As I come to the end of my eleventh season as an official, I realize that I’ve been devoting more and more attention to how officials and coaches interact. One of the biggest lessons I try to teach my young officials is that the relationship between a coach and an official does not have to be adversarial; it is unfortunate and unnecessary that it often turns out to be the case. At the minor hockey level, the issue has garnered increased media attention as young referees are continually driven away from the sport by abusive coaches. By contrast, at the junior and professional levels, verbal abuse of referees is often considered a semi-legitimate gamesmanship tactic. Whether we’re referring to an outburst of emotion or a continuous barrage of verbal abuse, yelling at the referees is considered to be ubiquitous in hockey. My meditation on the subject have been centred around trying to understand precisely what coaches are trying to achieve when they verbally abuse official. This is not pathos designed to persuade coaches to reform their behaviour on moral grounds. Instead, this is an explanation of the practical ways in which referees respond to verbal abuse and why smart hockey coaches should keep their mouths shut, because what they’re doing isn’t working.
Before I continue, I want to clarify my use of the word abuse, because my choice of this word is very deliberate. A coach screaming and swearing at an official constitutes abuse because the official cannot respond in kind; if an official screamed or swore at a coach, they would be swiftly disciplined, and rightly so. It is fairly universally agreed upon that a middle-aged adult coach screaming at a twelve year-old official constitutes abuse not only because a teenaged official does not have the ability to respond on the same level, but there is also a physical intimidation factor in which an adult coach clearly has the upper hand. But by the same token, an adult coach yelling at an adult referee constitutes verbal abuse because the referee is not permitted to engage the coach in this way. Whether or not you, as the reader, accept my definition of the word “abuse”, we can continue forward with the understanding of why I have selected this word for my article.
The reality is that for all the smart people involved in the game of hockey, most coaches and players have absolutely zero understanding of how referees respond to displays of emotion and verbal abuse. Coaches tend to treat referees like players – a coach will yell at a player in the hopes of eliciting a behavioural response that will improve the quality of that individual’s play (whether or not this is a useful tactic is a debate for another day). So coaches react, sometimes without thinking, to (real or perceived) errors by referees the same way they would with their players. The key difference, the one that coaches overlook, is that players are subordinate to the coach; referees are not.
When a referee gets verbally abused, there are three possible ways in which they might respond. The first possibility is that they completely ignore it, which is the best possible outcome for the coach. Let me repeat that: when a coach yells at a referee, the best possible outcome for the coach is that the referee completely ignores them. Either the referee doesn’t hear the coach, or they simply let the abuse roll off their back and carry on with their duties.
The second possibility is that the referee becomes angry with the coach (and by extension, the team). Obviously, a referee is not going to compromise the integrity of the game because a coach has irritated them, but referees are human and it will stick in their subconscious. No matter the circumstances, if a coach or a player verbally abuses an official, they will forever be associated with negative thoughts in the mind of that official. Jason de Vos put it best when he said that “if you treat referees with respect, they will give you the benefit of the doubt”. The reverse is true as well; if a player or a coach treats a referee with disrespect, that referee will not give them the benefit of the doubt when he has to make a judgement call. So by yelling at the referee, a coach is putting himself and the rest of his team in jeopardy of more serious consequences for the rest of the game (and future games with this referee).
The third, and most dangerous, possibility is that the referee suffers a loss of confidence as a result of being verbally abused by a coach. This usually happens in minor hockey, but I’ve seen it happen at the higher levels of the game as well. The criticism from the coach or player sticks in the head of the referee and eats away at their confidence. As a result, they are no longer sure of their decision-making abilities and are more likely to make errors and second-guess themselves. In a previous article, I discussed how a referee cannot properly officiate if they do not have confidence in their decision-making abilities. Loss of confidence on the part of an official will ruin a game of hockey. Furthermore, the officials who are most susceptible to a loss of confidence as a result of verbal abuse are the ones who already have below-average confidence in their abilities and are more likely to make errors that would incite a coach to verbally abuse them in the first place. So the criticism from the coach or player is actually having the opposite of the desired effect. Ironically, if a coach believes that a referee is performing at substandard level, verbally abusing that referee is the least-advisable course of action.
Thus far, three possible outcomes of a coach verbally abusing an official have been discussed. You might notice something they all have in common: none of these outcomes are positive for the coach (and his team) or the official. The simple reality is that when a coach yells at an official, nobody wins. As a referee, a supervisor, an instructor, and a coach, I believe that berating officials is simply not an appropriate course of action. However, if a coach doesn’t realize that by themselves, I have little chance of convincing them. The only chance I have of convincing a coach is as I have tried to do here, by explaining the possible reactions and practical consequences. If a coach plays three forwards together and they fail to register a goal, that coach going to juggle his lines; coaches want to use tactics that work. So it follows that if you are a smart coach, the next time you open your mouth to verbally abuse an official, save both of you the trouble and close your mouth. There are many ways to interact with an official, but verbally abusing them is a tactic that will never work in your favour.
Dan is a Level IV Hockey Canada referee, officiating in the BCHL, PJHL, and BCMML. Since 2011, he has been serving as the Assistant Referee-in-Chief for the Vancouver Thunderbird Minor Hockey Association. He has also had the privilege of being a BC Hockey Minor Supervisor since 2013, supervising 3 BC Hockey Provincial Championships, instructing 3 BC Hockey Summer Schools, and has been a HCOP Course Conductor since 2013.