Everyone talks about the retention of officials, but what is actually being done on the local level to keep them engaged and enthusiastic about their avocation?
NASO asked a series of questions of leaders from three local associations, all NASO Association Advantage members, from across the continent to get their ideas. The participants included: Major Sosebee, who is with the Gulf South Conference Football Officials Association in Alabama; Carl Smith, trainer and assigner for the Anchorage (Alaska) Sports Officials Association, which works a variety of basketball leagues; and Joel Oswald of the Heartland Officials’ Alliance in Iowa, which is a large group that assigns baseball, basketball, softball, volleyball, football and soccer primarily at the junior and senior high school levels.
1. What does your association do to ensure that new officials stay in officiating beyond the first year or two?
Sosebee: Get regular feedback from their games to make sure any problems get resolved quickly. Have an open line of communication and feedback from me on ways to always improve. Making sure they enjoy (officiating) instead of doing it for the money.
Smith: I believe our attitude toward all officials is positive and encouraging. We need all officials, even if they’re the bottom tier. We try very hard to not kick anyone to the curb. There have been (only) a few incidents where the person’s confrontational attitude or lack of professionalism have forced the board to disassociate them.
Oswald: We are doing our darnedest to keep from throwing these first-year officials to the wolves. Whenever possible, we assign them with a mentor as a partner, and attempt to set them up to succeed in game environments that aren’t exceedingly challenging. That doesn’t always mean junior high ball … but it is incumbent upon us assigners to put our officials in situations where they will be successful. If we set the officials up for success, we have a much better chance of keeping them past year one or two.
2. What are the most common reasons officials in your group have left the avocation?
Sosebee: Low pay versus the travel that is required. They feel like coaches are never happy and they get tired of all the hassling rather than just having coaches coach and officials officiate.
Smith: Some officials leave because they’re disgruntled with their assignments/partners/board members, which is fairly rare thankfully. Some have family or job restrictions that don’t allow them the time. Injuries and age are always factors. Quite a few new officials just decide it isn’t for them. (A) passive personality and not being used to having people yell at them on a regular basis.
Oswald: It certainly isn’t lack of games! If a person has a pulse and wants to work, we’ll have games for them. An unrealistic self-assessment of abilities is a common mindset that leads to constant disappointment and ultimately to officials exiting the avocation. Officials believe they are postseason worthy, or state tournament worthy, or state championship worthy, and when those assignments don’t come after a couple years, they hang it up. Trying to get officials to measure their worth on something other than game assignments is extremely challenging, especially when often it seems officials who are of perceived lesser quality are receiving postseason assignments. This is an ongoing challenge to try to work with the state association to help identify quality, deserving officials.
3. What advice would you give a new official to prepare him or her for officiating and help the official want to stay for the long term?
Sosebee: Always have fun and do it for the right reasons. Be approachable from coaches and open to learning. No one person knows everything. Be your own worst critic!
Smith: Be mentally and physically prepared before you show up for the season. Many officials wait for the season to start before they start any running, so it’s midseason or later before they can keep up with the pace of play. That may be OK for youth or rec leagues, but unacceptable for high school ball.
Oswald: Get a mentor — and get the right mentor. Starting out the right way is so important. There’s so much you don’t know and you don’t know what questions to ask. … In order to be successful, a new official needs guidance, coaching, mentoring on and off the court/field. The challenge for our assigners and local association leaders is to ensure we have the right people available in these positions.