Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence and Sports Officiating

Sports officiating is highly stressful because referees must make numerous split-second decisions, often resulting in significant consequences for both teams. These rulings frequently produce intense disagreement from players, coaches, and spectators.

The subsequent emotional strain has contributed to an alarming decrease in sports officiating membership across the country. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 80 percent of high school sports officials quit before their third year on the job, often as a direct result of increasingly abusive and belligerent behavior.

It’s safe to assume every state athletic association would list sports official retention as one of its foremost concerns.

Not Everyone Has the Capacity to Officiate

Just as most people do not have what it takes to be a doctor, teacher, military member, or law enforcement officer; I propose most people do not have the capacity to be a successful sports official.

It’s okay if some of the “80%” cited above are in that category; “I tried it and didn’t like it. I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into. The money I made is not worth the hassle. It’s time to move on.”

In contrast, there are tens of thousands of men and women who want to remain connected to the game, who enjoy the camaraderie of working with other officials, and who want to give back to the community; but the stress of officiating is overwhelming them, and the discouragement is driving them from the game they love.

Focus on Psychological Skills

In “A Conceptual Model of Referee Efficacy,” Félix Guillén and Deborah L. Feltz identified six key confidence components for officiating success: game knowledge, decision-making skills, psychological skills, strategic skills, communication/control of game, and physical fitness.

This article will address the “psychological skills” component and will specifically explore the concept of Emotional Intelligence as a significant component for officiating success.

The Definition of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is defined as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”

A list of sports official qualities normally begins with rules and mechanics knowledge, physical fitness, judgment, communication skills, and game experience. The attributes of courage, character, or emotional stability often conclude the list, not start it.

It’s interesting that Daniel Goleman, an internationally known psychologist, suggests emotional intelligence accounts for 67% of leadership success and is twice as important as technical proficiency or IQ. Maybe we are not placing enough emphasis on recognizing and developing emotional intelligence.

Awareness of Self and Awareness of the Environment

For this discussion, the Emotional Intelligence definition above can be distilled into two fundamental components: awareness of self, and awareness of the environment.

The intent of this article is not to examine strategies and methods in dealing with stress and conflict. Instead, the article will simply focus on awareness.

The premise of this article is with more acute awareness of the officiating environment and oneself, officials can be better prepared to manage the inevitable stress they will experience.

Stress is Not Wholly Negative; Anticipate Conflict

Before we investigate Emotional Intelligence in sports officiating, it’s important to note a certain level of stress is required for officiating success.

“Stress is not wholly negative. On the contrary, a certain amount of stress is needed to function on a high level. You have to prepare yourself in ways that enable you to channel this stress.”

Associate Professor Bjørn Tore Johansen of the University of Agder

Sports officials must acknowledge most sports are designed to be emotional, stressful, and high-energy. For many officials, this is what compels us to connect to the game. Candidly, games lacking energy and emotion are not very fun to officiate. By the very nature of a high-energy, competitive game; there will be numerous instances for volatile situations to surface.

Officials must approach each contest with “eyes wide open,” anticipating significant conflict, instead of becoming indignant when controversy and disputes arise. It’s irrational to assume a stress-free officiating experience.

Awareness of the Environment:

The players in action between the lines are not the only source of officiating stress. Parents, fans, and coaches significantly contribute to the stress environment.

General happiness is on the decline

In a 2017 National Officiating Survey, 17,000 sports officials were asked “Who causes the most problems with sportsmanship?” “Parents” and “Fans” received a combined 57.47% of the votes.

Multiple dynamics contribute to this poor sportsmanship, and most of them have nothing to do with an official’s performance.

The General Social Survey, conducted between 1973-2016, revealed “General Happiness” in America has slowly declined since at least 2000. In a 2017 Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, only 33% of Americans surveyed said they were happy. Is it logical to assume unhappy fans will vent some of their frustrations on the officials?

The impacts of social media

Also, a growing body of evidence shows social media has contributed to increasing anti-social behavior. Information now travels at the speed of light. There is so much negativity online that some people have become perpetually offended. It’s become much easier, with a few keystrokes and a mouse click, to anonymously disparage each other.

A culture of criticism

This “culture of criticism” can easily extend to sports spectating. Angry fans believe they are entitled to be angry; they’ve paid the price of admission, and unfortunately, they think it’s acceptable to hurl insults from the stands. Additionally, with social media, officiating blunders are amplified and widely dispersed, so it’s easy for fans to fixate on real or perceived mistakes.

Some parents have lost perspective on the benefit of sports in our society and have somehow tied their personal identity and value to the performance of their children. Moreover, most parents and fans lack advanced rules knowledge and often rely on what they’ve observed on television to form an opinion.

Coaches and sportsmanship

In the same 2017 NASO survey, “Coaches” received 29.46% of the votes to the “Who causes the most problems with sportsmanship” question. Randy Campbell, Division I football and basketball official, provides a reasonable premise for coach-initiated conflict.

It’s an indisputable fact, officials view the game differently than coaches and have different priorities and goals. Our goal and focus as officials is to safeguard players and to make sure one team does not gain an advantage over the other team within the rules of the game. A coach’s goal and focus is winning the game. So, right off the bat, there’s a disconnect. We’re not approaching the game the same way and we’re not talking the same language. That disconnect is the basis for conflict.

Randy Campbell

Coaches have a lot at stake

The outcome of a sporting event will seldom impact an official’s future. We step on the playing surface as impartial arbiters. This is not true for coaches. Depending on the age group, a coach’s livelihood could be at stake. Also, like parents, their sense of personal identity is often directly tied to the performance of their teams.

Younger coaches, especially at the youth sports level, are trying to make a name for themselves, and don’t have the emotional intelligence to handle adversity and stress. They may observe college and professional coaches, who have a longer “leash” than youth and high school coaches, scream at officials; and they copy what they see.

It’s noteworthy, that in the 2017 NASO survey, 53.93% of the respondents selected coaches as most responsible for improving sportsmanship. Coaches often set the tone for players, parents, and fans alike.

Awareness of Self:

Not everyone is equipped to be a sports official.

We all have different personalities

Some people are born with high emotional intelligence and the innate talent to recognize and control their emotions. For others, it is a skill that must be developed, and an individual needs to be personally motivated to do so. This requires self-reflection and acknowledgment of emotional blind spots. The following questions may be useful in measuring one’s emotional intelligence:

  • How resilient are you?
  • Are you able to take verbal criticism?
  • Are you easily triggered?
  • Do you have a hot temper?
  • Are you easily antagonized into confrontations?
  • Do you have limited patience?
  • Do you hold a grudge?
  • How adept are you at controlling impulses, regulating anger, thinking before you speak/react, and responding to other peoples’ irrational emotions?
  • How quickly do you recover when an adversarial situation or mistake has occurred?
  • Do you have empathy?

A misplaced sense of righteousness?

Some officials may have a misplaced sense of “righteousness” and “justice.” They see in black and white, are dogmatic, and are unable to tolerate any misbehavior. They speak in absolutes such as “what you permit, you promote,” or “I need to take care of this now or the coach/player will think this behavior is acceptable.”

They act as the “penalty police.” In my opinion, this viewpoint is unreasonable. Some behavior must not be tolerated and must result in a consequence. It’s helpful when state associations and athletic conferences identify unacceptable behaviors; if we have clearly defined higher authority principles, we don’t have to make as many personal decisions.

In reality, officials most often operate in equivocal areas that require practiced discretion. The ability to think and act with a measure of empathy, without allowing emotion to cloud judgment, is essential to effective sports officiating.

Fans pay admission to the game to watch the athletes play, not to watch the officials. Consequently, as officials, we are not customers, we are customer service. Employees of any customer-focused business are trained to provide empathy to disgruntled customers and to give as much grace as possible to help resolve problems.

Accept by the very nature of the game, there will be conflict

It would be ludicrous for a Marine recruit to show up at Parris Island, South Carolina and be surprised and outraged when a drill sergeant screamed in his face. It would be absurd for a deputy sheriff to habitually assume a peaceful shift.

Likewise, it is incongruous for a sports official to expect virtuous behavior from parents, fans, and coaches. Thoughtful awareness of oneself and the environment will help mitigate the inevitable stress encountered in most games.