By Dr Roxanna Holdsworth, Targeted Participation Team Manager
I want to talk about match officials.
If you are involved in sport, you’ll have a keen awareness of them – referees, umpires, officials, and assistants – and the role they play in ensuring that we can play sport safely, fairly, and within the scope of the rules that govern our code of choice. The idea that match officials should be treated with respect should not be new to us but in recent times I’ve seen several instances where match officials have not been safe, treated fairly, or allowed to enjoy officiating their code of choice.
Match official numbers are declining at a rapid rate across our community sporting landscape, and this should be taken seriously. Beyond this, we seem to forget the human element of match officials. I’ve never understood the “us” versus “them” mentality that brands match officials as another opponent, rather than the third team.
As a player of sport, employee of a Regional Sports Trust, member of sporting committees, daughter of a dedicated Football Referee, and past Netball Umpire, I see match officials through a variety of lenses which can sometimes complement or conflict with one another. I left umpiring because I found myself becoming defensive in the face of sideline behaviour – so much so that it was affecting my interactions with players who shouldn’t have been held responsible for the behaviour of their parent or coach. My mum became a Netball Umpire to support me but left for similar reasons. For a period, I stopped watching my dad referee after an incident where a team manager made inappropriate comments about him, after a call didn’t go the way they wanted. I remember hearing a shaky voice yell, “That’s my dad you’re talking about”, which turned out to be me and was met with an angry but embarrassed stare from that manager.
On the other hand, I’ll be honest, I’ve made a few uncomplimentary comments about the officiating of games I’ve watched and played. I’m not proud of it. I remember what it was like to anxiously step onto a court and do my best to umpire a Netball game. I see the time and effort my dad puts into training, staying up to date with rules and regulations, and his game day preparations.
In the heat of a game when we throw or kick a poor pass, miss the goal, make a bad call, or go where we shouldn’t, it’s common to hear “never mind”, “go again” or “get it back”. As participants of sport, there is an acknowledgement that we are human, that we are learning, and that if something doesn’t go to plan, we have the opportunity to do it differently. So, my question is: Why are match officials not allowed the same opportunity?
Sure – sometimes they might get it wrong, appear hesitant, not be in the right place at the right time, or be focusing on some things more than others. In my experience, players and coaches are equally as guilty of these things. You just don’t see the post-match analysis and report writing that match officials undertake to reflect, learn, and improve.
Match officials at any level are subject matter experts who do their best to know the laws, rules, and processes of the game. They do the role with good intentions and choose to invest their time, effort, and money, in the sporting codes that we love, often voluntarily. And yet, it can feel as though match officials have this invisible power to make or break a game when, in actual fact, we have the very visible power to make or break them.
So, what can we do about it? Here are some things that we can all do to ensure that match officials are safe, treated fairly, and allowed to enjoy their role:
1. Learn the rules: Becoming an umpire made me a better player and spectator. Not only because I was better able to understand umpire decision-making and mechanisms of accountability, but also because I could put myself in their shoes.
2. Call out bad behaviour: You don’t have to do this publicly if it’s uncomfortable. A quiet comment or conversation can also have a big impact, but it is so important that we call out behaviours and attitudes that have no place in sport.
3. Be a team player: If you make a mistake, say something you shouldn’t, or act in a way that doesn’t align with sporting or club values, own up to it.
4. Be consistent: Do you disagree with every call throughout the game, but thank the match official(s) afterwards? It may be time to reflect on how you can role model consistency and show respect even when things don’t go as you had hoped.
5. Invite them in: Consider inviting match officials to team trainings or committee meetings to help build relationships and an understanding of perspectives. A positively received New Zealand Rugby initiative saw teams assigned a referee for the season to join their trainings, as a way to strengthen relationships and respect between teams and officials.
6. Go the extra mile: When match officials arrive at the game, how are they greeted and treated? View them the same way you would a competing team and ensure they have access to the right facilities and spaces; take the time to greet them and engage in conversation and extend an invite to the after match.
7. Support the third team: None of us are above acknowledging when something is done well, but how often do we make this known to match officials? Next time you see a match official after a game, make the effort to tell them something specific that they did well.
Match officials want to go where they are wanted, safe, and where there is acknowledgement of the value that they bring. So, when you next step onto the court, turf, or field, or find your place along the sideline, how will you interact with the third team?
Sport Waikato endorses a “Balance is better” approach to sport and the need to enact culture change to increase the enjoyment of sporting environments. Balance is Better is an evidence-based philosophy to support quality sport experiences for all young people, regardless of ability, needs and motivations. It is about young people staying involved in sport for life and realising their potential at the right time.” Balance is Better - The Home of Youth Sport in New Zealand.