Officials: alert not aloof

Volleyball official
Author:  Sharon Phillips
Issue: Volume 5 Number 2

Gone, it seems are the days of the overzealous, authoritarian umpire or referee who ruled to the letter of the law and stood aloof and apart from the sport in which they were involved.

A few are still around, but if you listen to four top sports officials, these days it’s all about officials who cultivate an atmosphere of respect and strive to manage games or races, rather than ruling them.

Not that it means we’re awash with officials who adopt a ‘buddy’ approach to their work. Netball Australia Director of Umpiring, Chris Burton, believes a balanced approach is still required of umpires at whatever level they participate.

‘First and foremost you have to remember that umpires are human,’ Burton says. ‘On court you have 14 people. Work with them as people and they will respond to you as a person.

‘At a junior or “netta” level match there is provision for a little interaction. There is a licence for liberalism because you’re helping young players learn. At a top level the speed and power of the game means there’s less liberalism. You need to make quick and accurate decisions.’

Burton advocates dealing with individual players when incidents occur. ‘It worries me that an umpire would consider going to the captain with an issue about another player on court. If that’s the case, they’ve missed an opportunity. Show the player directly involved the respect you want shown to you.’

It’s a slightly different approach than that offered by Rugby Union National Referee Education Manager Kim Lees, who believes in his sport, the captain is the only person a referee should approach on field. ‘On-field communications should be clear and concise. Referees should deal primarily with the captain - that’s the person responsible for leadership on the field,’ Lees says. ‘Any dialogue with players should be avoided while the game is on.’

He says the approach taken by a referee can have an important bearing on the relationship that exists with the players and the manner in which the game is played. ‘Referees need to be good managers and work at facilitating the game rather than being dictatorial. At the junior level, communication and interaction will be such that it will assist the players in learning the game. As the level of competition becomes higher and players are more experienced, the interaction remains just as important but will be a different style. The motto adopted in rugby at the higher levels is “less is best”.’

Vice-President of Tennis Officiating Australia, Tony Lane, sees a similar situation in his sport. ‘At an elite level, you assume everyone is well enough aware of the rules and regulations that communication can be kept to a minimum. The environment in tennis is one where interactions are direct and personal. As an umpire, I’ve been at both ends of the officiating spectrum ... aloof and friendly. When you lean too far towards a friendly element, you encourage an environment where players use your openness to undertake gamesmanship. If you take too officious an approach, your relationship with players can become unmanageable. I was refereeing soccer when I was 12 and umpiring tennis when I was 16. At that age you’re often dealing with participants who are older than you and it’s much easier to get out of conflict situations by applying the rules in an officious manner. You don’t necessarily have the skills to negotiate, if you will. That comes with experience.’

International UCI cycling commissaire Bill Clinch agrees that those who are dogmatic about the way they officiate in his sport often lack confidence in their abilities.

‘They’re the sort of people who get tied up and can’t separate the black and white of the rule book from the application of the rules. Really, it’s not about the regulations as they stand but how you, as an official, apply the regulations to different situations. At a junior level it is not only how you apply those rules, but you also have to be teachers of the rules. At an elite level in cycling, you’re dealing with people where sport is their income and your decisions can be very detrimental. You need to make your decisions, be confident in them, but really it comes down to the simple fact that if you want respect, you must show respect.’

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