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Social-Psychological Aspects of Sports Officiating



Young Adults

By Elaine Guerrazzi | September 2, 2019

School is back in session.  After-school activities and recreation leagues are forming. Often officials for these programs are young adults, at times peers to those playing. They are transitioning from taking part in the sport as a player to serving the sport as an official.This transition can be challenging.  League and program administrators, parents and coaches contribute to the development of the officials. I have experience both as an official (basketball, volleyball, and softball) and as a trainer of officials. During my time in both roles I discovered the importance of a expanding knowledge and skills beyond rules and mechanics.  

Competitive sports events usually bring three groups of participants together, two teams and a crew of officials.  The relationship between the teams and officials have a considerable influence not only the perceived success of the event but also on the personal development of the participants.  Good officiating helps produce a healthy, educational, and sportsmanlike environment associated with the fair determination of a winner.  Competent officials are the principle requirement of a successful program.

I consider aptitude as well as attitude essential elements of successful officiating. Because officiating is a personal challenge, and each official brings to the program many different qualities, training programs should include social-psychological (the area of sport psychology and the area of sociology of sport) aspects. Officiating, to a great extent, is more the product of several interrelated human factors than a knowledge of rules and adherence to a series of mechanical procedures.  

Guillen and Feltz (2011) discuss self-efficacy as a conceptual model for sports officiating. Young adults serving as officials take on a position of power which includes peer pressure, authority, decision-making, problem solving, and management of aggression.  These young officials should be in a state of psychological readiness to contend with such factors.  Bond, 2013; Dovidio, 2006; & Rauthmann 2017 support the long-accepted view in psychology that behavior results from contributing factors within the situation (environment) and within the individual. 

One of the earliest experimental issues pursued in in social psychology was the impact of social presence.  Arousal level increases significantly by the mere presence of others.  Carron, 1984; Mullen et al., 1997; & Ukezono, 2015 describe the response is it relates to the quality of performance. Under the increased arousal, dominant, well-learned responses improve, but poorly learned, more tentative responses diminish.  Therefore, the level of distraction, stress, or anxiety is inversely proportional to the level of officiating.

Jarvis, 2005; Kraut, 2003; & Rosenberg, 2009 explain that evaluation apprehension is the expectation that the people who are present will form a judgement about the quality of the performance often causes the increased arousal.  Anxiety about evaluation contributes to an increase in arousal level which influences the effectiveness of performance.  In addition, the characteristics of those present, for example spectators, influences motivation and performance.

Those responsible for training of young adult officials should be aware of the social-psychological influences that could affect performance.  “Knowledge is power” and “practice makes perfect” are two specific teaching techniques to include into the training program.  Besides the cognitive training aspects, which include rule interpretation and mechanics, a program could educate officials in the following areas:

  • Physiological reactions to stress
  • Relaxation techniques and attention to control strategies
  • Reaction time management (presence of an audience usually causes faster responses and often leads to increased errors)
  • Anxiety management when in the presence of a hostile/unsupportive audience
  • The greater the experience in actual situations the greater the acclimatization
  • Trainers should teach skills until they are overlearned
  • The more similar a practice drill or situation is to the real event the greater the benefit
  • Precondition officials to hostile settings. Ways to influence self-confidence include:

**Performance accomplishment
(personal experiences perceived as successfully)

**Vicarious experience
(seeing someone else perform in a difficult situation)

**Verbal persuasion
(communicating and reflecting on experiences with others)

A key tip mentioned in Harbourne’s (2017) interview with Brian Mills, the assistant director for recreation sports at University of Houston, is to “ditch the rulebook”.  

When training new officials, Mills suggests loosening up on the rules just a little. “When we bring in new officials, we don’t focus on 100 pages of rules anymore,” added Mills. “We focus on their development from a holistic approach. We dedicated time to discuss the benefits of becoming an official outside of money, we discuss how officiating can provide them the experiential opportunities to better themselves down the road, and we discuss the importance of soft skills like communication, management, emotional intelligence and teamwork. We expand on that with veterans and add new components like self-management, relationship building and relationship management as they develop skills to be aware of themselves and others.”

Wheeler (2014) wrote a two-part series on “What Does It Take To Be An Intramural Sports Official”.  In part 2 of her blog she shares insights from her student officials.  Overlap exist in the comments below are related to the social-psychological aspect of sports officiating discussed above. 

What would you say is the hardest part of being an intramural sports official?

“The hardest part is getting yelled at by disgruntled participants and trying to keep a level head.”

“The most difficult part about being an intramural official is being able to read people’s emotions and intentions. Often I make calls or choose to let a call go if I realize the person didn’t mean to commit the action or realizes wrong-doing.”

Were you intimidated when you first started working and did you have any previous sports officiating experience?

“I was a soccer referee before I worked for campus recreation, but I was still intimidated on my first day of work because I didn’t think I knew flag football (the first sport I worked) that well and I was nervous.”

“It was slightly intimidating my very first game, but before each season starts, we receive training that pertains to our specific sport so once the game starts rolling you just get into the mode and do what you’re supposed to; I did not have any previous experience.”

What do you think you’ve gained (as a person in general, not necessarily as a sports official) from your job here at campus rec? How is that valuable to you in your planned future pursuits?

“Being a sports official has definitely taught me better conflict management skills, communication skills, and how to be more vocal and proactive. I think those skills are valuable in almost every work environment.”

“I’ve gained the ability to be more assertive with large groups. Often people playing these sports look to you for guidance and you have to step up and give it to them or they won’t respect you.”

Many factors are contributors to the evolution of developing a competent sports official.  It is important to realize that officials become vulnerable when they perceive a doubt of others or when they have self-doubt. The responsibility of those training young adults to serve as an official is to develop a comprehensive training program.  The training must extend beyond rule interpretation & mechanics and include social-psychological aspects.

For those of you who are officiating sports consider the 3 questions Wheeler asked her students.  How would you respond?

For those of you who are training official consider the 3 questions Wheeler asked her students.  How would you hope your officials would respond?

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4 thoughts on “Social-Psychological Aspects of Sports Officiating

  1. Your blog about young officials brought back many memories of my coaching years. I spent 15 years coaching many sport with the majority of the age groups 14 and under. Usually game officials were just starting out.
    I liked to treat them as I did my young players. It was also the way I judged my success.
    “Make them enjoy what they were doing so they would return next year.”
    Many of my practices included instructions on how to treat game officials. My pre-season parents meeting included, and demanded, that parents were never to say or do anything to a officials unless it was positive. Not even a groan about a close call. Many parents are ignorant of rules and often show that by blaming officials.
    Throughout my entire 15 years only once did I confront a official about a call. It was a safety issue when a young punter was completely wiped out while punting right in front of an official.
    I greeted officials before every game with a kind words as I believed this could set the atmosphere for the entire game.
    I love the way your blogs flood my memories.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing…I bet there are a lot of young officials who would appreciate your approach to youth leagues and respecting officials. Nice to see that you considered the value of all those involved (including parents).

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