This article includes excerpts from Referee publication No Argument.
One of the biggest factors which separate the top college umpires is their ability to manage a game. College coaches, in general, have a more active role in the game because, for most of them, this is their livelihood, their job/career. Their longevity in that job can depend on the success of their teams. This factor leads to the obvious – their interactions with umpires during a game can be more frequent and argumentative than travel ball and high school games. Effectively handling in-game exchanges is a vital prerequisite for a college umpire and can often determine whether an umpire’s career leads to moving up from Community College to the highest level of NCAA softball umpiring.
How does an umpire learn how to handle arguments? It takes more than reading about this topic. However, there are some basic concepts which can be explained on paper and then used on the field. You should also watch the presentation on this Locker Room in the Video section (Game Management/Arguments – Game Management Arguments/Ejections Presentation). Important note – experience is the best teacher, so talking to veteran umpires about how they handled confrontations with coaches can be extremely helpful.
Managing the argument
Manage yourself first
This begins with whether you choose to listen to what you hear. There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is physiological; we cannot prevent sound waves from entering our ears. Listening involves conscious choice; it requires intent and attention and it something good umpires choose to engage at the right time.
There are four groups of people with opinions on how umpires are doing the job – coaches, players, other team personnel, and spectators. Each is unique, and each must have its own set of boundaries.
• Head coaches – listen to their legitimate complaints; try to ignore the negative and personal comments until they “cross your line.” (See the article Comments and Gestures – Where Is Your Line?)
• Players – the key is what they say and how they say it. If they bring something to your attention in a respectful manner, listen and assure them you will be watching; if disrespectful or personal, take the appropriate action.
• Other team personnel – give less tolerance to assistant/pitching/batting coaches and other team personnel; make it clear to the head coach to handle the situation before you do.
• Spectators – it is vitally important that you ignore spectators; if you listen to them or give credibility to what they say, you are bound to hurt your game.
Anger is a normal emotion and not necessarily a bad emotion. Anger is a secondary emotion which often occurs after either stress or frustration. How we deal with it makes our actions either appropriate or inappropriate. The best way to handle it is to know yourself.
• What sets you off? What are your biggest “triggers”?
• Who or what causes you to get angry the most?
• Ask yourself why these specific people or situations become your triggers.
• Are you overreacting? Can you start to look at these situations differently?
• Monitor your feelings throughout the game; recognize impending moments of anger and remain calm
Manage the interaction
Do not argue
Your goal as an umpire is to diffuse and resolve conflict, not to win the argument. Eliminate your instinct to argue; take a deep breath and keep your composure
• Let the other person talk without interrupting
• Limit the discussion to the immediate issue
• Avoid the other person’s vulnerability or emotional sensitivities (e.g. do not say “calm down”)
• Answer emotion with empathy (paraphrase what they said in a positive context)
• Take the edge off the emotion – show concern to their disgust; use a soft voice to their high level of anger
Recognize the type of arguer
There are usually four different types of arguers at any game. Each combative type requires a different approach to defuse them.
• They do not confront your directly but will make constant little sniping remarks throughout the game.
• Do not allow this to build to the point of getting upset.
• Early in the game firmly inform the chipper that you have heard the comments and they must stop.
• If they continue, give a formal warning.
• They think they can win any argument by being louder or more “in-your-face” than anyone else.
• When they come at you, yelling and animated, assume an opposite demeanor – focus on being calm; place your arms behind your back, speak in softer terms; repeat their words back to them in normal voice.
• If that does not work and they cross the line, take the appropriate action.
• Sometimes you run into a coach who, for whatever reason, just does not like you
• Prepare yourself mentally for the game.
• Confrontations may seem more like personal attacks so you must be even more vigilant.
• Your best tools are professionalism and courtesy
• These people will usually become argumentative if they genuinely believe there is a case to be made
• They will typically be professional and respectful in voicing their displeasure.
• Use the same approach – respectful and professional; listen to the arguer; the worst you can do is to escalate the confrontation.
Whatever the circumstances or type of arguer, stay away from the cute comebacks, wisecracks, sarcasm, and inappropriate statements. What not to say:
• Do not deliver an ultimatum, especially the infamous “one more word and you’re gone”
• Be careful how you say something; use the appropriate tone of voice and body language
• Prepared answers may not always work; think through the situation and make sure the answer makes sense in the context of this argument
• Do not keep using the same standard lines. Instead of always saying “Coach, I’ve heard enough”, use other phrases – “Coach, I hear you; I know what you are saying” or “That’s a good point, Coach.”
Use an effective ender
It may be satisfying to get in the last word for everyday disputes, but umpires are expected to be above such pettiness. A phrase that could end many arguments regarding a judgment call is “Coach, if it happened the way you say it did, you would be right. However, that is not the way I saw it. Now, let’s play ball.” Similarly, if the argument involves a rule interpretation, ask the coach what his/her interpretation is. Once this is offered the umpire should, without telling the coach he/she is wrong, explain the correct interpretation.
Control the conversation
Most arguments stick with one theme, but they can also go off into other tangents. It is important that an umpire controls the conversation. Some tips:
• Using your own words, repeat the problem back to the coach; this shows you have listened and understand the message
• Do not debate judgments; do not try to justify the call, just tell him/her what you saw
• Limit discussion to only the most recent call; stop the coach immediately and state you will talk only about this call or the discussion will end
• Remain assertive and decisive. You can change your mind if the right information is presented but do not let it appear that you were talked into the change – do it in a strong, decisive manner. And…be prepared to talk to the opposing coach as to why
The Four-point Volley
One way to control the conversation and get to a quick resolution is to use the “4-point Volley”:
1- Coach asks a legitimate question.
2- Umpire responds,
3- Coach asks for clarification,
4- Umpire makes closing statement.
DO NOT continue to engage in a discussion with a coach after you have rendered a ruling on the field. It looks bad, takes the momentum out of the game (which is sometimes their intent!!), and it is bad for the game. Remember, this dialog should be a brief statement of the ruling, not a debate to win them over to your point of view, or vice versa.
Find a closing statement that works for you to get the game going. “Coach, we have addressed your concern and the ruling on the field is____. It is time to play ball now.” If the coach wants to protest, consult the rule book, render a decision, and move on.
If the coach will still not disengage, issue a warning and then an ejection. The UMPIRES must be the ones in control here, not the coaches. Coaches should not come onto the field during a live ball. If they do, continue to umpire, and warn the coach. If a coach charges you, eject them.
Proper Authority Behavior
As umpires we have a lot of authority during the game, but we must not abuse it. We make decisions on judgment calls but must not allow past experiences to influence the decision. You must make the correct decision on each individual call, regardless of how many close calls have already gone in one team’s favor, or how you feel about a team’s coaching staff.
Our authority encompasses informal warnings, formal warnings, and the ultimate decision for an ejection. These points for how to behave properly in an authoritative role were made by Bob Delaney (previous top-rated NBA referee, NBA director, and at one time an undercover cop) during the 2020 NASO Summit:
• Demeanor both verbal and non-verbal
• Professional approach at all times; this is a basic expectation of a college softball umpire
• Facial expressions, body language and the image you project
• Handle emotions unemotionally; cannot express or verbalize it
• Know how/when to smile, or show a look to express “that’s enough”
Managing arguments is a vital tool every college umpire must have in their toolbox. Use the ideas and concepts in this article to sharpen this tool.