This might sound familiar…
The referees are NEVER on our side. The refs just want our team to lose and the “other” team to win. If they’re not looming over the court and restricting play, they’re in front of the scorer’s table doling out some unfair and extreme punishment for a bogus foul call. So of COURSE we should hate refs.
It’s an all too popular perspective. Some of us may even be guilty of falling into it. But deep down we all know that this narrative just isn’t true.
Referees themselves are players, coaches, and fans. They are as committed to basketball as anyone else in the sport.
Referees are people too.
Yes, they are the authority figure on the court. And yes, it’s easy to hate the authority figure. We’ve all had an overbearing teacher or unreasonable boss – someone who just can’t see things your way no matter how hard you plead.
Referees understand that. And they understand that in their position, people will inevitably become frustrated to some degree or another.
And so it helps to take a step back, and get a bigger picture perspective. If you are constantly in battle with the refs, what effect are you having on the game? What is your priority, as a coach, parent, or player? And what kind of example are you setting?
So in the spirit of self-reflection and a basic level of respect for referees, here are 7 thoughts to consider at your next basketball game:
1. Play the host
If your team is the “home team”, try and act like it. How would you be treating these respectable men and women if they came over to your house? You would treat them like guests.
Preach the same when it comes to referees. Ask if there is anything they need before the game starts. It doesn’t have to be over the top – just be welcoming.
2. Establish a rapport
During warm-ups, meet the refs. Introduce yourself, shake their hands, and get their names. First impressions will set the tone for all future interactions with the referees, so establish a rapport early.
The last thing you want is for your first impression to be a semi-coherent about whether or not a player stepped out of bounds or not at a referee you’ve never met before. But if you establish a friendly relationship early, refs will be much more willing to listen and engage in a discussion with you.
3. Give respect to get respect
You would think the “golden rule” would be a given. But with an epidemic of yelling and berating referees in youth sport, it doesn’t hurt to hammer this one home.
Treat the refs with consideration and kindness, and they will reciprocate. Treat the refs like they’re the scum of the earth, and they will reciprocate. And you better believe it’s all but impossible to get a late-game call to go your way when you’ve treated the refs like scum all night.
4. Have a two-way conversation
If you disagree with a call, stay calm. STAY CALM I TELL YOU. Basketball is a fast-paced game, and referees aren’t always right – and they know that.
Instead of yelling across the gym, subtly get the refs attention to let them know you have a question about the last call. Be patient if play is still live – the call would never get reversed anyways. Once there is a break in play, explain how you saw the call and hear out their response. It may be hard to admit, but usually the referee is in the right – and the odd time they are wrong, you can expect the same situation to be called correctly next time.
5. Encourage balanced calls, not your calls.
Though it would be nice, referees are not at the game to make calls just for your team. A referee’s job is to make calls that are both correct, and balanced. And this isn’t always easy – the very nature of basketball means that there are many “judgement calls”, falling into the grey-area of interpretation and point-of-view in the moment in which they happen.
So don’t expect – or beg – for every call to go your way. Instead, preach balance. If one team has 15 more fouls than the other, point this out – whether it is your team or not. Referees will appreciate the honesty and your commitment to a fair game, and may even see more judgement calls your way as a result.
6. What’s the game really about?
Youth sports just isn’t about winning. Nor should it be. What youth sports ARE about is having fun, learning new skills, meeting people, personal challenges, character building – and the list goes on. But if you find you constantly analyzing the last call or counting how many fouls a player has, you may want to reconsider your priorities. Instead try to encourage good team play, celebrate effective displays of skill, and look for new ways to engage everyone on the team. Be a coach. Be a parent. Don’t be a critic.
7. Consider the example you are setting
Finally, as the grown-ups in the room, set a positive example for everyone else. The age-old story of a parent or coach falling into an absolute rage over some menial foul call is not only embarrassing, but it is an epidemic in much of youth sport.
First, this is clearly immature behaviour. Picture a coach and a toddler throwing simultaneous tantrums at the end of a bench. Is there really a difference, aside from the clipboard the coach just broke?
More importantly, this behaviour teaches kids that the best way to get what you want is to yell about it. And sure, tantrums may have worked when you needed that extra apple juice before nap time. But the real world just doesn’t work that way. Consider how really, truly influential people get what they want. Do they yell, scream, and pull out their hair? Or do they ask questions, listen, and have a conversation?
Sports is a powerful development tool, especially for social skills. The relationship between referees and various sport participants (players, coaches, and parents) is a textbook example of an opportunity for an education in socialization.
Because sports is about people. And referees are people too.