Referee!!! Are you blind?!?!

I’ll be the first to admit it, during my coaching career I had some heated conversations with Referees. I typically lost my cool when I felt like my players were in harm’s way or when they were being disrespected. For me, Officials always fell into one of three categories; the good, the bad, and the direct descendants of satan himself. While I certainly could write an entertaining post on the direct descendants of satan this post focuses on how we can develop our team leaders to lead in game situations and to work with Officials.

For me the good Officials were easy to spot; they arrived on time, they walked the field, they introduced themselves, they were fit, they spoke to my players with respect, and they knew how to de-escalate a tense situation. These were the same Officials I would sit with while recruiting at State tournaments. By doing so I learned how they view the game. The perspective of an Official is one we can’t replicate from the sideline of any sport, but how often do we consider how they see our team leaders and how our team leaders can work with Officials during a game?

Recently I was talking with a former College Referee who was sharing how enjoyable it is to officiate a soccer game when both teams have good team leadership. He shared a story about a very physical college game that had resulted in three red cards (ejections). After the third red card, he called the Captains of both teams to the center circle. He didn’t have to say a word as both team’s Captains began talking to each other to work this out. He then gave them time to speak to their teams. The result? Not so much as a warning the rest of the match. The team leaders, at the invitation of the Official, changed the entire feel of the game. The team leaders did what the coaches could not possibly do from the sidelines.

As a former college coach, I watched more than my fair share of high school and club games that got out of control. The parents were yelling, the coaches were animated, and many players had completely lost their focus on the game. In those moments I would often look around to see who was rising above the chaos, those were the players I wanted to recruit and develop as team leaders.

As coaches, we need to develop our team leaders to lead in game situations and to work with Officials. When developing your team leaders consider teaching them the following skills:

  1. When they introduce themselves to an Official before a game they need to look the Official in the eyes. You can only make one first impression so use that opportunity to display both confidence and respect for the role of leadership.
  2. Team leaders need to replace comments like, “are you serious?” with “can you explain what you saw on that last play?” If team leaders understand what the Official saw then they can share that with their teammates and coaches to reduce the tension in a game. Good team leaders are able to communicate respectfully with adults.
  3. Officials need to know they can trust a team leader to use her voice to keep a game from getting out of control. When a player is on the edge of getting out of control team leaders need to have the ability to say to an Official, “I’ll have a chat with her about that.” It is much better for a team leader to address a player than for an Official to stop the game to do the same thing. Good team leaders will take ownership of keeping their teammates in check.
  4. We need to teach our team leaders to understand the power of their own body language. When they are called for a questionable foul and they react by shaking their head, waving their arms, and stomping off they are reacting as a victim. When your team leaders respond with positive body language they are sending the message that they are in control of themselves and in control of the situation. People like to follow others who are in control. Good team leaders are aware of how they react when things don’t go their way.

Officials also have the best seat in the house to view your team leaders in action. So why not use their perspective to your advantage by gaining a better understanding of who your most effective team leaders are? As coaches consider engaging Officials with the following questions after a game:

  1. Who were our best leaders today?
  2. Are there any young players you think have the potential to be future team leaders?
  3. Were there any moments when you noticed a player intentionally changing the momentum of the game?

Fans are quick to ask if Officials are blind, but at what point do we need to turn that question around and wrestle with that fact that too often adults are blind to the idea that team leadership matters?

We can’t control the decisions of Officials but we can control the development of good team leaders who can lead effectively through difficult circumstances. Think about this, if you have good Officials and good team leaders the game becomes magical. If you have bad Officials and good team leaders then you still have a fighting chance and potentially a numerical advantage, but when you have bad Officials and no team leadership it really is the blind leading the blind. Regardless of the Officials, we can need to intentionally develop our team leaders to take ownership of the game.

Control what you can control. We can do better. For the love of them game, we must do better.

A big thank you to several Referees who shared some insights for this post. Thank you for helping me now and thank you for your many years of service in the game.