positive effect on all of those involved.
One of the most valuable lessons a child can take away from organized sports is overcoming adversity. When a coach negatively speaks out against a referee’s call during a game, that coach is undermining a young athlete’s character development. Our youth look up to coaches as role models and will absorb traits and lessons they carry with them the rest of their life. We must continue to remind our coaches of the importance and weight their words and actions carry.
Next time you are at a youth sporting event and witness someone acting inappropriately toward an official, politely remind them that their actions have dire consequences on the health and stability of recreational sports nationwide. Always thank your officials and remember that they are doing their job to the best of their ability. And, instead of avoiding or ostracizing less experienced officials, welcome, encourage and let them know you appreciate them, as they are the future of the officiating population and, therefore, vital to all recreational sports. Together we can reshape youth sports by giving our officials the respect and admiration they deserve.
Jake Polito is the Senior Recreation Coordinator for Sunrise Recreation and Park District.
Four Steps to Improve Coach-Official Relations:
- Coaches should introduce themselves to and thank the officials prior to a game.
- Coaches should never raise their voice.
- If a coach has a question about a call, they should wait until gameplay stops, then approach the official in a respectful manner.
- Coaches should always thank the officials after concluding a game.