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The Plight of the Referee: Seven Reasons We Yell

by Jack Bowen


Job Description—Youth Sports Referee:

Oversee games involving emotionally charged athletes, parents, and coaches. Adjudicate what occurred amidst hundreds of instances involving fast-moving athletes and high-speed balls. Athletes will repeatedly fake what’s actually going on. Responsible for athlete safety. All the while, coaches, fans, and parents will berate you for any perceived mistakes.

Referees often get overlooked in the world of sports writing. And from the unfortunate actions of many youth sports coaches, parents, and athletes, we can easily recognize how they’re often viewed and, consequently, treated. Delving deeper into the “Why?” of this cultural phenomenon provides a perfect opportunity to consider the cause of much of this behavior: our brains.

Credit: Odyssey

Humans have various blind spots looming beneath the surface. Bringing these to the surface is a great first step to help us understand where we’ve gone wrong in our approach to interacting with referees. Then, with this sort of awareness, we can change our actions accordingly. 

1. Confirmation Bias: In short, here’s how your brain works: you establish a pet theory and then try to prove yourself right. We like being right. It feels good. And we’d much rather just feel like we’re right than go out and challenge our worldview in search of the truth, all the while recognizing where we’d gone wrong.
So, if a coach has established the theory, “The referee—i.e. every referee—is calling the game against us,” then that coach counts the instances which confirm his hypothesis—calls that go against him—and ignores those that do not. He experiences the game as if objectively gathering data proving the conclusion: more bad calls against him and, subsequently, this particular referee is terrible. The problem is, it’s likely the other coach has been testing the same theory, but for his team. And, thus, both coaches lash out at the supposed injustice of the whole enterprise.

2. Availability Bias: Much of this ties in with our tendency to focus our attention on more recent and more “outstanding” events while overlooking or forgetting all others. The soccer coach becomes wound up by the call that just happened and which seemed egregious because of its implications. But he likely ignores the huge majority of minor calls along the way. Not to mention the countless no-calls throughout the ninety-minute match. Not much to remember: calls were made (or not) and it’s time to get on to the next play. But then, the coach perceives what seems to be a bad call against his team, and this call sticks in his mind, adds to his pet theory, and catalyzes the feeling of injustice.
In the “real world,” this bias explains why people often fear flying unreasonably following a publicized plane crash, despite the fact that driving to the airport is actually more dangerous, and plane safety at an all-time high. The more available and outstanding an event, the more likely we are to consider it and act (irrationally) accordingly.

3. Naturally Poor Statisticians: Many of the world’s greatest scam artists cash in, literally, on the fact that humans just aren’t good at statistics. Along with the prior two biases, this is one reason horoscopes and the like seem to work: people go in with the bias thinking it will work (confirmation), then notice when it does (availability), and don’t think to add up all of the “misses” along the way. Statistics, instead, help paint a picture of how things really are so we don’t get caught up in the emotions of how they seem.
It’s certainly too much to ask, amidst the intensity of a competitive game, for coaches to objectively view referee calls and statistically analyze them. But when I’ve done this, the calls never demonstrate some deep-seated unfairness toward one team. There are occasionally runs of bad calls against one team but, again, that’s what we should expect. If you flip an unbiased coin 10,000 times, you shouldn’t be surprised to see an occasional run of 10 consecutive heads—actually, you should be surprised if you don’t as you need just over 1,000 flips to expect to see that. Likewise, even a good referee will make a run of bad calls. For many coaches, as they’re coaching thousands of hours of games, when this happens they should chalk it up to a statistical run, not some evil intent of the referee.

4. Emotions Get In The Way: Given this competitive nature of coaches, we not only expect them to be emotional, but we want that. How odd it would be for a committed coach to be on the field without any emotional connection to the competition, her players, or the score. But we all know the downside of emotions and how they get the best of us: it’s the reason we’re advised to let that emotionally-laden email sit in our “Drafts” folder overnight before sending, or to “cool off” before re-engaging in an argument. Physicist Leonard Mlodinow thusly refers to emotions as our “prime source of irrationality.” Our emotions truly cloud our ability to access the truth of the matter at hand.
At a high school soccer game I recently attended, at one point, the goalkeeper challenged an offside call against his team on offense. The call was made at the opposite end of the field from the goalie: not only was he the farthest person from the transgression, but he had the worst possible angle to judge it, especially compared to the linesman exactly parallel with the defensive line. Only someone whose emotions had high-jacked his rationality (along with the aforementioned biases) could yell from the opposite side of the field, “Come on ref! That’s terrible!”

5. We Don’t See Reality: It sure seems like our eyes capture reality, but countless studies and visual illusions, along with a basic understanding of neuroscience shows they do not. So it’s not just the case we’re giving in to our biases and ignoring what’s really happening—in many instances, we don’t even see what’s actually happening in the first place.
In one famous study, half of the people counting passes made by three basketball players fail to see a large gorilla on screen for 8 seconds of the 30 second video. So, in combination with the above errors, we are now forced to admit we selectively attend to and view phenomena, especially emotionally-charged phenomena to which we bring expectations and pre-conceived notions from the outset.

6. Objects Versus Persons: Somehow, in the world of sports, it’s become commonplace to view the referee not as a person—someone just like us, with bills to pay, fears and desires, etc.—but as an object. Worse, as an object preventing us from achieving our goals, such as winning games. Once you view a person as an object, it’s easy to treat them as such and not afford them the same moral respect we would any other person.
In my own coaching career, over 18 years in the same league I’ve gotten to know every referee, to some extent, as a person—one has a sordid story of his upbringing in Croatia, while another has a strong affinity for motorcycles, and yet another wonders if he will ever afford to buy a home in our area. Knowing these sorts of things about someone removes them from the object-category and makes it rather difficult to then publicly berate them from across the playing field.

7. Negativity Bias: We feel the negative feelings of losses considerably more than we do the positive feelings of gains. This plays out in the world of investing and often leads to people choosing investments irrationally due to the pain of recent and anticipated loses. Clearly, then, coaches fall prey to this: bad calls hurt more than favorable calls feel good. And that exacerbated sting once again leads to a biased and irrational view of referees.

Credit: The Tribune-Democrat

Once we account for and recognize all of this, we can be reminded of a few things. First, referees have a very difficult job, especially at the youth sports level. Consider the job description that started this article. Reflecting on this provides an easy opportunity for empathy.

Secondly, having now acknowledged our numerous biases and blind spots, consider this question:

At a point of controversy mid-game, who has a better chance of being correct, the expert non-biased referee or the emotionally-laden coach?

Given that any rational person would have to bet on the referee, coaches can apply this same reasoning to themselves, as keen as we might perceive our respective sense of vision and rational abilities to be.

And third, it’s truly part of the job of the interscholastic sports coach to model behavior and proper values for the children they coach—the children they are educating. Once the adult coach begins berating the referee, the players soon follow. This is not to say a coach should remain mute in the face of perceived injustice. At any break (halftime, quarter break, etc.) referees often welcome a well-meaning coach’s sincere questions as to how the game is being called, or sharing a concern regarding issues he believes have gone undetected. The athletes are all watching closely.

As in all walks of life, recognizing our blind spots helps us to better interact with others and allows us to come at our relationships with a heightened understanding and greater compassion and humility. And now, on the playing field, we can return to the roots of competition—to strive together—and include not just our competitors under this banner, but referees as well.

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 18 years where they have won the league championships 16 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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