No matter the venue, no matter the age group, there is one common theme among youth travel basketball. Year after year, tournament after tournament, the biggest complaint at every youth sporting event is “where did you get these refs?” After spending 32 years in youth travel basketball, some things never seem to change. Fans, coaches and players rarely think their team got a fair “shake” after playing or better yet after losing.
How many times have we heard fans and even coaches yell at the officials at the beginning of every game. “Ref, let them play! Don’t call every ticky tack foul. Let the players play! However, the mood of the fans and coaches quickly change going into the last five to eight minutes of the game. Now, the same fans and coaches that were screaming at the officials at the beginning of the game are now upset with anger. However, now they are screaming, “ref, if you don’t call something, someone is going to get hurt. You’re letting this game get out of hand.”
First of all, there is a growing shortage of officials. With the explosion of youth travel ball tournaments, it is getting more and more difficult to get officials to cover an event that may have 200-300 games in a weekend covering a 16-court radius. As an event organizer, we all go through a booking agency that uses certified officials. Just like everything else in life, there are always more experienced officials and at the same time young and inexperienced officials. For the most part the officials do an admirable job and deserve a lot more praise than criticism. What other profession can you think of where you are scrutinized every and every trip up the court. Officials are often the target of verbal abuse unfortunately from fans and the coaches. And in some cases, are threatened physically during and after a game.
Yes, officials will make mistakes at every level. Whether it is youth basketball, high school, college or the NBA, officials make mistakes. They are human just like you and me. In 99.9% of the cases, officials could care less who wins a game and yes, they take pride in calling a quality game. They do want to officiate the best they can. Do you honestly think officials really want to make “bad calls?” I think not! Yes, teams all want to win on the court and unfortunately, we live in a culture where we often like to point fingers when we lose and there is no easier target than the men and women wearing those black and white stripe shirts.
While travel ball coaches are wired to compete and yes winning does matter, however coaches are also role models for our youth today. Coaches can set the tone for the players and for the parents sitting in the stands. It’s important of our coaches to show leadership and set the example. At the beginning of each game, get to know the officials by name. Instead of calling them “hey ref, how about addressing them by their first name.” Everyone likes to hear their name and it’s important to develop and establish a good dialogue with the officials no matter how bad you think they are. Being a coach myself, I often went back and watched game film only to find out the game wasn’t as bad as I thought at the time. We all get caught up in the moment. We lose our cool, say things we often regret later over a game.
Our society values winning and all players, parents and coaches want to win. Unfortunately, our culture values winning a game on the scoreboard more than teaching life lessons and being excellent role models. My challenge to all coaches, parents and players, be a little gentler in your approach to officials. They are just like you and me. They want to do a good job and every now and then like to hear encouraging and positive words. Next time, win or lose, go over to an official and tell them “good game,” shake their hand and watch their face glow and greet you with a smile and a thank you.
The next time I’m at an event and a parent asks me “where did we get these refs?” My first reply will be, “Did you watch the NBA playoffs? If so, even professional NBA officials make mistakes and I expect all officials to miss calls, but that gives us no right to verbally abuse the officials. Basketball is a fast pace game and the players are more talented and athletic than ever. In all honesty, it’s a difficult game to officiate no matter the level. Remember, at the end of the day, it’s still a game and yes there are more important things in life. Winning a game on the scoreboard is important, but nothing is more important than winning in the game of life. No matter how bad you may think the official “call” may be, use that as a teaching moment for your players. As in life, things don’t always go your way and what’s more important is how you react to the adversity that is thrown your way. One last thing, the ball does stop bouncing one day, but the life lessons on the court can last a lifetime.