A Letter to Coaches From a Referee

I wrote this on my facebook page a few days ago and thought it would make a good blog and hopefully reach a wider audience.

I have been a lacrosse ref for something like 13 years now. Last night I was reffing a game with a partner who has been at it almost as long as I have. We’re both capable and confident refs. In the third period one of the coaches was given a bench minor by my partner. Following the game he approached us after the handshake and casually told my partner he needs to get a tougher skin, then walked away. At the time we ignored it, considered giving the coach an additional penalty but decided it wasn’t worth it.

Then I drove home and it bugged me. I climbed into bed and it bugged me, I’ve been doing stuff all day and it’s bugged me, so let me explain why. The penalty wasn’t given because his feelings were hurt. To be honest we as refs have pretty tough skin. However that isn’t an excuse. A tough skin doesn’t mean we want to put up with that or need to. That is not part of the game. Yes emotions will run high and people get passionate, but there is a line and it is being crossed more and more to the point where people think it is acceptable.

But here is where this becomes a catch 22. Coaches complain that the refs are bad. We need better refs and the only way they’re going to get better is with experience. The issue is that the number of refs who have that experience is dropping and it is in direct response to the way they are be treated by the coaches players and spectators. And let me say this doesn’t just go for lacrosse, this applies to all sports. New referees are almost always timid, nervous and don’t have the confidence they need because that comes with years of experience. They need to build those things up and a big part of it is having older, more experienced partners to help them along. But it also requires them to stick around long enough to get to that point where they can be the ones mentoring younger people, and they aren’t. They are being screamed at, called names and insulted for relatively little pay.

A lot of these kids are in middle and high school. They aren’t making a career out of this, they have lives and things they could be doing elsewhere. Instead they are out at that arena so your children can play. Without the refs those games will not happen. They are human and they are young. Being responsible for a fast paced sport is difficult at any level and they are trying their best to keep the game fair and safe. Show them a little respect and let them walk out of that arena with their dignity. Coaches, by all means if you have an issue with a call, or you don’t understand it, get upset, ask for an explanation and you will get it. But live with it. That is the call. Even first year refs have had to attend courses and pass a test. They know the game and they know the rules but they are no more perfect than you or I. We will all see the game from a slightly different view and interpret what is happening slightly differently. You screaming and yelling is not going to reverse that call. Cut the crap and deal with it. The ref who made that crease call was probably a lot closer to the play and at a better angle to see it than you. You’re not only supposed to be teaching these kids how to play the game but you are also a role model for them in sports and life. Your attitude sets an example for them of what is okay and how to conduct your self. And it sets a standard for how the parents who may not know the game as well should act. You are telling everyone in that arena it is okay to treat another person this way. The more you chase these kids off the floor the more they are going to want to quit.

That means that the following year we have a batch of new refs coming in with no experience and those who do have the experience saying it’s not worth it. As those of us who are older start retiring for various reasons the knowledge and experience dies out and the quality of officiating drops drastically. You want better refs help them, encourage them and keep them around to foster the next generation. So let me put this simply for you. You are not being penalized because you’ve hurt our feelings. You are being penalized because you are refusing to show respect to the people who deserve it the most. You’re being penalized because you’re showing these children and parents that it’s okay to berate someone just because things didn’t go your way. You’re being penalized because you are the reason refs don’t want to ever do this job again and our numbers are declining. We’ll see how you treat us when games start getting cancelled due to a lack of officials, which by the way is happening already. We know the game. We are out there because we love the game and want to give back to it. Trust me when I say at least 70% of the time what you’re yelling about isn’t a matter of something we didn’t see, or a case where we disagree on what should have been called. It is a matter of you simply being wrong and not knowing or understanding the rule. But instead of realizing your own ignorance you scream at a teenager to feel better. Grow up and start acting like the role model you are.

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42 thoughts on “A Letter to Coaches From a Referee

    1. Thank you. I wrote this more out of frustration, but it is nice to see the overwhelmingly positive response it is getting. I hope it can make a difference for a couple young refs.

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      1. good read – i have been or was involved should say as a player, masters player, executive, coach and now a spectator for over 40 years – gave up coaching as the players parents were know it all and and no respect for the refs, other teams and me as a coach in my last year of coaching a C/D division team and previously i had coached A/B teams for a different centre but they brought me in as the team was to fold if they didn’t get a coach so i stepped in – wht a way to end my coaching career- some of the players thought they knew more than me as they were a house league ref playing on my team – i had to go to the head ref for the centre and also talked to two friends that coach at different centres and one in the NLL just to prove a point to this one know it all kid(ref) – midget aged kids are tough to coach – if their parents don’t know the game – i tell them to show up and shut up and watch the game – the refs are needed and not your criticism – i could write for days about some of my experiences – but refs are needed and sure they make mistakes but yelling and berating them because little johnny or his team got a penalty isn’t needed or tolerated – stil have lax in my genes and thinking of developing a learning clinic as i am moving to an area that has just barely touched into lacrosse

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    2. nice letter but there is two sides to a coin I have been involved with lacrosse with my children for the last 25yrs and still today with my daughters sr. womens lac the older refs make it tough for you new ones. have seen some pretty ugly ref games and some excellent ref games. so please keep up the good work and I pray that that this letter can make a difference

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      1. I’m surprised by how much attention it’s gotten already. It was more of a rant out of frustration at the time, but I hope a couple of the people who have read it may give some thought to how they act on the bench.

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  1. Good words! This year is my son’s first year being a ref & working the shot clock, he is 13 years old and I hope he continues for years to come. He loves it, so far.

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    1. That is fantastic. Keep encouraging him and make sure he knows that when he does start getting yelled at he has the authority to do something about it. Disagreeing with a call and verbal abuse are two different things. The later he does not have to put up with.

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  2. Well said. You have my full support. Keep up the great work to help make the game of lacrosse grow.
    Don Blacklock
    FIL Technical Director

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  3. Love this!! As a lacrosse volunteer and the parent of a long time referee (10 years ish) I see and hear these stories every week. Your last couple of sentences nailed it. My son would completely agree!

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  4. I spent three seasons as a minor league football official, and 2018 marks my 5th season volunteering as a Lacrosse coach. I have been on both sides, and I totally understand your frustration, but please do not believe that all coaches hate the officials. My staff and our team operate under a strict “No complaining about the officiating” rule on our bench. We do not allow our players or coaches to complain about or comment on the officiating – we understand how hard your job is and know that no bench has EVER successfully changed a call by yelling at an official.
    I can only hope that we are setting a positive example for our fans, our players, and hopefully the other coaches in our league. We respect what you do, we understand how hard of a job officiating is, and we also know that the league cannot survive without officials.
    My hat is off to you and your fellow officials. Keep up the good work, and I truly hope that the coaches who live to degrade officials and set poor examples for their players are replaced with better human beings who will be positive role models for those around them. Life is short, the world is small, and there is no excuse to treat each other poorly.

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    1. Thank you for that. And I hope this isn’t coming across as me demonizing all coaches. I have reffed some fantastic coaches, and played for some who have sat players for yelling at refs. And by all means, complain about calls. We’re human, we make bad calls, we have bad days. Just do it in a respectful manner. Talk to us, work with us and we’ll be a lot more open to what coaches have to say. Thank you again.

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  5. Well said. The problem with most coaches & spectators who disrespect referees is that they cannot accept that there is ever a good call that goest against their team. They judge everything that happens relative to their totally biased opinion of what is occurring in front of them. Sport is there to teach us how to deal with adversity in situations of relative low significance. The most important skill we can possess in sport is the ability to accept both good and bad results and focus only on what we can control, which is ourselves. Unfortunately the only thing that is important to some is the result of the game.
    Keep up the good work.

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    1. Ya, it does bother me when someone reffing my game makes a really good call against my team and my coach who I have a lot of respect for flip out thinking it’s a terrible call.

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  6. As a parent of a referee who has been verbally abused by Coaches and as a parent of a player currently nursing a serious head injury on a play not called – I see both sides.
    We need to be respectful of our referees, particularly our young and learning referees. I have long suggested that parent education seminars at tournaments be offered to educate fans on the rules of the game and the referees calls. Lack of education tends to be the source of most frustrations that results in yelling at referees. And more time needs to be spent on rules and understanding those rules during Coach certification training.

    But we also need to have accountability. When a referees abilities are called into question, repeatedly, there needs to be follow up, remedial training even. Without players, we will have no need for referees and my son may not play, or referee for that matter, again after this injury. He is but one player, but he has played for 13 years now. He is the eldest in a large family with many young cousins coming behind him…all with parents now questioning the safety of their sons and daughters that are entrusted to referees every game.

    There is no place for disrespect, under any circumstances. But there are many facets to this complicated situation.

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    1. I absolutely agree. Not all refs are good. I’ve had to work with a lot of bad refs. But again, screaming at them is not going to make them better. It’s just going to back them into a corner and make things worse. Contact the zone or association RIC and talk to them about it. Supervisions can be done and if need be the ref can be removed form future games.

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    2. Observations from a long-time hockey ref (and goalie – and at times, officiating mentor) –

      First and foremost, I wish your son the best in his recovery and hope he is able to return to the sport – but more importantly, whether he is able to return or not, I hope there are no lasting effects from the injury.

      A common theme in discussions of situations where injury resulted and the call was not made (assuming one was warranted) is this question: Would a penalty call made on that play have done anything to prevent the injury?

      The simple answer is no. The act had to happen for the call to be possible.

      The trite/cliched answer is, “We don’t make the news, we just report it.”

      Diving deeper –

      When injury results from an illegal act, it is entirely possible that the officials’ prior decisions (such as non-calls on earlier escalations or aggressive acts) contributed to a poorly enforced standard of play, and the players perceived that standard and used it to justify further escalation. It could follow that prior poor enforcement fostered the act that resulted in injury. That is rare but possible, and when it happens, absolutely there should be action by the league or officials’ association to mentor that official and correct the deficiency in game management. (I do have to point out that, regardless of rule enforcement or lack thereof, everyone is responsible for their own actions. That cannot be overstated.) I would encourage you to discuss this with your league and/or officiating body if appropriate. If you do so in the name of improving safety of the game (rather than writing a wrong) you will be heard.

      Speaking specifically to hockey (as I know little about lacrosse) – there are situations such as late-game lopsided scores (the result is decided and frustrations are high) when players will act out in a way that does not correlate at all to the prior decisions made by the on-ice officials. The officials could have called a well-enforced, fair, safe game, yet the player suddenly chooses to cross the line and does something reckless or dangerous to an opponent. What can the officials do about this? Like I mentioned before, a penalty call (or lack thereof) after the act does nothing for the injured player.

      In that brief moment when an ounce of prevention might be applied, experienced officials will use their anticipation (reading the frustration, awareness of who the perpetrators might be and “scores” that might “need settling”), presence, communication, and positioning techniques to attempt to diffuse the situation. Those techniques and the mental game only go so far – and ultimately, if the player chooses to act out, that’s on them.

      So I would leave it at this. The officiating decisions that came earlier in the game, particularly ones permitting aggression or escalation should be considered. The acts of the player who injured the opponent also bear examination. If you find fault with those, I would absolutely recommend discussing with the league and/or officiating body – something unsafe is going on and it should not be repeated.

      To the post author: your thoughts on abuse of officials and the decline of officiating are echoed in the ice hockey officiating community. I hope you are able to stick with officiating and pass your knowledge on to those following you, for the sake of your game.

      Personally, I have become somewhat of a hermit – lately I only officiate adult rec league games. The competitive youth, high school, and collegiate games I’ve done in years past are not worth the stress anymore. Maybe I will return to that when my playing days are over just to see if I’ve still got it.

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      1. Thanks for the comments and the view from a different sport. A lot of what keeps me going is helping out the younger officials. It’s rewarding and knowing they’ll be able to deal with the stress is a good feeling.

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  7. Very well written! As a parent of a lacrosse player and the parent of two refs, I hear your pain. The respect for officials in minor lacrosse is so different from that of minor hockey. The respect is lacking. Many coaches seem to feel it is ok to yell & scream at referees and our minor systems cannot keep refs for that reason. Lots of turnover due to this respect issue.
    As a minor hockey house league coach – I would be tossed from the bench if I acted in this same manner

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    1. That is another issue as well. New refs are often too timid and insecure to toss a coach. I always encourage it if that is what the situation calls for it. Luckily the CLA had put new rules in place over the last couple years to help protect refs from this. We just have to be more assertive with these new rules.

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  8. Matt your self-described “rant” is very well-written & if it can help one coach/player/parent/spectator amend their abhorrent behaviour at a game moving forward, it is well worth it. And I am confident that it will make some think twice about their actions. I feel your comments should be printed out and handed to each & every coach & be part of a player-registration package that the player & parent(s) must read & sign off on during registration. Regardless, Kudos to you for taking the time to compose your thoughts. As a former long time hockey & lacrosse player, coach, & ultimately an NLL referee for 13 seasons, I feel qualified to say that the vantage point & observations offered from a younger yet experienced official such as yourself are very accurate & need to be said more often. Keep up the good work on & off the floor!

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  9. Well said! I’ve officiated ice hockey at all levels (from minor hockey to pro), and sadly, the abuse is most noticeable in minor hockey buildings. Just remember, every sporting event game is a practice for the officials…cause they don’t get practice spaces to try new things other than in real game situations. Keep up the good work and hang in there!

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  10. Hey Matt,
    First of all, thanks for putting that in perspective for everyone who happens to read your post. The examples you use are true in the majority of sports and the fans, coaches and sometimes players who don’t get your point need to take a hard look at what they do. I officiate basketball and I have seen a host of great young officials walk away from the game … many times … a game they love because of those individuals who for the most part are testing that official to see how far they can push them or god forbid, manipulate them to get a call in their favour. I am all about gamesmanship, but much of this borders on or is absolute abuse. My work life has given me the tools to deal with this from my early days as an official and I endeavour to do my best each time out, be fair and equitable to the rules of the game and to maintain the integrity the sport was founded on. Not everyone has that luxury and we all deal with those things in our own way and some better than others. If we officiate any competitive situation, some of our calls are subjective and may elicit some dialogue with coaches and players and sometimes fans, but it is how those questions are asked … some appropriate and some not, that will determine our next move. I have always said as an official and also in my coaching days, the most important things you will take from here today is the life lessons taught by learning how to deal with these often tense and uncomfortable exchanges. Those lessons will help all of us to deal with conflict in our lives and how we resolve that conflict or sometimes come to an impasse, help to chart our course today, tomorrow and beyond. I truly hope that everyone who has been involved in these situations are as analytical as you are and strive to find a solution and stay involved in your respective sports’ officiating pool.
    Best wishes and good calls!!!
    Sam

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  11. Great read. I’ve shared it on the Barrie Minor Lacrosse Association Facebook page.

    We need to do a better job of creating environments in which young refs can thrive. We also have to ensure that ongoing training & support, not just one clinic per year, is provided.

    I think the biggest area of conflict/stress is when young officials are reffing games (mostly house league or lower rep divisions) with coaches who don’t understand the game. Unfortunately, these coaches (who are mostly well-intentioned volunteers taking on a job that no-one else will do) often have the idea that because they are adults, they must be right and the teenager in the black shirt is the one in the wrong. It leads to much of the conflict that you highlight.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but we definitely have to fix things before the chronic poor retention numbers become a crisis.

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    1. And, to be fair to those coaches I’ve just described, my own bench staff (myself include) acted poorly towards some young officials last week. No name calling or anything like that, however, I don’t think that the loud frustration we were expressing did anyone any favours nor was it good for the long-term development of those young refs.

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    2. I agree, that is a huge part. The other side of it I find is the coaches who know the game too well. They think just because they’ve played/coached at a high level that they know the rules inside and out. They don’t understand that they don’t always understand the rules, or that a lot of the rules book must been interpreted on a case by case basis in the moment, OR they don’t realise that what is okay in the NLL is NOT okay in a peewee game.

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  12. I was a referee for some 35 years in Ontario. When I first stared to referee each team brought their own referee with them to each game. this really lead to some bad feeling with different coaches and parents where they would call the other teams ref a homer. It was not long after that the Canadian Lacrosse Association was started. This lead to much better officiating and all referees had to do the basic exam and then learned the game as they went. The Referees Associations have had a great improvement in the quality of officials out there. After 36 years of officiating I had to give it all up due to knee problems and still miss the game to this day. I have had many problems with both coaches and Parents. Even to the extent of being attacked on the floor and having to go through criminal charges against the person who was not allowed back into the arena for the rest of his life. But these are very rare occurrences and should not scare away officials. I know just before leaving the officiating every official in the minor Lacrosse Association in the Ontario Lacrosse Referee Association had to have at least two on floor evaluations in each year. This really helped to improve the official and allowed them to become very good officials I have always said that the parents in the stands were the worst ones for belittling the officials. I had no problem removing a very uncontrolled spectator from the arena. I had one player I was coaching in hockey who would not even admit who his father was in the stands and would meet him outside as he was embarrassed with his behaviour in belittling the officials. I had one of our games filmed and after taking this parent aside and showing him what he was like and mentioning that is why his son would not walk out with him, he changed his whole attitude. I would say I had removed three time as many spectators than I ever removed coaches. I have not been to any games in over twenty years and only hope that both the Officials and coaches are much better for all the teaching out there for them. I feel it is up to each and every one of us to mention to any person weather it is a coach, Player, Parent or official who is out of control. There is always ways to deal with these by contacting the right bodies in charge and they will deal with the coach or parent. I would like to commend any person that puts on a officials jersey as it takes a very special human being to were that jersey.

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    1. Wow, thank you for taking the time to write that. It’s interesting to hear, I had no idea and teams bringing their own ref seems like such a strange and foreign concept to me. There was a time when I was tossing spectators on a somewhat regular basis but I have found over the last few years they’ve gotten a lot better. I don’t remember the last time I had to do that. Coaches on the other hand seem to have gotten worse. As for the supervisions it’s ideal that each ref gets it at least once a year, and that’s what we all hope for but because of the decline in the number of officials we are losing senior officials with fewer to step in their place and thus don’t have enough to do the supervisions properly.

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