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The Best Seat in the House:   ON OFFICIATING

Geoff Robertson

10 July 2015


Officiating can be challenging, exciting and rewarding. On the other hand officials can feel frustrated, abused and unappreciated. Whether you experience the positive or the negative rests in your mental approach to officiating.


If you're umpiring only for money, you won't make it. You'd better be in it because you have a passion for it.


Top officials identify confidence, judgement, rapport and decisiveness as the qualities most essential, though more difficult to learn, for successful officiating.


Psychological factors are the most critical yet most tedious aspect of officiating. Officials face as much pressure and emotion as do athletes and managers.


What separates the best officials from the pack is psychological skills, which few officials take time to develop.


Communicating effectively is not as easy as it might seem, it requires listening as well as talking. Effective communication is critical.


Confidence is a building block of effective officiating. A confident official acts decisively and is in control.


It’s difficult dealing with the criticism and negative feedback that officials often receive; but setting specific goals for yourself can help maintain your desire and motivation, while too much emotion can be detrimental. Because officials have few chances to physically practice their skills, mental imagery is a great way to prepare for a game.


Officials perform one of sport's most difficult tasks. Good officiating facilitates the sport event, ensuring that the outcome is dependant upon the skills and tactics of the players. Poor officiating detracts from the contest and decreases the enjoyment of the game for players, managers and fans.


Officials are always open to public scrutiny, often discussed in open forum and publicised because of their mistakes, but when games go smoothly few people notice.


An official’s success depends on their physical and mental abilities. Managing psychological skills accounts for 50% - 70% of an official’s success. Consistency, fairness, mental toughness, accurate decision making and calmness are the most important assets for good officials. Their decisions should be the same in identical or similar circumstances and apply the rules equally to both opponents.


Between-game consistency is just as important.


A lack of consistency creates a frustrating and less trusting view of an official’s competence from managers and players and they then start guessing what is allowed and what is not. Many officials are inconsistent simply because they have not sufficiently mastered rule interpretations, basic positioning, and sports specific officiating techniques. The ability to get into a proper frame of mind and maintain it throughout the contest is critical to being an effective official.


Rapport is the quality of relating effectively to others. You are not trying to win a popularity contest but you are not trying to make enemies either. Although you cannot necessarily control the emotions of others, you are expected to be in control of your emotions no matter what the circumstances. Many officials try to please everyone. Such an approach is futile.


Relax and have fun.


Part of being relaxed is not being afraid to make mistakes. When the mind is not preoccupied with the negative consequences of failure, it can focus on the task at hand.


Keep your emotions and actions under control, never allowing them to jeopardize your effectiveness as an official. Call them as you see them!


Be concerned about maintaining other’s respect for your integrity off the field. Never air your opinions about players and teams you might officiate in the future.


Top officials enjoy their job immensely. This sense of enjoyment and fun is strongly tied to a positive mental attitude and feelings of energy. Good officiating requires a lot of hard work, dedication and practice. All of these stem from a high level of motivation, which is closely tied to enjoyment. If an official's enjoyment for officiating diminishes they will lack the motivation to practice and work hard at the job.


Peak officiating just doesn’t happen, it takes more than good intentions, often as a result of proper pre game preparation.


For some inexplicable reason, umpires, more than any other sports officials feel that a pre-game conference is unnecessary. Those umpires should be dead or retired.


Usually the pre-game is handled by the most senior umpire or crew chief or if all umpires are about equal then the plate umpire.


It doesn’t have to be a long winded procedure but things that need to be covered are:


Any rules or interpretation changes. Do not get into a general rule discussion.

Ground peculiarities

Fair/foul responsibilities

Fly ball responsibilities

Tag ups and touches

Calls at Third Base

Check swing

Dropped third strike

Batted ball – base umpire can call

Getting help – if necessary before the decision is made, it’s too late after the call is made


Arguments – when/if should the partner become involved


There are different rituals involved in pre-game:


The way some umpires set up their gear

Some umpires prefer the same space or locker, seniority can play a part

Some relax, some are rowdy

Be flexible, especially if you are at a ball park that you are not familiar with

Develop a routine

Warm up


Too often umpires arrive at a venue just before game time giving no time for a proper pre-game which is an insult to their partner and the game. They haven’t given any thought about the game or pre-game preparation.


Veteran officials have an advantage over rookies in that they are familiar with the opposing teams, managers and playing environment. They also have a mental advantage because they know the playing styles of athletes and managers. A rookie official must acquire such inside information. Probably by a discussion during pre-game.

Never prejudge your assignment as an easy or tough one.


Have a feel for the sport and how it is meant to be played. Some officials don’t understand the “true nature” of the particular sport they are officiating. They may be experts on the rules and officiating techniques, but lack that special appreciation for the sport’s fine distinction. Watch as many games as you can, develop a sensitivity for the emotional overtones associated with the sport.


After you view the game from the player’s perspective, put yourself back into the role of the official. Being able to see the game from different perspectives adds to your intuition of how the sport is meant to be played.


Officials must attend to relevant cues and situations and block out meaningless ones. Officials often err because of misdirected attention. Too close on force plays and swipe tags at first are examples. Knowing what to watch for is a critical ingredient for success. Don’t get surprised!


Just as pre game rituals increase the probability of efficient performance, post game routines can help you learn from the experience and improve your performance the next timeout. Feedback refers to the information that officials obtain after a performance and can use to maintain or modify behaviours. What aspects of your officiating performance would you like to repeat in the same manner? In some of your techniques, were there flaws that require correction?


Feedback can be self obtained or provided by others. It can be provided immediately after the game in the post game or later, especially in self evaluation. If received from others, be as receptive to the constructive criticism as to the complements and be honest in your appraisal when you evaluate your own feedback, keeping in mind that we often remember the spectacular rather than routine plays. In both cases use a check list or chart to identify particularly strong or weak areas in your performance. Such a thorough post game analysis should, in turn, help you construct a better pre game agenda.


Officiating is physically and mentally demanding, before, during and after a game. Good officiating is a result of good pre game preparation and post game evaluation.


Outstanding officials communicate effectively and understand that good communication skills are learned. They can be sent verbally or non verbally. Their posture, gestures and movements, and the tone of voice combine to transmit either the right or wrong message. As an official your non verbal messages will usually be more frequent and more powerful than your verbal messages. Outstanding officials clearly and consistently send the right messages.


Be mentally prepared to listen, and focus your attention on what the manager is telling you. Listen with an open mind! You won’t communicate effectively if you are evaluating or judging the message as it is being delivered. A common mistake is to stop listening to what the other person is saying and begin preparing your response. Avoid jumping ahead in this manner by paying attention to the entire message.


Be aware that messages can occur verbally (by words) and non verbally (by actions), and how they are sent is important. Most communication between people is non verbal and the percentage of non verbal communication for officials is even greater.


Body language is a powerful tool for an official. It includes your physical appearance, posture, gestures and facial expressions. You should exude a professional demeanour and a healthy, physically capable image. Such an appearance will project an image of control, credibility and authority. An erect posture signifies confidence, openness and energy, a slumped posture connotes feelings of inferiority and fatigue. Even the way you walk will communicate to others how you feel. The way you walk onto the field will communicate your attitude towards the upcoming game. It also reflects your personality and professionalism.


Pointing a finger (reference to others), locking hands behind the back (openness) and rubbing the neck (anger or frustration) are examples of body language. The signals you employ when officiating to explain your rulings are also non verbal forms of communication. A finger pointing or verbal argument with a player or manager might demonstrate your certainty in the call but distorts the real message you want to communicate.

Communication is a two way street. If you keep the lines of communication open, you will be more likely to have constructive relationships with managers and players. Facial expressions send a very direct message. An expression from an official that communicates doubt or disinterest will be considered by the manager a clear signal of your inner thoughts about the game. Communicate composure and self control.


Paralanguage is a common form of communication. The adage, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it’’, explains it best.


Be aware of your feelings when you officiate and learn to control the pitch of your voice to fit the environment and particular situation. The tone of the voice also sends a message. A firm voice will convey confidence and assertiveness while a soft voice connotes understanding.

Because paralanguage is a powerful part of communication, ask yourself these questions.


Does your voice have resonance (associated with firmness and strength) ?

Do I speak rapidly or slowly?

Can I project in a loud voice?

Can I control the pitch of my voice?


By answering these questions you will be able to identify personal weaknesses in the use of paralanguage. Try taping your conversations and listen to your voice. You might be surprised how it sounds. Use the tape to determine how to alter your voice to communicate more effectively as an official. Individuals tend to have a dominant communication style, but they also adopt alternate styles in specific situations. You must first recognise your dominant style and determine whether that style is the most appropriate for your sport. The style of communication you emphasise will have a significant effect on your officiating performance, the relationship you establish and the goals you are able to achieve.


You must communicate your decisions to fans, managers, coaches, and players, and then, in turn, they will send messages back to you – sometimes less than tactfully.


Be careful in “selling calls”, know which ones to sell, don’t stick it up players.


Some keys to communicating with players.


Don’t think that your uniform grants you immunity from having to take criticism. It’s part of officiating. Plan on it. Successful officials know how much to take.

If the manager is on your back but not enough to take action then avoid him. Know where to stand between innings

Don’t develop irritating characteristics.

If you don’t like to be shouted at, don’t shout at someone. Be firm with a normal relaxed voice. Shouting indicates loss of control.

Cockiness has absolutely no place in officiating. Be confident, your presence should command respect from participants.

Forget the fans. As a group, fans usually exhibit highly emotional partisanship and delight in antagonising the official. Accepting this fact will help you ignore the fans.

Answer reasonable questions, but don’t allow the manger to turn it into abuse.

Don’t threaten managers, coaches or players. If you feel that the situation warrants a threat then obviously it is serious enough to warrant some action.

Your purpose is to establish a calm environment during a game. Nervy or edgy officials are easy to spot.


One of the most satisfying experiences an official can have is to be a member of a team that gets along well and works together as a cohesive unit. Mutual respect, trust, acceptance, friendship and encouragement are developed only if members of the crews communicate with each other. The key is establishing open communication.


Consistency is a key characteristic of effective officiating. The officiating within each crew needs to be consistent, but it takes teamwork to achieve it. If a crew works hard at creating a close tie and understanding they’ll perform better on the field because they understand each other and cause no friction.


Males and females are more and more frequently part of the same crew, a situation that poses additional challenges for crew members' communication. Because men have had more involvement in sport, they sometimes feel superior to female associates (even when they are not) and attempt to dictate and control meetings and game situations. For example, if a male member of a crew with a dominant attitude tells a female where to position herself or how to handle the game, the female will undoubtedly resent his instructions. This type of communication creates tension and places a strain on a game that requires effective teamwork. The end result is that the quality of officiating suffers. Some female officials anticipate such negative attitudes by trying to show they’re in control by using an authoritarian approach.


Team work demands good communication between each member. Your ultimate goal is to communicate with peer officials in a manner that facilitates the highest level of performance for the officiating unit.


Effective communication must continue after the game. Ask colleagues who officiated the game with you for feedback. Be open to their compliments as well as criticism, because you will need both types of comments to improve your officiating techniques for future contests.


Seek out advice from associates who are knowledgeable about officiating in your particular sport. They can help you analyse your performance and give an honest appraisal of what you did well and what needs improvement.


Each of these post game contacts can enhance your performance as an official. But if you don’t communicate effectively, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to improve your performance with the help of your colleagues. So make communication with associates a priority skill to develop.

Communication consists of sending and receiving messages, both verbally and non verbally.


If you're umpiring only for money, you won't make it. You'd better be in it because you have a passion for it.

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