Written Feedback is Key for Development
This article was originally published 22 April 2017 on The Referee Developer.
A supervisor has two methods through which they deliver feedback to their officials: verbal feedback delivered in the room and written feedback delivered in the days following the game. The written feedback is essential for effective supervision for a number of reasons. First of all, an officials’ ability to process feedback in the moments following a game is limited. Their adrenaline is still flowing, emotions may be high, and they are both physically and mentally fatigued. Secondly, a supervisor’s perception of a particular incident may change after having time to reflect. Finally, the written supervision preserves a record of the feedback delivered for that official and also for other supervisors. There can be no question that written feedback is an important tool in developing officials.
Unfortunately, many supervisors often neglect or completely overlook the written aspect of supervision. Most supervision forms are divided into two parts; a section for scoring and a section for written comments. The scoring section can be a helpful summary tool but the information one can glean from numerical scores is fairly limited. It can be useful for a supervisor to quickly scan a supervision form and see that an official scored 65 or 75 out of a possible 100 points. However, this is only a broad snapshot and it raises more questions than it answers; hence the comments section. Despite this reality, many supervisors spend a great deal of time assigning scores but write only a handful of sentences in the comments section. Not only is this an ineffective use of a supervisor’s limited (and often volunteered) time, it is unhelpful to other supervisors or the officials themselves who might want to refer back to the supervision.
This problem cannot be solved merely by increased written output on the part of our supervisors. Quality, as well as quantity, must be addressed. A strong piece of written feedback consists of three parts. The first part clearly establishes what the supervisor observed during the game that has led to this piece of feedback. The second part illustrates what the official did that is either exemplary or requires some improvement. In the case of positive feedback, the third part will explain why the official’s behaviour or skill is an asset. In the case of feedback in an area requiring improvement, the third part will address why this is an issue and how to correct it going forward. These criteria are useful to refer back to when creating written feedback for an official.
As an example of this problem, let’s examine the following piece of written feedback. This comment was taken from a supervision by a former Level VI official, now supervisor, to a Level III linesman:
“Careful being too hands on with players.”
The issue with this comment is the information it does not provide. As a supervisor, a number of questions spring to mind when reading this comment: Did the linesman initiate contact unnecessarily or did the situation warrant the linesman becoming physically involved, albeit to a lesser extent? Was this a single mistake or did this occur multiple times during the game? Did it occur at the beginning of the game when the linesman may have been nervous? Or did it occur at the end of the game when the linesman may have been physically and mentally fatigued? The supervisor has not provided enough information for an outside observer to understand or, in the case of the official, recall what occurred and how the linesman could have improved their response to the situation.
Now, contrast the above comment with this second comment delivered by the same supervisor to a Level IV referee in a different game:
“When making the penalty calls in the third period when a team is frustrated, there is no need to sell the call with an emphatic signal. The optics of a team that is losing and frustrated and a referee making penalty signals like that is not good. It can shift the team’s frustration to the official.”
This second comment is far superior to the first for a number of reasons. First of all, the supervisor precisely establishes the referee’s mistake. The referee penalized the losing team late in the game and unnecessarily over-sold the call. In doing so, the referee made it appear as though he was trying to prove a point by penalizing the team. The supervisor also addresses what potential difficulties the referee may face by repeating the mistake. The referee created an additional opportunity to shift the team’s mounting frustration onto himself. The supervisor fulfills all three criteria for written feedback by establishing when the mistake occurred, what specifically happened, and the potential issues it creates. This is clear both to the official and other supervisors wanting to refer back to the supervision.
In order to provide effective supervisions, it is equally important that supervisors fulfill the three criteria when delivering positive feedback. Regardless of the age of the official being supervised, it is important to emphasize areas of strength. To illustrate this point, we’ll examine two pieces of positive feedback that address the areas of skating and end-zone positioning. The first is taken from a supervision by a Level III official, with several years of supervisory experience, to a Level I referee:
“Good skating and use of end-zone positioning. Nice work!”
That type comment is typical of written feedback regarding areas of strength, regardless of the age and experience of the officials. Now contrast that with this second comment, quoted from a supervisor with over a decade of experience to a Level III referee in a Major Midget playoff game. This comment addresses the same area of strength but also details what the official did well and leaves the door open for further improvement without diminishing the overall positive message.
“Your movement in the end-zone was strong throughout the game. You made good decisions about when to bump and pivot and went behind the net sparingly but when necessary. Your excellent agility and quick-feet movement made this possible. Continue improving this skill so that it continues to be an asset as the speed of the game increases at higher levels.”
As supervisors, there is a tendency to spend far more time addressing the areas requiring improvement than the positive aspects of an official’s performance. This becomes a problem when officials begin to internalize that imbalance, which they can, regardless of their age or level of experience. Ironically, supervisors tend to spend less discussing an official’s strengths when that official performs well in a game. When an official performs poorly, supervisors make a conscious effort to identify areas of strength so as not to appear to be unduly harsh. We must strive to devote equal attention to areas of strength as well as areas requiring improvement.
The ability to deliver effective feedback is a skill that most supervisors take years to develop. Although supervisors are drawn from the ranks of skilled officials, developing officials requires an entirely new set of skills. The reality is that new supervisors are rarely equipped with the tools and training required to succeed in their new role. A supervisor requires not only extensive officiating knowledge but also the ability to identify teachable moments, select the most appropriate, and connect with and communicate their feedback effectively to their officials. Very few supervisors possess all of these skills prior to trading their whistle for a pen. The written aspect of supervision is one of the more slowly acquired skills and even supervisors with many years of experience can work to improve their abilities in this area.