If you’ve been involved with sports, you are familiar with this scenario.

It is minutes before game-time, the teams are ready to play, but the officials are nowhere to be found. Coaches are on their cell phones and pacing, while parents and athletes keep looking out toward the parking lot.

Suddenly, the officials appear and there’s a lift in spirits and collective sigh of relief. “Thank goodness they’re here.”

And then the game starts.

“You’re clueless! – You’re horrible! – Are you blind?! – How much did the other coach pay you? – You should never ref again! – You suck!!!” And far, far worse. Profanities, escorts to the parking lot, assaults.

It’s an ugly side of our sports culture that needs rehabilitation.

Officials are what make a sporting event … official. Without them, it’s just a long season of scrimmages. Yet, how they’re treated is not commensurate with how much they’re needed. It’s become acceptable to sling insults and act towards them with utter disdain. In what other walk of life do adults shout at people while they try to do their job?

Understanding the Emotions First

The root of frustration or anger stemming from judgement calls is easy to understand. Competition evokes emotion and when sons and daughters are competing, emotions are intensified. A call that goes against you sparks ire because you feel you’ve been wronged. The person responsible for that decision is the official, and as a result, he or she becomes the enemy.

Having those negative thoughts or feelings is not the real problem. It’s not even abnormal. The issue lies with how the emotions are handled. It’s not easy, but they can be managed. Here are a few reasons why you want to manage emotions from the sidelines.

Berating game officials …

  • embarrasses your kid
  • reflects poorly on you as a person
  • creates a tense atmosphere and strips the sport of its joy
  • causes athletes to lose focus and start playing the blame game
  • in some cases, will work against your team

(When I was coaching or playing, I loved it when the other team criticized the officials. It was a competitive advantage. Keep yelling, genius.)

So if the emotions are persistent, but parents want to become better at managing them, what are the alternatives? Below are suggestions that are less about telling people how to act and more about putting the players and competition first.

  1. Don’t say anything at all. Grit your teeth, clench your fist, just don’t verbalize it.
  2. Talk to yourself. Mumble expletives if you need to, just don’t let everyone else hear it.
  3. Walk over and vent to another parent. It’s perfectly fine to disagree with a call and have your opinion. If you need to voice it, share it with one person.
  4. Sit in the car. You can still watch the game and scream your head off. Just keep the windows rolled up.

A Rooting Interest

Teams consist of coaches, athletes, families, and friends. Entering an athletic contest, the objectives of both teams are clear. They want to win, score goals, register strikeouts, gain yards, defend, post personal bests, etc. All parties on each side have a rooting interest in the results.

The people that don’t have interest in the results are the officials. Their objective is to have a clean contest, get the calls right, and get out. Trust me, when the 12U Jackson Cobras square off against the Lacey Lightning, they don’t care about the outcome. Officials are the most objective individuals at an event.

This rooting interest is important to acknowledge on a close call. We tend to see things the way we want to see them. The reality is, the call is going to go the right way for one team and the wrong way for the other. If your team is on the short end, it doesn’t make the official incompetent.

Let’s use an off-sides call in soccer as an example of when a referee can be perceived as “doing a good job” and being called “a bum” on the same play. A team trails 1-0 and a player sends a long cross that is headed in for a beautiful goal.  One set of parents is watching the play with great excitement and joy, and the other is yelling for off-sides to be called. The referee has their hand raised and whistles off-sides, nullifying the goal.

One side comments, “Good call, ref.” The other side reacts as if a crime was just committed. It’s fair to be disappointed the call didn’t go your way, but is it fair to lash out at the ref?

What should we expect from officials?

The first thing we should expect from officials is a few mistakes. They’re human and it’s difficult to be perfect on every call in active events. All sports fans should officiate at least one game in their lifetime. It’s a tougher job than most think.

But mistakes aside, what should our expectations be?

  • The official should be appropriately dressed, equipped, and on time.
  • The official should know the rules of the sport.
  • The official should always hustle to be in the best position possible.
  • The official should be consistent throughout the contest.
  • The official should be composed and non-combative.
  • The official should use their authority if players, coaches, or spectators get out of control.

I don’t think we can ask for much more than that, particularly in youth sports. There are so many travel teams and tournaments, officials are stretched out and constantly in high demand.

Because without them, there are no good calls or bad calls. There are no calls at all. Just a long season of scrimmages.

Mark Gola is an author, former collegiate coach, and athlete. He played Division I baseball at Rider University and was an assistant coach at Rider and Princeton University. Mark was an Assistant Athletic Director for Athletic Communications at The College of New Jersey for nine years and worked full time at the Dave Gallagher Baseball Academy for six years. He has also coached high school soccer and baseball.