Social-Psychological Aspects of Sports Officiating

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?

Recreational Sports Contributes to Student Development

Reviewing my About page you see that I spent 10 years managing recreational sports programs for college-aged students followed by 10 years studying the relationship between academic and co-curricular experiences. The interest in how these experiences could facilitate student development and achievement are still important to me.  A few months ago I collaborated with a local university recreational sports department.  My primary function was to provide an introduction for a staff development program focusing on student development and meeting mission.  The institution mission is in direct alignment with the purpose of my blog. It says in part, “to enrich the educational experience by providing opportunities that focus on the development of lifelong wellness skills for students.”  

To create the presentation the staff and I discussed importance of bridging the department mission to the university mission.  Linking department mission statement and the organization mission promotes unity of vision.

A department’s mission statement extends to the campus community a promise of intent to serve. While a mission statement can be the inspirational foundation of an organization, it must also be the framework for program planning and assessment. 

Flow from intent of the organization (mission) to the program goals (desired outcomes) guides evaluation of the goals (actual outcomes). In other words, how well does the department contribute to the organization meeting mission.

Applying the concepts of a mission statement into practice will afford the ability to answer the “so what” question.

We discussed and worked through an exercise to operationalize the mission statements (institution and department). Transforming the mission statement from an abstract concept to a specific measurable vision contributes to progam planning.

The purpose of the exercise was to name key elements of each and pinpoint overlap.  Below is a partial example of such an outcome of the exercise (used in another setting).

The second part of the staff development was to select a theoretical foundation for their work.  My role was to supply an example of using theory to guide practice.  I chose Arthur Chickering’s (1969, 1993) student development theory.  He bases his model on the precept of experiential learning. This theory is a perfect fit as an example for a recreational sports department.  As conceptualized by Chickering, experiential learning is the learning that occurs in a person as the result of changes in judgments, feelings, knowledge or skills.  Chickering hypothesizes that the student experiences have the potential to have a substantial impact on overall development.  Chickering’s model includes 7 evolving factors (tasks) of student development, which he refers to as vectors.  Vector quantifies both direction (i.e., improve, status quo, worsen) and magnitude (i.e., how much of a change).

Below are some examples (non-inclusive list) of how recreational sports programming contributes to student development (applying Chickering’s vectors)

Achieving Competence

**Sports participation enhance self image
**Classification systems used in programming contributes to building competence
**Social interaction and challenge of participation
**Positions of responsibility provide opportunities to build competence **Learning rules, how to work together as a team, strategy of play and competition

Managing Emotions

**Participation helps express aggression (cathartic effect)
**Sport environment allows an opportunity to try new ways of expressing emotions
**Co-recreational opportunities enhance social interactions
**Need to adhere to rules and regulations


**Participation in sports helps in character development, self sufficiency, and self support
**Sports teams help in disengagement from parents (transition to college) **Enhances the ability to use each other’s strengths to make progress as teams make decisions and solve problems
**Cooperation among team members and opponents is necessary to have a successful play experience 

Interpersonal Relationships

**Tolerance may develop by creating a plane of equality on the playing field **Classification of sports and variety of program offerings aid in diversity of personal interactions
**Sports environment helps to eliminate social and racial barriers

Establishing Identity

**Self-concept varies directly with one’s body concept and sports participation enhances this
**Helps develop ability to handle/respond to competitive pressure

Developing Purpose

**Participation may enhance goal directed behavior
**Setting of the team or performance goals and persistence in accomplishing these goals
**Individual and dual sports aid in lifestyle development

Developing Integrity

**Participation enhances loyalty and altruism
**Sport environment allows one to observe, analyze, and evaluate others value structures
**Sport environment develops its own behavior structures, norms, and statuses

Tell me and I Forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand. – Confucius
Final Thoughts

A recreational sports department should have, above all, a fixed, articulate philosophy concerning the nature, intent and reason behind the programs.  Recreation professionals must transition from intent and apply theory to practice in order to prove educational accountability.  Student development theory, such as Chickering, serves as a core construct around which we identify goals, programs developed, and interventions evaluated.

If a profession is to know where it is going, what it is striving for, what it hopes to accomplish, and how it might proceed in its work, it should have goals and outcomes clearly defined. 

If human development is indeed a lifelong process of acquiring, analyzing, and synthesizing information, ideas, and knowledge then recreational sports professionals can feel good about the impact of their programs on that part of the process which occurs during a student’s college career.

I view the sports environment as a mini-society or participatory model of life. I feel that the developmental opportunities in the larger world and those in the sports environment are similar. Future blogs will expand on these comments…my recent work has stimulated the idea to share my beliefs with you.

Any thoughts??