Officiating team sports required effective management and communication with the participants of the game. Officials need skills to apply and sell decisions in ways that are well received by the coaches and players.
A good decision can be communicated badly and create perceptions of unfairness
A lot of research has been done on sports officials, with most of the decision-making component and only a handful have directly explored communication and management. Many of us have discovered, from our on-field experience, that the quality of an umpire’s communication is as important, if not more important, than the quality of the decision itself. A good decision can be communicated badly and create perceptions of unfairness, yet a poor decision that is communicated effectively can be well accepted by coaches and players.
It is generally recognized that coaches and players want officials to be competent, dependable and respectful if they are to be perceived as fair and equitable. To understand what constitutes effective communication in team sports officials, read on…
Many coaches state that first and foremost officials need to be personable. Research covering many sports has determined that what coaches and players think about your decisions is largely influenced by what they think about you.
It’s best to avoid being overly friendly, but if you display qualities and characteristics that the coaches and players like, they are likely to be much more receptive to you and your decisions. If you are over-authoritative as an official, you are unlikely to be able to get the coaches and players on your side.
Top officials have an awareness of how their personality influences their officiating. That allows them to adapt their style in accordance with the requirements of the game situation — like a sort of emotional intelligence that allows them to relate to coaches and players effectively. This self-awareness is crucial, and although the characteristics can be seen to be a part of the individual umpire’s personality, it is the control of these, with purpose and restraint, that make for effective officiating. As such, personality should not be thought of as a fixed state, but something officials can develop.
The best communicators are respectful and approachable
Study has shown that the best communicators are respectful and approachable; similarly, resilience and dependability were identified as key characteristics. Top umpires are decisive and do not cave to the pressures of coaches and players and the crowd but stand firm behind their decisions. They also show accountability. This requires officials to be honest and admit when they have made a mistake. Crucially, it also means being able to provide a rationale for the decision that you’ve just made. Too often inexperienced officials ignore coaches and players who inquire about their decisions instead of simply providing their reasoning, which can prevent problems from escalating.
To make it to the top you need to be willing to interact with coaches and players and develop relationships to effectively manage the game. Coaches and players want officials to be decisive and resistant to pressures from other coaches and players and able to deliver decisions in a confident and calm manner. The word ‘presence’ is often used as a trait for the top umpires – it includes being cooperative and professional, as opposed to overly familiar or over officious.
Moving up the pyramid shows a key characteristic to be one-way communication. One aspect of this – we need to effectively sell our decisions; as umpire get to higher levels, this includes selling decisions to multiple audiences — not just the coaches and players but also the fans and the media. We need to manage the impression that we portray to others in our dialogue and our non-verbal communication (see the article on this website titled “Non-Verbal Communication”.”
A big part of the communication is the way you signal and verbalize your calls. Are they clear to coaches, players and spectators? Do they display the confidence with which you actually hold yourself when you are doing this?
When talking to coaches and players, our language should be clear, accurate and concise. Officials who are overly wordy can reflect uncertainty, so our choice of words needs to be considered. Our tone should also be neutral so that we don’t demean coaches and players and speak down to them, like a parent might to a child as this could cause resentment. Instead we should talk like an adult would to an adult, to encourage positive interactions.
The VAPER model (volume, articulation, pitch, emphasis and rate) may be a useful way of examining our verbal interactions. Our volume should be loud and clear but without shouting when we are delivering messages to everyone. We should articulate our words clearly and a lower pitch will reflect confidence. You may choose to emphasize key words and our rate should be slow and consistent. Often, we find that all these VAPER factors increase when we are under pressure, creating the impression that we are losing control.
As we become more skilled as umpires, we will come across a wide variety of game and coaches and players situations. There will be times when the intensity of the game rises and perhaps coaches and players start to become frustrated. Recognizing this is the starting point and taking measures to prevent situations from escalating is crucial.
It is also about developing an understanding from the coaches and players’ point of view about what they might be going through at the time. Sometimes it is not always black and white. There might be something that has been building up for 10 or 15 minutes. It is also about interpreting coaches and players’ feelings. You need to recognize when someone is angry; recognize when someone has done something out of frustration, as opposed to some intentional act. Pay attention to someone who is on a bit of a downer because they are not playing well. If you handle these situations properly when you see them, you may prevent further problems which could lead to ejections.
We know that individuals are more likely to perceive procedures as being fair when they are given the opportunity to express their feelings. Skilled interactors allow this to take place, giving the coaches and players a voice, whether or not they will act upon the comments. A good way to defuse a situation where the coaches and players might be getting a bit aggressive is a gentle smile, and a bit of ‘I understand’ attitude. That can go a long way, just as adjusting your body language to deal with those different situations. While officials are not out there to win friends, it is important to engage with those coaches and players and build respect.