Supervisors as Coaches (Developing officials and what we sometimes overlook with the best of intentions)

Supervisors don’t usually identify themselves this way, but they are essentially coaches of officials. The role of a supervisor is to support their officials on an ongoing basis, identify the individual strengths and weaknesses of officials, track their progress over time, see how they interact with the team as a whole, and eventually, objectively rank them against their peers. A coach (in any sport) performs these exact same duties; the only difference is that they work with players. If you had to choose, which is the most important of these five aspects? Or more precisely, to which should you devote the most of your time and energy?

The answer is option number one; the role that every supervisor should be most focused on is how best to support their officials on an ongoing basis. It’s not that the other four aspects are unimportant, but they are easy to do. Any decent official could point out a fellow official’s strengths and weaknesses in a game situation. If an official was provided with a list of their officiating colleagues, they’d have no problem ranking their fellow officials by ability. And anybody with moderate reading comprehension could review several supervisions of the same official and judge whether or not that official is making positive progress. Obviously, a supervisor will have a better ability to dissect an official’s performance as they gain more experience and learn from other supervisors (not all supervisors were created equal), but supervisors already possess the basic abilities to evaluate officials before they trade their whistle for a clipboard.

The first key aspect of supporting one’s officials is understanding what I call the “feedback balance”. In order to support one’s officials, supervisors need to know their officials; they need to know who their officials are, what motivates them, and how they respond to feedback. If a supervisor doesn’t know those things about an official, their impact on that official’s life is going to be very minimal. This information tells the supervisor when to push an official, and when to pull back; when to be hard on them, and when to encourage them.

A supervisor’s feedback balance for an official is constantly changing; each official is in a unique situation depending on their age, experience, personality, and goals. When an official is just starting out, the feedback balance is weighted 95/5 in favour of encouragement; these officials need to be praised generously for their strengths while having their weaknesses gently corrected. When supervising a more experienced official who sees officiating as a way to make some money and have some fun, the feedback balance will be about 50/50; the supervisor should make sure the official knows what they’re doing well, while making sure they maintain appropriate skills for the level they are working. In the case of an experienced official who has set high goals for himself (whether that be Provincial assignments, or junior hockey, etc), the feedback balance will be 80/20 in favour of “pushing” that official. In this instance, the supervisor’s job is to help that official reach his goals by honing his skills to the highest level possible; at the same time, supervisors can’t forget to praise the official’s strengths and affirm their ability to achieve their goal (if that’s true).

The second key aspect of supporting one’s officials is simple: candour. Not just honesty (because while honesty is crucial, it alone is not sufficient) but candour. As a supervisor, your job is to make sure that your officials know where they are and where they’re going. Are they struggling at their current level, are they middle of the pack, are they ready for the next level? Have they reached their peak, do they need to work harder, where is their potential, can they work at a high level? If an official has the potential to work at a high level, but is only officiating for fun and money, respect their chosen path while letting them know that they have the potential to do something more. If an official wants to work at a high level but isn’t there yet, tell them what they have to do to reach their goal and how far away they are from it. As a supervisor, as a coach, your job is to communicate with them; never stop communicating. Make no mistake, it is a hard thing to do; nobody ever claimed that it was easy to be honest and candid, but as a supervisor and a coach, you owe it to your officials.

Having the difficult conversation with an official and letting them know, however gently, that their performance is falling short of what is expected of them is never a fun task for a supervisor. Because of this, supervisors often shirk that responsibility in favour of the head supervisor or referee-in-chief, who also avoids the conversation, assuming that it has already taken place between the supervisor and the official. In the end, nobody has the conversation with the official, they all assume that someone else has had the conversation, and the official is left in the dark. In fact, the responsibility is equally shared amongst every member of the supervisory staff. The head supervisor or referee-in-chief has to assume the responsibility of ensuring that every official knows where they are and where they’re going; at the same time, the supervisor must have the conversation with the official because their feedback and reports will serve as the basis for the referee-in-chief’s decisions. When in doubt, more feedback is always better.

From the outside looking in, its relatively easy to identify officials whose supervisors don’t communicate properly with them. They are the officials who sit nervously by the computer waiting for their next batch of assignments, with no idea how many games they’ll be receiving or at what level they’ll be working. They are the officials who think they have been performing well all season, only to not receive the playoff or championship assignments they expected. This level of uncertainty is so detrimental to an officials confidence and seriously hinders their ability to perform to the best of their abilities. It is an official’s responsibility incorporate the feedback given to them by their supervisors, but if the supervisor isn’t speaking to them with honesty and candour, that official will not be able to succeed.

There is a tendency for supervisors to get caught up in the tactical, black-and-white aspects of officiating; the “X’s and O’s”, so to speak. What is important to remember is that just about everybody can do the X’s and O’s. We all understand positioning, signals, penalty standard, and the other elements of officiating. The obligation that is the most difficult to execute and to master is communicating with them. Keeping your officials healthy and happy while helping them to realize and achieve their goals; and although it may be the most difficult, it is also the most useful and the most rewarding.

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Author’s Note: I have had the distinct pleasure of working with BC Hockey supervisors who view themselves more as teachers than as evaluators, are never afraid to have the difficult conversation with an official, and who served as examples for this article. I also owe Eric Wynalda, Atlanta Silverbacks Technical Director, a debt for helping me to elucidate my long-held philosophy.  -DH 

Dan is a Level IV Hockey Canada referee, officiating in the PJHL, BCIHL, and BCMML. Since 2011, he has been serving as the Director of Officials Development and as the Assistant Referee-in-Chief at the Vancouver Thunderbird Minor Hockey Association. In this time, he has instructed over 40 on-ice instructional sessions. He has also had the privilege of instructing at 2 BC Hockey Summer Schools and has been a HCOP Course Conductor since 2013.