This chapter addresses the following:
- The four styles of officiating, with reasons for their application
- How game context affects officiating style
- How style communicates your purposes to participants
- The personal characteristics and performance principles that lead to success
- The importance of image
In sports officiating, there are preferred ways of operating that tend to lead to success, although there are no guarantees. The ways you choose to operate are revealed in the style you adopt. The four styles described in this chapter are not mutually exclusive, though. You may find yourself justifiably adopting a particular style to fit the occasion. A good official adapts to the age of participants, their skill level, their maturity, their grasp of the game’s protocols, the complexity of their strategy, and the overall context of game situations. A preteen, early-season contest may feature participants who are just learning the rudiments of the sport. On the other hand, a late-season game between skilled competitors and a substantial (and partisan) audience poses another set of challenges. Your style should fit the circumstances of the competition. This chapter also contains suggestions for beneficial personal behavior—ways of responding that are shaped by your attitude, performance principles, and the 10 commandments of style. This chapter should help you react positively to game situations.
Four Styles of Officiating
The officiating styles discussed in this section are somewhat arbitrary, in that no official operates entirely in one mode all the time. In fact, the key to successful officiating is flexibility in adapting your style to the situation. Officiating is very much governed by context, which means that you must adapt your approach to the type of game being played. Styles can change, even during a single game. By knowing how to change your style, you can adapt to fit the circumstances.
Rule Book Style
Some officials say, “You can always hide behind the rule.” If a player’s action is borderline, you have the option of applying the most stringent interpretation of a rule and thereby have a bona fide excuse for ruling against the player. A stringent interpretation of the rules, however, may not always be the fairest way to judge the action.
Consider the slide in baseball or softball. The rule states that a runner must slide into home plate if a fielder is in position to make a play there. The runner is not permitted to come in standing up, because the catcher is in a stationary, vulnerable position and a collision may result. Therefore, the runner can be called out for failing to slide. Let’s say that a runner is trying to score on a hit to the outfield, but the throw toward home plate forces the catcher to move up the third-base line. The ball and the runner arrive in the vicinity of the catcher—who is several feet up the line—at nearly the same time. To avoid the catcher, the runner deftly pirouettes around the fielder and steps on the plate without being tagged. The umpire could call the runner out for not sliding. However, if the runner slides and causes the catcher to topple over, then a player could be hurt. In effect, the runner is in a no-win situation.
A dozen scenarios about collisions or near collisions on plays at home plate could be described. The rules cannot cover all these situations succinctly. They can only describe parameters. If you take those parameters and apply them to the letter, you, in effect, penalize players unfairly. Applied in an overly rigid manner, rules of play can actually be used to sabotage their intent.
Some officials operate in this stringent way. They believe that by applying rules in a punitive manner, they are fulfilling their role as the game’s guardian. But the rules of any sport are subject to wide interpretation simply because there are so many variations in game circumstances.
Rules governing blocking in football also allow considerable latitude in interpretation. Blocking used to be done with the shoulder pads. Players kept using their hands to push, however, and finally the rule makers made pushing legal. But the shoving had to be done within the frame of the body of the player being blocked. What is within the frame? An official who wants to apply the definition precisely can call “illegal use of hands” a lot, even if the contact has no bearing on the result of a play. In other words, a rule-book-style official could interrupt play almost at will, and some officials do just that, believing themselves to be conscientious. Players, coaches, and fans often find their overly strict judgment annoying, even counterproductive.
Some rules, however, do not permit any deviance. The clearest examples are the rules regarding the boundary lines that confine a sport and define its critical areas. When a ball possessed by a runner crosses the plane of the goal line in football, it is a touchdown, with no room for equivocation. When a batted ball hits a base in softball or baseball, it is a fair ball. When a basketball bounces on a sideline, it is out of bounds. Accurate judgement (which is not always easy) is the determining factor in these cases.
Another area in which you must follow the letter of rules consistently is in the matter of safety. Certain acts in contact sports can maim an opponent. A body slam in the back, below the waist, in football (clipping) is one example. Furthermore, special protective padding under players’ uniforms is stipulated, with exact definitions for some sports (field hockey, ice hockey, wrestling, football), and officials are obliged to carry out a careful inspection to determine compliance before contests.
Although a strict official may be short on discriminating judgment, some coaches like officials who operate by the book, as long as they are evenhanded and equally stringent with both teams. In games that flow rapidly, such as soccer, hockey, and basketball, an official who calls a tight game can hamper teams that play aggressive defense. Consequently, an official who administers hard justice will find a favorable reception in some quarters, particularly with teams having difficulty dealing with a tough defense.
It is almost always acceptable to talk to players during games. For example, complimenting an athlete on good play can be a positive way to interact, and such a compliment will be even stronger if the player’s act was a sporting gesture. Often, the best time to speak to a player may be during a break in the action, such as between innings in softball or baseball.
Sometimes, too, players do not know when a behavior might be close to a foul or violation. The rules forbid a softball pitcher from jumping off the rubber while delivering a pitch for example. An umpire will usually remind the pitcher of that if she is lifting her push-off foot slightly, Also, in football, a quarterback under center and about to receive a snap must keep his head quite still, because a quick jerk of the head can easily draw an opponent into the neutral zone. The quarterback is permitted to bob his head slightly, because it is almost impossible to keep a frozen head when barking signals. Judgments in these types of situations demand refined thinking on the part of officials. Warning players about negative results of their actions is usually a sensible path to take.
Preventive officiating takes two forms. One is helping players avoid technical violations. A basketball official, for instance, will withhold the ball from a player on a throw-in if that player’s foot is on the boundary line. A baseball or softball umpire may notify a pitcher who is close to delivering an illegal pitch—say, with improper footwork on the rubber. A football wing official will often put one foot out in an effort to guide a split end, showing the limit of the so-called neutral zone.
The second preventive technique is notifying a player not to commit a foul. Sometimes fouls are the result of inadvertent player behavior. Charging into the snapper on punts is one such action in football. Rules protect the snapper, who is in a vulnerable position after he has put the ball in play. Sometimes a fielder will absentmindedly stand in a base runner’s path in softball or baseball, and an umpire can advise against it. A basketball player can be told to avoid excessive hand guarding or to avoid elbowing on rebounds. In this way, officials act to prevent player-to-player contact that could result in fouls.
Any warnings to players about potential violations should be issued during dead ball intervals, although it is sometimes possible to call to players during live action, as when telling football players to stay off a runner whose progress has already been determined.
Read more about Successful Sports Officiating.