9 Leadership Lessons from Sports Referees

Stephen Forsha

Lao-Tzu states, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”. Refereeing mirrors this statement.

For sports referees the aim is to ensure player safety, ensure players play within the rules of the sport and otherwise manage the match. They also share in the aim of affording players the opportunity to participate in their sport and strive to improve through competition.

As with Lao-Tzu’s leader, a good referee will intercede when needed but will mostly operate so as to allow the players to play their game and “do it themselves”. The goal of a referee is for people to barely notice he/she exists.

Refereeing provides many lessons for leaders, below are nine lessons referees know that leaders can learn from.

  1. Attend to technical issues. Not only do you need to know the rules of the game but you also must stay up to date on changes. Beyond knowing the rules, you must also be physically and mentally fit, have the necessary equipment (book/score card, pencils, watches, uniform, plus backups of each), schedule your time leading up to matches, and be prepared to begin the match on time. This means that you must be ready to take the field before the teams, check the conditions of the weather and pitch, and ensure everyone is ready to begin on time.

Ensure you are ready to lead and that both you and your followers have the necessary resources to be successful. Lead from the front and ensure you provide a good environment for your followers so they can attend to their work.

  1. Set expectations. Before a match, you should discuss your expectations with your assistants so they understand what is expected of them and are attuned to the match. You should also set expectations for each team. Let the team captains know how you plan to call the match, how you will handle dissent, etc., so they can let their teams know how you plan to operate. Reinforce your expectations throughout the match and be as consistent as you can.

Ensure your support staff and followers know what you expect from them. Communicate those expectations and help them see the boundaries they operate in.

  1. Experience matters. Not only do you need to know the rules of the game but you also need experience. The more you referee the better you become. Take every opportunity to gain experience including practice matches, friendly matches and competitive matches. By refereeing matches, you develop your style, learn from mistakes and gain confidence.

Be a student of leadership. Learn the technical aspects of your and your follower’s jobs but also gain leadership experience by seeking opportunities to lead.

  1. You will make mistakes. You will miss calls, that is just part of the experience. If you understand this and have humility, players will usually understand as well. They may not be happy but they will realize that you are human. If you clearly miss a call, tell the player you missed it. They will appreciate your honesty.

Leaders make mistakes. Failure is where you can truly learn about leading so understand that you will fail and understand that others fail as well. Be humble and accept responsibility, your followers will appreciate it. Always use mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn.

  1. Decisions are supported and criticized at the same time. You will upset half the participants and their fans with every decision you make as a referee but you must develop the courage to make decisions and stand by them.

As a leader you put yourself on the line and you cannot make everyone happy with every decision you make. Learn not to take criticism personally and realize that often individuals are placing blame on you for issues of their own creation. Intercede where needed, make your decision and then focus everyone’s attention back on your collective goals.

  1. You cannot see everything. In team sports, there is too much going on to see every foul or infraction of the rules. Understand that you have blind spots and will miss a certain number of fouls throughout a match that you simply do not see.

Use your staff and followers to bring issues to your attention and help you gain a broader perspective. However, you must own the decisions as well as non-decisions and manage the ramifications. That is your responsibility.

  1. You need to see the game from a different point of view. You must step above the fray and see what is occurring from a new vantage point, particularly if you are a former player. Players are told, “Keep your eye on the ball” but this is poor advice for a referee, as the ball does not foul. Instead, referees need to practice watching players moving towards the ball, watch player’s hands and feet instead of the ball, and watch with a broader view for off the ball fouls.

Your point of view as a leader must also be different from when you were a follower. Work to gain perspective on issues so you can see them in a different light and think of the ‘why’ behind issues.

  1. Be in the play. On top of watching from a different perspective, you also need to be in the play. You need to move with the action. There is nothing gained for a referee who does not keep up with the pace of the game except ridicule from players and coaches. Be close enough to the action that you can see but not too close that you are in the way. Players will know you are with the action watching over them.

Show up and lead. Followers, like athletes, do not respect an absent leader or referee. Work to be in the action, in the moment with your followers, and have presence.

  1. Stand your ground but be calm. One of the worst things a referee can do is waffle on a decision or let players and coaches intimidate them. If they do it once, both teams will do it the next time. This does not mean you have to be a tyrant, but you must be in control and be calm. Losing your cool with players or coaches escalates conflict when you should be the one controlling conflict. Use your natural personality to deescalate conflict.

Dr. Stephen Forsha You must learn to control your emotions, keep calm and deal with the issues. Do not let issues and conflicts control you.

Stephen Forsha is the business, law, technology and languages division chair and program director for online undergraduate business programs at William Woods University.

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