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What makes a good sports official?

Officiating Isn't All Black and White

Lessons learned by a mom at officiating camp

As a sports parent, watching officials work a game, whatever the sport, is akin to watching a foreign film: parents can try to interpret events by watching the officials' actions and reactions, but they don't understand the language. Their  experience as a player or coach may help them understand what the officials are doing - to a point - but they are still watching the "movie" with subtitles. Without knowing the language, a sports parent (myself included) can easily misunderstand what the officials are doing. All they see is black and white stripes,. All they hear are whistles being blown.

So what makes a good sports official?

Female basketball official As a sports parent-turned official, I have learned that to be a good official means being able to see a game through special lenses that help me to see beyond the black and white. After attending five basketball officials' camps over the past seven years (I just returned from the last one over Memorial Day Weekend), I have learned that there are three things that make a really good sports official.  Sports officials need to be able to:

  1. work with the other officials as a team;
  2. communicate non-verbally, in other words, through actions, not words; and
  3. learn from others, not just the officials, but coaches, players and, yes, parents, too.

Working as a team

Critical to officiating mastery is lesson #1: the ability to work with the other officials as a team.

One of my favorite riddles is, "How many teams are in the NCAA Men's and Women's Basketball tournaments' Final Four?" the answer is seven: the four teams and the officiating crews who work each semi-final, and the crew that calls the championship game.

Watch a Final Four game and you will see officiating crews rotating flawlessly as players move up and down the court, with each crew member covering a specific, or "primary", area, and providing secondary back up to other members of the crew. There is a rhythm and rhyme to the crew's movement on the court. To reach the point that they have been selected to officiate 40 minutes of basketball between two of the top four teams in the country, an official has spent years, and logged hundreds, if not thousands, of hours, working basketball games at the youth, high school and college level.

Surprisingly, critical to a basketball officiating crew's effectiveness is not simply comprehensive knowledge of the rules, nor foul-calling accuracy.  They are givens. It is teamwork.

At every officiating camp I have attended, the camp directors - all seasoned NCAA referees - emphasize the importance of consistency among members of the officiating crew; that similar plays be called the same way. But even more importantly than the calls, they emphasize the importance of being a good team player and a good person. They cited examples of mentoring younger officials, helping them improve and learn, as the skill that sets good officials apart from exceptional ones.

I benefited a great deal from the respect and professionalism afforded me by a fellow official at my very first game at my very first camp. While he was aware of my junior status, he NEVER allowed a coach to take advantage of that. He treated me as an equal, even though I was shaking in my proverbial boots. It was a gesture I never forgot.

Active silence speaks volumes

Being a good person and good partner is an ongoing learning process and brings me to officiating lesson #2: Learning to communicate non-verbally, through actions, not words.

Unlike the corporate world, where verbal communication skills are essential, communication in the officiating world is much more subtle and non-verbal.  Basketball officials communicate with their eyes, nods, and discrete or decisive and well-timed hand gestures. Excessive movement or verbal communication between officials suggests uncertainty, something officiating crews can ill-afford if they expect to earn the respect of the players and coaches and keep control of a contest.

Most of the verbal communication between officials actually takes place in the locker room before the game, at half-time, and in the final, crucial minutes at the end of a period, half or game. Watch an NCAA tournament or NBA playoff game and you'll notice that virtually the only time you see officials talking with each other is to make sure they get a critical out-of-bounds call right or gather at the scorer's table to review a critical play on video replay in the final minutes of a close contest.

As an extroverted, female sales professional who talks with my hands, eyes and facial expressions, I have been challenged at officiating camp to adjusting my personae and don my "officiating game face."  It took time to find the right balance. At first, I swung from being too friendly to being too stoic, prompting an evaluator to ask if I was angry or to ask me to smile.

One of the camp directors admitted that he masked his everyday, soft spoken personality when he took to the court, becoming someone he was not, like an actor playing a role. He suggested the same for me. A friend and fellow official, Tony, counseled me on the importance of being "comfortable in my own skin."  Achieving that goal is still a work in progress, but seven years of practice at great camps with great partners, has increased my versatility in communicating through silence, controlling my facial expressions and allowing my personality to express itself discretely, but only briefly. Officiating has given me the gift of self-confidence and self-control. I am not two different people, I am myself.

Learning from others

Being comfortable with myself, as an official, and as a partner sets the stage for coaching lesson #3, learning from others.

As a parent, we see how our kids learn from other kids: on the playground, in the classroom, and on a sports team. The same goes for officials. In camp, the learning occurs by officiating games and listening to lectures. Evaluators tape our performance, then discuss each call and position as they "break down the tape" with you. Learning also occurs by watching fellow officials on the floor as you wait for your game, which teaches you:

  • the importance of hustle (good officials race down the floor to stay ahead of the fast break, for example);
  • the importance of proper positioning (you won't be able to see a defender's subtle disruption of the release of a player on a hook shot near the basket or pick up a foul on an offensive player for an illegal screen unless you are positioned properly);
  • to trust your partners to watch for off-ball aggressive or dangerous play while you focus on the action in your area of the court.

On the sidelines between games, you discover kindred spirits among your fellow campers who share similar frustrations in dealing with angry coaches and lopsided games.

  • Because I never played high school basketball, I learned about officiating from officials who did. 
  • Because I never coached, I learned from coaches, as I saw them adapted their teams' offense and defense to my officiating style.
  • Because, every once in a while, a player, coach, or parent thanked me for calling a foul or warning an overly aggressive player to ease off, I learned about the important role I played as an official in keeping players safe .

Seven divided by three

By the end of camp, I was physically and mentally exhausted, having officiated the equivalent of 7 games in three days.  Absorbing all that transpired will take more than the four-hour drive home. But, in that time, I reveled in the solitude and the knowledge that I have grown and learned a little bit more; that I was one step closer to achieving varsity status, one step closer to somewhere, wherever that was supposed to be.

But wherever that may be and whenever that maybe, I took home the gift of having connected with fellow officials, parents, players and coaches as we shared the three days of heaven on earth called basketball camp.


Barbara Bleiweis is working mom, mother of two, high school basketball official, and youth sports advocate in Northern Virginia. She is in her 7th year of officiating and serves on her association's Executive Board, developing training and mentorship programs for basketball officials. 

Posted June 10, 2011

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