Supporting Your Athletes and the Value of Knowing Who You're Coaching
This article was originally published 10 March 2014 on The Referee Developer.
When I first took on a mentorship role in officiating, none of my colleagues thought of ourselves as coaches. The role of mentor came with the title of supervisor and we embraced that title. However, over the last several years, there has been a shift in mentality because officiating "supervisors" are, in fact, coaches. The duties of a supervisor are to support their officials on an ongoing basis, identify the individual strengths and weaknesses of officials, track their progress over time, see how they interact with the team as a whole, and eventually, objectively rank them against their peers. A coach in any sport performs these exact same duties. The only difference is that they work with players.
Without question, the most crucial duty of any coach is to support their athletes on an ongoing basis and help develop their skills. It’s not that the other duties of a coach are unimportant, but they are relatively easy to do. Any decent athlete could point out a fellow athlete's strengths and weaknesses in a game situation. If an athlete was provided with a list of their colleagues, they should have no problem ranking their fellow athletes by ability. Moreover, anybody with moderate reading comprehension could review several evaluations of an athlete and judge whether or not that athlete is making positive progress. Obviously, a coach will have a better ability to dissect an official’s performance as they gain more experience and learn from other coaches, but they invariably already possess the basic abilities to evaluate athletes when they take on this role.
In an officiating context, a key aspect of supporting one’s officials is understanding what I call the “feedback balance”. In order to support one’s officials, officiating coaches need to know them. The coach needs to know who their officials are, what motivates them, and how they respond to feedback. If a coach doesn’t know those things about an official, their impact on that official’s life is going to be minimally positive or possibly counterproductive. This information tells the coach when to push an official, and when to pull back; when to be hard on them, and when to encourage them.
A coach's feedback balance for an official is constantly changing; each official is in a unique situation depending on their age, experience, personality, and goals. When an official is just starting out, the feedback balance is weighted 95/5 in favour of encouragement; these officials need to be praised generously for their strengths while having their weaknesses gently corrected. When supervising a more experienced official who sees officiating as a way to make some money and have some fun, the feedback balance will be about 50/50; the supervisor should make sure the official knows what they’re doing well, while making sure they maintain appropriate skills for the level they are working. In the case of an experienced official who has set high goals for themselves (whether that be Provincial assignments, or junior hockey, etc), the feedback balance will be 80/20 in favour of “pushing” that official. In this instance, the coach's job is to help that official reach their goals by honing their skills to the highest level possible. However, coaches must not forget to praise the official’s strengths and affirm their ability to achieve their goal (if that’s true).
The second key aspect of supporting one’s athletes is simple: candour. As a coach, your job is to make sure that your officials know where they are and where they’re going. Are they struggling at their current level, are they middle of the pack, are they ready for the next level? Have they reached their peak, do they need to work harder, where is their potential, can they work at a high level? If an official has the potential to work at a high level, but is only officiating for fun and money, respect their chosen path while letting them know that they have the potential to do something more. If an official wants to work at a high level but isn’t there yet, tell them what they have to do to reach their goal and how far away they are from it. As a supervisor, as a coach, your job is to communicate with them; never stop communicating. Make no mistake, it is a hard thing to do; nobody ever claimed that it was easy to be honest and candid, but as a supervisor and a coach, you owe it to your officials.
It is never a fun task for a coach to have a difficult conversation with an athlete and let them know, however gently, that their performance is falling short of what is expected of them is never a fun task for a coach. Because of this, officiating coaches often shirk that responsibility in favour of the head supervisor or Referee-in-Chief, who often also avoids the conversation by assuming that it has already taken place between the coach and the official. In the end, nobody has the conversation with the athlete. They all assume that someone else has had the conversation and the athlete is left without that communication. In fact, the responsibility is equally shared amongst every member of the coaching staff.
From the outside, it is relatively easy to identify officials whose coaches don’t communicate properly with them. They are the officials who sit nervously by the computer waiting for their next batch of assignments, with no idea how many games they’ll be receiving or at what level they’ll be working. They are the officials who think they have been performing well all season, only to not receive the playoff or championship assignments they expected. This level of uncertainty is detrimental to an officials confidence and seriously hinders their ability to perform to the best of their abilities. It is an official’s responsibility incorporate the feedback given to them by their coaches, but if the coach isn’t speaking to them with honesty and candour, that official will not be able to succeed.
There is a tendency for coaches to get caught up in the tactical, black-and-white aspects of sports; the “X’s and O’s”, so to speak. What is important to remember is that just about everybody can do the X’s and O’s. We all have a basic understanding of the technical and tactical elements of our sport. The obligation that is the most difficult to execute and to master is to communicate with them. Keeping your athletes healthy and happy while helping them to realize and achieve their goals. Although it may be the most difficult, it is also the most useful and the most rewarding.