Stressed Football Official Referee

How to Reduce Officiating Stress

Team sports are designed to be high-energy endeavors with accompanying elevated passion. Emotion and intensity are paramount to athletic success and have a significant influence on an athlete’s performance.

A coaching staff’s primary goal is to win the game, and failure is often directly connected to their personal identities. Sports fans often serve as the contest’s emotional “engine” (note the increased fervor and volume during a significant moment of a hotly-contested game).

Fan frenzy, regardless of age level or venue size, reveals the strong emotional affiliation spectators have with the contestants they support. And into this seething cauldron of emotion steps the sport official.

Sports Officials are Quitting at Record Rates

Sports officials are quitting at record rates and many veteran officials have testified sportsmanship has become much worse over the years. It’s uncommon to officiate a contest devoid of some measure of abuse from fans, players, and/or coaches.

Some officials choose to walk away, convinced the officiating benefits are not worth the harassment. Others want to stay connected to the game they love but are ill-equipped to successfully navigate the inevitable turmoil.

This article will address a few select guidelines to deal with challenging but ultimately manageable situations. Countless pages have been written about how to deal with irrational behavior. This article is not meant to be comprehensive as there are many other strategies to consider.

No “One Size Fits All” Remedy

It’s important to note, there is no fail-proof “one size fits all” remedy to deal with officiating stress. Sports is a human endeavor, and most every situation we encounter with fallible human beings will be unique.

If these recommendations were prescriptions and not guidelines, every official would be able to eliminate behavioral problems in just a few games. Additionally (and this is a subtle but significant distinction), officials must recognize they will never be able to completely control others’ behaviors; they instead will only be able to manage difficult situations.

Nothing we say or do will fundamentally change fan, coach, or player behavior during the game.

Take Care of What We Can Control

Instead of focusing on external factors we cannot control, we can examine and develop the components that are wholly within our circle of influence.

Imagine you decided to tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 110-mile hike through France, Italy, and Switzerland. A shrewd person would study maps, research blogs and testimonials from previous hikers, purchase essential equipment, formulate a schedule, develop meal plans, and reserve accommodations at appropriate intervals. The person would also design a fitness regimen to ensure he or she was in peak condition to undertake this physically challenging quest.

It’s safe to imagine an untrained and ill-equipped hiker would encounter many more obstacles than one who had meticulously prepared. The hiker cannot control the weather, airline schedules, or behavior of other hikers on the trail. However, by minimizing or eliminating variables that are well within the hiker’s span of control, the hiker can completely focus on the task ahead and on managing unforeseen events.

The same concept applies to sports officials

There are multiple factors an official will not be able to control, such as the maturity level of fans, players, and coaches. Instead, the official must strive to eliminate or minimize unwanted variables over which he or she has complete control.

According to Albert Bandura of Stanford University, self-efficacy is the strength of an individual’s conviction that he or she can successfully execute a desired behavior. He states, “People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable.”

The adage “proper preparation and planning prevent poor performance” is relevant to sports officials. Learning and preparation will always precede successful decision-making. It’s inconceivable an official would step on the playing surface in poor shape or with incomplete rules and mechanics knowledge, but it happens all the time, with predictable results.

Adjust a Misplaced Sense of Righteousness and Justice

Sports officials have “positional authority” and possess distinct status as game arbiters. Some officials become offended because they are not afforded the respect and dignity, they feel they deserve based on their status.

This feeling of self-importance inhibits an objective response when fans, players, or coaches undermine their positional authority. Some may also believe they are solely responsible for preserving the integrity of the game; if they tolerate any undesirable behavior, then mayhem will ensue.

“What you permit, you promote” is not a correct sports officiating axiom

The axiom “What you permit, you promote” is overly simplistic and infers that an official’s decision to offer grace will somehow invite anarchy. This inflexibility and draconian mindset will transform an official into the “penalty police” where any affront to what is righteous and good is swiftly punished.

We are grateful when a police officer lets us off with a warning after a traffic stop or when a lender forgives a monetary penalty for an overdue bill, but some of us seem to think any grace on the playing field will somehow damage the game.

Each rule book clearly outlines essential behavioral tenets; many of which are absolutes. Some decisions must be “black and white,” but most of our judgments will be less clear-cut.

Officiating is Not Always Black and White

Randy Campbell, Division I football and basketball official, asserts, “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.”

This definition appears to allow significant “trade space” when dealing with conflict. Swift justice does not always have to be meted out for indiscretions. Remember, sports are a human endeavor, and each unique personality (fans, players, coaches, fellow officials) will present a distinctive opportunity to appropriately manage a situation.

Develop and Adhere to Principles

The previous paragraph may seem to suggest we should ignore behavioral standards and principles. On the contrary, standards and principles are the foundation for our conduct on the field.

In her article “The Importance of Principles,” Katie Herche observed, “Principles are sets of uncompromising truths that provide us with tools for evaluating thought and action. Principles, because they are based on truth, are universal and can be applied without exceptions. A good set of principles will enable us to make decisions very quickly, even if the situation we are facing is completely new.”

Avoid arbitrary and impulsive decisions

As we develop sound behavioral principles, we can be more precise and less arbitrary with our decisions, and we can take emotion completely out of the equation when we encounter an agitating situation.

As much as possible, crews and local associations should develop the same set of principles. As much as possible, officials on a crew should strive to mirror “benchmark” crew decisions and should attempt to provide a consistent set of rulings. But it’s understandable each official on the crew may have distinct ideologies and attitudes; we are all human beings with different personalities.

The key is to take the time to thoughtfully consider and establish principles to avoid impulsive reactions. Establishing principles is also relevant when communicating with coaches.

On the website, founder Dr. George Thompson states, “[Managing] the situation with the right words and processes avoids ‘natural conversation;’ (words you might reflexively use that are no good to resolve a situation) on the part of the person in authority and instead relies on practiced and disciplined words and approaches to diffuse a situation.” In other words, principles beget precision.

Foster Teamwork, Trust, and Loyalty

The human body’s tissues, organs, and systems are organized and work in harmony to maximize performance. An officiating crew is very much like a living organism; “a whole with interdependent parts.”

Crew teamwork, trust, and loyalty is vital to success. When a crew believes in, trusts, and supports each other and fosters a “we’re in this together” and “I have your back” mentality, the environmental stresses will have less of an emotional impact.

Unfortunately, some officials view their peers as rivals and competitors. Instead of supporting a teammate following a mistake, some officials amplify stress by arguing and bickering in the locker room. The military would call this “friendly fire.”

We often see this behavior from players; a running back criticizes his offensive line for not effectively blocking, or a basketball player criticizes her teammate for allowing an opponent to easily score. This conduct may be understandable for young adults, but it is not appropriate for effective crew performance.