Assessing Your Communication Skills

Assessing Your Communication Skills from Referee Magazine– sent on May 22, 2008 to Mentors and LG’s mentor group


 Here are some suggestions to improve your communication skills with fellow officials, coaches, athletic directors, and athletes. I hope those suggestions may become a part of your normal game preparation and assist you in many great years of officiating.How good of a communicator are you?

I suspect we all think we are pretty fair at effective communication until something out of the ordinary happens at one of our games. The football coach goes ballistic with a new wing official on his sideline and you, as the referee, are 40 yards away and you haven’t heard a thing. The coach has been over there screaming at you (the guy in the white hat) for some time and isn’t getting an explanation or any satisfaction. He thinks you’re deliberately ignoring him. He feels his only means of effective communication is to scream at you at a decibel level that only you can’t hear. Similar scenarios are acted out hundreds of times a week on fields and courts everywhere. Those incidents just compound our obvious communication problems.

Is there really anything you can do about that? The official’s manuals don’t give any guidance on stopping the game and explaining to an irate coach just what has happened. You will probably just have to live with that upset coach. Let’s take a look and see if there are any solutions to that dilemma that we as officials can do to prevent that incident from happening.

Let’s examine your effort at effectively communicating with that coach. Did we do anything to stimulate a constructive communication line before the contest? Have we made an effort to show any interest in a preventive officiating process?

The most effective way to stimulate communication with a coach may not be on the court or field. Try starting in the middle of the week with a phone call to the head coach confirming the game site, date, time, and anything that he would like to discuss about the upcoming contest. Most often you will find the most notorious coach can be very pleasant to talk to off the field. You may even want to discuss how the last game went, how his season is going, or any questions he had about his last game. There may be times you will want to leave well enough alone if it has been a long season. Your efforts to open communication will not always be fully successful but will show our willingness to at least listen to our coaches.  Remember, communication is a two way street and we might as well be the ones to initiate the conversation. Be brief, courteous, and above all professional.

Next is the professionalism of being on time, at the proper location.  It’s our responsibility, no matter what the circumstances, and we must ensure their adherence.  In all cases, check in with the game administration when you arrive at the site and again confirm everything is in place and ready for a correct starting time. You might want to confirm if the game clock has been checked out and is in working order.  Are there any extenuating circumstances that could have any bearing on the game (halftime or pregame ceremonies, etc.)?  Check out these items before the game and you could save yourself a long night.

The most important communication is a pregame conference among the officials.  If the officials don’t understand what they are doing, how can we expect the coaches to know what we are doing?  There is no replacement for a good pregame no matter how long you have worked with your partners. Try to cover all the situations that could happen.  Use a good prepared pregame plan and don’t cut yourselves short on time.  Cover everything before you leave the locker room or in most of our cases in the spring as umpires, our cars.

Your pregame conference with the coaches should be short, precise and cordial. Refer to the coaches as "Coach"; don’t use first names even if you’ve known the coach for many years.  This is where I differ.  This is the time to use first names but only if you know both their names.  A little work at finding out their names will also go a long way.  Most head coaches names are on the school’s website.  Go to for the high school games and to the college website for the coach at the college.  For summer games, the team usually has the head coach listed for the legion or amateur team.

Have a card prepared with the names of the officials and their position if applicable.  This can be done for high school games and college games but is only necessary where they really don’t know you or where you are asking them for a rating with your card.  The MSHSL has a generic card for all sports in Officials Corner that you can use but I suggest altering it for yourself because it really does not fit baseball very well unless you change some stuff on the card.  Use a check-off card to verify that all required subject matter is covered so there will not be any question about those preliminaries during the game. Listen carefully to whatever the coach might have to say during that pregame.  Hear him out but don’t stand around for idle chitchat.  This is not the time to renew old acquaintances or war stories or bad jokes.

You’ve done everything right and covered all the bases. Now the fun begins. How do we communicate with a coach that is quite upset and he thinks he is not getting a fair shake?  That is when the real challenge begins. Acknowledge that the coach is talking to you. Know when an answer is required or is he making a statement that requires no response.  Try to answer questions; if you don’t know the answer, tell the coach you will get an answer when time allows.  Ignoring coaches does nothing but infuriate them further.  Your answer may be simply that you will relay his comments to another official.

Good communication skills are learned and must be practiced all the time. If you continue to practice those skills, you can make them a habit. Some may seem repetitive at times, but they can and will pay great dividends for your officiating career.