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The Plight of the Referee Part II: 7 Strategies For A Better Coach-Referee Relationship

by Jack Bowen


I recently posted an article exploring seven reasons coaches, fans, and parents yell at referees, all due to errors and biases deeply rooted in our brains (The Plight of the Referee: Seven Reasons We Yell). Of course, the underlying assumption was this: We should avoid berating youth sports referees.

The first step in solving a problem is admitting one exists. We’ve done this, cataloging the poor treatment of referees throughout the country for decades. The second step involves recognizing when you’re a part of the problem. This was the crux of my last article: if you have a human brain, you’re likely part of the problem. Unless, that is, you’ve reflected enough to know you fall into these same pitfalls and can thus progress to the third step: solving the problem.

What follows, then, are seven strategies for overcoming the natural inclination to (wrongly) yell at referees and how coaches can focus more on coaching:

1. Recognize You’re Probably Wrong. This little tidbit of humility might be the best advice a human could receive in any walk of life, especially our interpersonal relationships. And it’s a four-word summary of the previous article, explaining the myriad ways our brain leads us astray when emotions are pulsing through it.

2. Create Teaching Moments: Utilize calls against your team as teaching moments. Remember, youth sports coaches are teachers in an interscholastic environment.

The sport I coach (water polo) allows some prime moments for this in the form of 20-second ejections, similar to power-plays in ice hockey. Players always arrive at the ejection box disgruntled with the call. The good news is, they are forced to sit in the ejection area adjacent to my perch as the coach. This provides an ideal opportunity for immediate, constructive feedback. Instead of the coach spending time yelling at the referee, the coach, instead, spends time coaching.

Even if the call appeared incorrect, referees and players recognize and appreciate when the coach focuses on coaching his team immediately following the call instead of turning his attention to the referee.

Here we can turn to countless adages such as, “Silence speaks louder than words,” along with lessons from various fables such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Referees tend to tune out the coach who constantly yells at them. But, for the coach who abstains, when they do speak up, referees pay attention.

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3. Talk To Referees: Once we move the referee from the object to person category, we can engage them in civil discourse. This is best done during game breaks as, A. coaches tend to be emotionally charged mid-game, B. coaches should be coaching during games, and, C. time doesn’t allow for a civil conversation.

At halftime, for example, if a coach has a question—a real, authentic question—this is a good time to ask the referee. Most referees bring a certain subtle preference as to how a particular game should be played: More or less physical; quicker fouls; etc. The question from a coach both lets the referee know the coach has a concern with the calls but, more importantly, lets the coach understand how the referee is calling the game so he can adjust his personnel and strategy accordingly.

4. Scout Referees: Referees are a part of the game. My wife and I often joke as we watch a San Francisco Giants game and the broadcasters comment at the outset, “Today’s umpire has a low strike zone and, if the pitcher establishes himself early, will give some leeway on the outside corners.”

Now, imagine one coach knows this and the other does not. The former maintains a major advantage going into the game. Coaches spend countless hours scouting other teams and tendencies of their competitors. So why not do the same for the referees? Not to mention, this will once again alleviate the yelling that goes on during the game—strike three just outside the outside corner in the seventh inning? Of course.

5. Submit Reports: Most referee associations have a forum for coach reports. If coaches never report poor refereeing, those who assign referees can’t know a problem exists.

Referee evaluation is tricky as much of what we’re evaluating is subjective. But, much is not. Objective concerns provide easy starting places: referee arrived late, not dressed professionally, used inappropriate language, etc. And, if enough coaches report the more nuanced concerns—referees interpreting rules incorrectly, video demonstrating consistently incorrect calls—this, too, can be used to either educate referees or move them to lower level games or remove them all together.

If we approach refereeing while viewing referees as there for the right reasons and giving their best effort, this can all be used as a teaching tool.

6. Educate Parents: At the beginning of every season for the past 18 years, I invite all parents of players in our program to the pool one morning for “Water Polo 101.” I explicitly share with them why I do this. First, in highlighting strategies, tactics, and nuances of the game and our team’s approach, it makes the experience of watching the games much more enjoyable. They can see the chess match developing in each game we play and can better appreciate what their children are doing and what we’re trying to do as a team.

The second reason has to do with parents both understanding the rules and also our program’s expected etiquette on the pool deck. Water polo has a few rules which aren’t entirely intuitive. For example, if the offensive player is holding the ball and the defense commits what would otherwise be a clear foul, no foul is awarded. I joke with parents that they’ll hear parents of other teams scream out at the referee when they perceive their child being fouled; at that point, a referee will hold his hand up in the air in the form of a claw to signify the child was holding the ball—and he’ll often shake his head condescendingly as if to say, “If only your child’s coach had taught you the rules.”
I then make it clear that their only job is to celebrate in the stands while their children play, knowing I will work with referees in the very rare case an injustice has occurred.

7. Connect With The Opposing Coach: Occasionally, the issue on the field involves player safety. Either the referees allow players to play out of control or a specific player targets one’s own players. This has happened on a very rare occasion in my 18 years coaching. For one, it’s rare because I choose which teams our team plays partly based on the culture of that program. We avoid teams known for “dirty” play. But that’s not always possible, given league schedules and tournament play.

In the case this does occur, I’ll go to the coach at a break to let him know what I’m seeing. This certainly requires some tact as, understandably, everyone is emotionally heated during a game and most coaches are understandably blinded by their own biases as to the ethical nature of their players’ actions. As in most walks of life, this requires that coaches establish and maintain good relationships amongst coaches with whom they compete. In my case, the handful of times I have confronted a coach about player behavior have all been handled civilly and without conflict.

Also, given that nearly all programs film games, this becomes important in these situations as there is now visual proof of the instances: something else helpful in discussing and framing concerns during the game. In a sense, then, this approach allows a coach to circumvent the referee when player safety becomes a concern.

Lastly, a bonus strategy: Referee (the verb). A lot of the comments in response to my initial article were of this ilk: “Coaches, go try refereeing and then let’s talk!” And not just refereeing your team’s scrimmages, as we all do occasionally, nor an off-season game in some meaningless summer league. Sign up to referee, don the uniform, be the one in charge of the competition, make the calls, hear from the fans, watch the players simulate being fouled, have both coaches yell about your calls. If you don’t have the time to do this, take a moment to truly imagine the experience of the referee and the thought experiment alone might provide the empathy needed.

It’s important to remember that coaches of youth sports are educators. We are teachers. And we’re teaching more than just how to best get a ball into some object like a circle, or, in my case, a floating rectangle. This, for me, is a huge draw to teaching at this level instead of collegiately, professionally, or at the National level. Knowing you’re sending self-aware, thoughtful, young people out into the world who truly understand what it means to show compassion and respect for others is one of the greatest rewards in a career I can imagine.

Jack is the author of 4 books, including his latest (co-authored), Sport, Ethics, and Leadership (July, 2017).  His other books include San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Amazon Top-500 selection, The Dream Weaver and, If You Can Read This, featured in the New York Times, USA Today, and NPR. Jack has coached water polo at Menlo School for the past 19 years where they have won the league championships 17 times. Finally, he spoke at TEDxStanford in 2017 on the topic of awe.  Jack graduated from Stanford University with Honors in Human Biology and earned his Masters Degree in philosophy, graduating summa cum laude.

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