June 18, 2019 • Coaching

Bridging the Divide: Developing positive relationships with refs

baseball umpire
A calm, composed approach can help coaches have meaningful discussions with referees and umpires. | Photo: Kevin Hoffman

In a perfect world, every coach would have experience as an official. And, every official would have experience as a coach. By understanding both points of view, they would mitigate many of the confrontations that lead to technical fouls, ejections and other penalties.

We don’t live in a perfect world, so conflicts between coaches and officials frequently arise. This problem is regularly addressed in preseason officials’ meetings, where administrators and assigners teach officials how to improve their communication skills and conflict-resolution strategies. But what about the other side of the divide? How can coaches effectively interact and communicate with referees? Here are five suggestions.

1. Improve understanding of officials and officiating.

Though coaches may deal with an official who has a chip on their shoulder, appears not to like their job, or may be doing it primarily for the money, the vast majority of officials love their sport and see themselves as stewards of it. They’re doing their best to promote fairness and sportsmanship.

It’s a no-brainer that coaches should never use profanity. But there are other ways they can cause trouble with their words.

But they’re not perfect, and they miss calls. It’s human nature for coaches to remember the calls that go against them, but in most cases the number of missed calls for and against any given team even out. Be aware of this bias, and take it into account when you think the other team is benefitting from all the close calls. Officials usually know when they missed a call or had a bad game, and nobody feels worse about it.

Coaches should realize that some calls are missed because of the limitations inherent to the job. Consider this situation with a two-person crew in baseball:

Bases loaded. A long line drive to the gap in left-center, and the centerfielder attempts a diving catch. The base umpire must watch the ball, determining whether the fielder caught it and retained control throughout the momentum of the play. Or, if there’s no catch, they must watch whether the ball bounces over the fence or lodges in it. That makes it difficult to fulfill another responsibility, which is watching the runners touch first and second base.

The plate umpire can try to help, but their priority is tag-ups and touches at third base. It may not be possible to see all touches. If a coach or sharp-eyed assistant sees the runner miss first base and makes an appeal, it could be denied. Don’t go ballistic — the umpires missed the infraction because of the limitations of the two-man crew, and not negligence.

Every sport has situations where priorities determine what officials should watch and what they should ignore. Likewise, a coach has a better angle than an official on some actions. A wrestling official moves in close to get their best look at whether a wrestler’s left shoulder is on the mat. Now the right shoulder, previously down, comes up half an inch. The coach on the opposite side can see the change a lot better than the referee. In baseball and softball, a coach in the dugout has a great angle on a checked swing. That’s not the case for an umpire near the middle of the infield.

2Focus on doing your own job.

Mark Uyl, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and former head of all MHSAA referees, officiated many years of college football and baseball, including two Division I College World Series.

“Games go smoothly when all of us stay in our lane,” he said. “Coaches coach, officials officiate, players play, and fans positively cheer for their team.”

Coaches also should want to know how to meet an official’s expectations. “Good coaches know that it’s much easier to have a productive conversation when they ask specific questions to get information,” said Todd Morgan, who officiates high school and college basketball. Instead of complaining about a missed over-the-back foul, a basketball coach should ask, “What can we do better to get that call?”

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“Most officials try to be proactive,” said Victor Canales, who works college softball, high school basketball and soccer. “Listen to them.”

For instance, if a soccer player hits the ground every time an opponent makes the slightest contact, Canales might tell the coach, “Hey, No. 42 is flopping. She’s going to make it hard for me to give you the call when there’s sufficient contact.” Now it’s up to the coach to get the player to comply. Baseball umpires will discreetly tell a coach, “Your pitcher is close to balking. Here’s why.” By listening and adjusting, coaches can help prevent a controversial call.

When coaches constantly complain about officiating, they provide excuses for players who fail. Hitters who take a called third strike will roll their eyes at the umpire if their coach has complained about the strike zone. Instead of taking responsibility for failing to protect the plate, they seek a sympathetic response from their coach.

3Don’t show up referees.

Officials understand a coach will react over a close call, but they don’t appreciate wild, theatrical gestures.

“One of my pet peeves,” said Morgan, “is the coach who stretches out his arms and looks upward, as if pleading with the heavens for justice.”

Everyone in the venue sees this kind of conduct, and officials naturally resent it. Throwing jackets, slamming clipboards, and other unrestrained reactions are surefire ways to draw a technical. Everyone notices screaming and yelling, and it may instigate similar reactions from fans. Coaches must control their emotions.

Talk to officials discreetly whenever possible. Avoid approaching them on the court or field, and never yell at them from far away. It’s far better to speak calmly with an official during timeouts and other dead ball situations. That’s when coaches and officials can have a meaningful discussion. In some sports, a thoughtful coach complains to an official while pulling out a line-up card and pretending to discuss a personnel change. Fans are none the wiser. Officials appreciate that kind of consideration.

Depending on the nature of the sport, it may not always be possible or convenient to wait until dead time. Morgan said, “I don’t mind if a coach addresses me respectfully when I’m stationed near their bench during half-court action, or even when I’m running past them. As long as they understand I’m focusing on my job and can’t always respond immediately.”

4Watch the language.

It’s a no-brainer that coaches should never use profanity. But there are other ways they can cause trouble with their words. One is the use of pronouns.

“The biggest thing a coach must avoid using is the word you,” Uyl said. “This is what makes a criticism or complaint personal. Most officials can take negative feedback when the point of discussion is the play, the call or the rule. When it becomes personal, that’s when coaches should expect to be penalized.”

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In other words, there’s a big difference between “That call was terrible” and “You are terrible.”

Officials also hate hearing coaches count; “That’s three you’ve missed” will not go over well. It’s also productive to ask questions. Instead of, “Hey, you’ve got to call No. 55 for holding!” coaches should try, “Could you watch No. 55 for holding?” After a confusing play, a good conversation starter is “What did you see?” But even questions can cause problems if they’re sarcastic or just another way of complaining. Don’t ask, “Are we ever going to get that call?”

5Don’t question integrity.

“No matter what sport I’m working, I can never tolerate someone questioning my integrity,” said Dave Emenhiser, who officiates five high school sports in Indiana.

Avoid comments like “Who are you related to on the other team?” or “Do you have money on this game?” Thankfully, those questions rarely come from coaches. But some might comment “You’re better than that,” and officials might think the coach is accusing them of intentionally failing to do their best.

Also, coaches who complain that officials have called more infractions against their team than against their opponents are implying bias. Unlike the more blatant accusations of favoritism, the subtler comments may not warrant immediate penalties, but they are guaranteed to get under an official’s skin.

With our society’s emphasis on winning, it’s easy to forget that coaches are primarily educators. One of their most important responsibilities is to set a good example, not only for their athletes but also for the fans. Nowhere is this more important than in their interactions with officials. If coaches do their best to use civility and respect toward officials, athletes and fans are likely to do the same.

Randy Hisner coaches cross country at Bellmont High School in Decatur, Indiana, and umpires high school and college baseball. He also has coached high school baseball and middle school track and basketball.

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