Referees and Officials

Many years ago at AJVC, i saw an U17M gold medal match end in an out-of-rotation call. It was match point, and the losing team was indeed out of rotation and the call was correct. However, when i did the basic refereeing course shortly after, it was explained to me that it was a wrong call. It was the first time i learned there was more to refereeing than i thought.

A number of things in the last few weeks have compelled me to write about referees and officials. You may be surprised to find i have nothing bad to say about them, if anything to the contrary.

I have a deep respect for referees and officials. Well, at least the ones who take their craft as seriously as I do (which fortunately is many). I was very impressed with the standard of refereeing and officiating at this year’s AJVC. In general, the referees were professional, friendly and competent. I certainly enjoyed getting some excellent referees from NZ and the other states. Not all the referees were perfect in their calls, but i can’t say any made more mistakes in a game than any player or coach. The standard must have been pretty good given that at the “lowest” level (u17 women), i thought it was still pretty good.

What I respect about the craft of refereeing when it’s done well, is it’s about shaping a game that in enjoyable for the players and the spectators. As a coach I might work hard to make sure my players are in rotation before every serve and have no issue with a game finishing if the other team gets called out of rotation. A referee thinks differently – it’s not how players and spectators want the game to resolve itself. Like good coaches, good referees have an idea of what volleyball should look like in their heads. As a coach, the game in my head must allow my team to be more efficient and effective in winning rallies than the other team. It’s not necessarily a concern that this efficiency is boring and unenjoyable for the other team to play and for the specatators to watch. A good referee thinks differently. In terms of their idea of what a game of volleyball should look like, a good referee is an arbiter of good taste. (coaches on the other hand may have poor taste, but it can be argued that winning is never unfashionable).

I don’t subscribe to referees and coaches having an adversarial relationships. I think of the relationship between coaches and referees (should be) a bit like that between a Director of a film and the editor. Both are storytellers from different perspectives. The Director’s job is to get the performance out of the actors. The editor’s job is to assemble it together so that it makes sense to the audience. The director is usually not allowed in the editing room. The editor doesn’t come on the set. A difficult scene may have taken 2 weeks to shoot and was physically, mentally and emotionally gruelling – but if it the editor doesn’t think it serves the purpose of telling the story to the audience, they’ll cut it. Directors even express their understanding why scenes get cut in their DVD commentary. Alan Smithee has more problems with the producer than the editor. Directors, coaches, editors and referees should all be invisible. The audience should only see the drama created by the players. and i mean players in both the sporting and shakespearean sense.

Referees also have the only properly functioning commission in the sport. and mentoring. At state league levels, most referees get given feedback by a senior referee on their performance. The feedback is in the interests of the development of the individual referee and nothing else. There’s a coaching commission i’ve subscribed to. I think it covers me for insurance. I get a newsletter each week, but to tell you the truth, it’s annoying i have to download it and open it as a PDF. I don’t have a formal mentoring relationship with any other coaches (but as a coach of a bunch of losing teams, i get plenty of advice from just about everyone). There are coaching mentors, but unlike the referees, the agenda isn’t purely on the development of the coach. Coaching mentors might be in charge of a high performance program and have interests related to their key athletes. They might be the head coach of a state program and need to get results. Furthermore, the fact that coaches have to compete with one another at some point makes it hard. I’m curious to see what would happen if I experimented in having a coaching mentor who didn’t give a shit about anything (players, results etc) other than how coaching performance compares with the objectives of the coach.

Stephen Long, who is in charge of refereeing in SA boasted to me that he could take any State League level player and make them into a good referee in a few weeks. I couldn’t say the same thing about turning any decent athlete into a good player.

My instinct says that referees being more selfish in their own interests doesn’t help the game get better. Zhuangzi, Lao Zi, Capitalism and functioning models of democracy would disagree with me and say everything hums away nicely when that’s exactly what everyone does.

* * *

Coaches are in a position to grow the sport more than officials. A coach always feels that they take on the responsibility of developing the sport more than referees. Does excellent refereeing and officiating make the sport better?

A look at AJVC and everything is spot on to the high and officious standards of our sport. The referees are properly accredited and there’s a “jury” of sorts going from court to court. There’s protocol. I get told off for calling the sub late or the player not holding the paddle high enough. The handles of the odd numbered paddles lean one way and the evens the other. The rules and protocol as enforced by the referees and officials probably translates well to an international level of the sport.

Compare that to the US. At a similar level, competitions are far from being held to the same strict standards. A lot of their referees probably aren’t qualified. In short, the way they do things from a refereeing and officiating perspective probably doesn’t translate well to an international game. But they finished the 2008 Olympics with a Gold and Silver medal in the indoor competition, and 2 golds and 1 silver on the beach.

I don’t think great refereeing helps the sport that much, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. If anything, coaches and players have a lot of catching up to do. If anything has become clear to me in the last couple of years, our “elite competitions” do a great job of providing  our referees and officials with the practice and pathway to get to an international level (weird asian federation politics aside). I couldn’t say the same about coaches and referees.

* * *

After pondering about all these things for two weeks, i was quite affected by a couple of umpire/coach/player incidents that occurred recently in my football club and league. I was sad to hear that there was a bad incident between a coach of my football club and an umpire on the weekend. The team (a young junior team) was getting flogged and it was bad enough that the coach was abusive towards the players. He hurled abuse at the umpire and when told to shut up released an abusive tirade at the umpire. Complaints came from the opposing club’s coach and presidents as well as people at our own club. Being a small country club, the umpire was actually our club’s president, filling in because we regularly can’t get enough umpires. As an A-Grade player the umpire had played under the coach, and their daughters were close friends at school and in their sports. It was undesirable (dare i say unacceptable) behaviour on so many levels.

I can’t say what happened on tuesday night at the committee meeting when this issue may or may not have been brought up, but it was disturbing that on a broad level at our club, the behaviour wasn’t deemed “unanimously unacceptable”. There are still plenty of people who think talking to officials like that is acceptable.

But that wasn’t the worst thing that happened recently. Somewhere else in our league a few weeks back, a senior colts player (u18s) punched an umpire. he made deliberate and physical contact with an umpire. The tribunal suspended him for 10 years (the last 5 years suspended). Commendably, the league took this pretty seriously. However, the SANFL community football league saw things differently and on appeal, the suspension was cut down to 3 years.

The league was irate at the “support” they received from the SANFL

The SANFL emailed a press release, which was rather unsatisfying

In protest, the umpires board are wearing red armbands and have refused to umpire any junior grade games this weekend. They could have refused to umpire any matches in our league and the adjacent league.

It’s a good thing in volleyball that coaches can’t talk to referees during matches.

I don’t argue with referees. At least not during games. For starters there is a low “return on investment”. Secondly, it’s just wrong.

This only hurts sport. Any and every sport. As a “sporting nation”, we have a long way to go in understanding and respecting officiating. After hearing about the 2 incidents in my football league, i felt ashamed that i was someone who liked sport.

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2 Responses to “Referees and Officials”

  1. Alexis Says:

    I see you used the analogy relating the numbers of mistakes made by referees to that of coaches and/or athletes. I understand the point but I don’t think its an accurate analogy to make.

    Firstly – if we are talking about technical aspects (ie: a serve into the net is a mistake), then from a technical respect a referee’s mistake would be to fall off the stand, to make the wrong signal (but the right decision), and not to miss the whistle when they try to blow it.

    Secondly – if we are talking about decision making, the types of decisions made are completely different. Coaches and athletes make decisions based on what WILL happen as well as what DID happen, referees make decisions based on what DID happen.

    Thirdly – the volume of decisions made is significantly different. For many actions in a match there are no decisions to make for a referee, yet for most players there are a multitude to make each time the ball is touched.

    Fourthly – the timeframe for decision-making is completely different. A hitter has a very small window of time to make decisions based on the path of the ball through the air, whether the block will close or when, whether to wait on the hit so that the crosscourt opens up or hit it early before the seam closes, etc. The timeframes for making refereeing decisions are rarely, if ever, this small.

    This is not an attack on referees, its just an attack on this particular analogy! Comparing the ‘mistakes’ made by referees and players and/or coaches is like comparing apples and apostrophes. There is a little similarity but not a lot once you really look into it.

  2. Hugh Nguyen Says:

    Yes, all good points. But i’m still the worst referee i know!

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