Is Communication - A Lost Art?


by Tom Lopes

One of the most difficult aspects of officiating is communicating effectively with the coaches. Most of us have struggled with this phase of our officiating skills, and would love to be able to interject the right words that could help smooth or diffuse situations with the coaches. How do we obtain these skills?

Communication is defined as a technique for expressing ideas effectively, or the interchange of thoughts, or opinions, something imparted, interchanged or transmitted. Translated for officials it means: knowing how to handle people, having good listening skills, and treating people with respect, the same as you would like to be treated.

In officiating, communication is an art. It is our lifeline. If done well it enhances the officials repertoire, it completes the package. Can it be taught? Can it be learned? Or is it more likely a combination of both.

Someone once said that experience is the best teacher, certainly that is true in officiating. As young and inexperienced officials we made the normal mistakes of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I am sure you remember saying to a coach “you coach and I will referee”. The door is now open and the usual response from the coach is “when are you going to start”. Simple law of physics, for every action there is a reaction.

Other examples of inexperience are the challenging statements: “sit down”, “stop refereeing”, “get in the box”, “cut it out” and the worst of all “shut up”. All of these comments immediately put up a barrier to further communication; you are now in an adversarial role, and in for a long and difficult night.

Body language is another form of communication. Staring down the coach, putting your hands on your hips or pointing at the coach present a direct challenge, and will normally elicit a negative response from the coach.

Officials in their early years will experience all of the above, and hopefully will make adjustments to handling these situations, as they review what happened during that game. How many times have we driven home and second-guessed ourselves on handling a demonstrative or acting out coach. Or how we could have answered in a way that may have diffused the situation, so that it did not escalate.

Officials know that they have technical fouls at their disposal, a penalty to be used to make the game better. It’s knowing when to pull the trigger and call a technical foul that causes the most consternation for officials.

What do the good officials do? Ask them. In your area there are very good and successful officials, pick their brains, observe them in action. Ask them, what did you say to the coach at the 6-minute mark that put him or her at ease.

Don’t take it personal; expect comments from coaches during the game. Here are some suggestions: after making a call go to your new position, if the coach has a question he will get your attention. Remember to answer questions, not statements, most of the time they don’t need a response. Be a responder not an initiator; let the coach ask a question before you start talking.

Always be under control, speak in calm, easy tones, be aware of body language, and try to maintain positive and confident body language. Also when talking to a coach, make it so no one else can hear it. When questioned on a call there are many answers, try to limit your response, one of these might work: “I missed the call”, “from my angle I am sure I am correct on that call”, “I don’t know, and you don’t know, we need to see the tape”. Don’t try to bluff your way through a call, it just doesn’t work.

Remember also that if asked a question or clarification has been requested, do not ignore the coach. Many times a short honest answer and explanation will do wonders for you and your credibility. When all else fails and the coach is out of control its time to stop talking and start blowing.