A Real Discussion About Officiating

“And coaches, remember, that I don’t make mistakes so don’t bother yelling at me tonight.” All three referees and both coaches chuckled. A few minutes later, I toss the ball to start the game. Approximately 5 seconds into the game, I call a hand check against the defense. As I go to the table to report the foul, I’m greeted by the coach saying, “I know you said we weren’t supposed to yell at you, but God damn it, that was a terrible call. This is 4A Marion County basketball, and you’re going to call that ticky tack crap?” At that very moment I had a variety of ways I could have responded. Before I could even contemplate those options, I busted out laughing and said, “Coach, you couldn’t even make it 5 seconds into the game?” 

My name is Derek Linn, and I am an IHSAA licensed referee for basketball and soccer. I started officiating as a summer job at D-One basketball camps when I was 14 and have been hooked ever since. It was a perfect part time job when I was in college, but I really started to take it seriously once I graduated from Franklin College and started teaching math at Whiteland Community High School. 7 years later, I still love driving all over the state to see so many beautiful gymnasiums, get yelled at by so many coaches, and witness so many great Friday night atmospheres. I still get goosebumps when someone hits a big 3-pointer and the crowd erupts so loud that you can’t hear yourself think. That thrill is addicting and every November I start to yearn for it.

I’ve improved quite a bit in my short career thus far. My main focus for improvement the last year or so has been on how to work better with coaches. I’ll be honest, for all the things I love about officiating, having to deal with coaches can really make my night miserable sometimes. Coaches and referees, for the most part, have a good working relationship. We both work near each other, and we tolerate each other. However, I don’t think that either side understands the other (side note: I don’t profess to be the one person who does understand both sides). I realized this lack of understanding when I was on a zoom call with a coach a few weeks ago. I told my wife the call would take about 15 minutes…. An hour and a half later, I told the coach we would pick up where we left off on another call. It was the first time I had ever talked with a varsity coach that wasn’t just a superficial, “Hey, how ya doing?” type of conversation. I learned more in that 90 minutes than I have learned in the 266 varsity games I have officiated.  I also want to point out that I was VERY nervous to initiate this zoom call with a coach. I mean, what if he took offense to something I said or what if he just wanted to complain about my fellow officials? Our inability to understand each other makes it harder for us to go down the path of trying to understand each other. Crazy, right? If we can overcome that fear with a mindset of wanting to improve our craft, I believe we(both coaches and officials) can improve the game of basketball in Indiana.

The main reason why I wanted to speak with the coach was because I was reviewing some game film from last season and I wanted a coach’s viewpoint on how to improve my communication. Before we could even look at the play, this coach was shocked that I was even watching film 4 months after the season was over!?!?! So, let’s address this misconception about referees right away. Referees spend lots of time thinking about the game and how to improve our officiating. Most of the time we spend on the road, officials are talking with each other about how to officiate plays that have happened. We spend most of our time during timeouts and during halftime discussing what adjustments need to be made during the game. After the game, we spend plenty of time breaking down the film to see how many of the plays we got right, which plays we got wrong, and what we need to fix in order to improve those mistakes. Film review is such a powerful tool for officials. I am encouraged that its use in the refereeing community will increase because of the IHSAA’s investment in tools like RefQuest

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “There’s no way ALL officials break down film and try to self-analyze after games.” You’re right, the officials that want to improve are the ones who put in the effort to improve. It’s not 100% of officials that do this, it’s probably not even 25%, but I think the number is growing. It’s the same for coaches too. The coaches who want to get better are the ones reading this website, actively involved in the IBCA, and are constantly learning and improving, among many other things. You can tell the officials that want to improve based on how they present themselves on the court, just as we can tell which coaches work hard at their craft based on how they interact with officials.

I titled this as a “real discussion”, but I’ve tiptoed around the actual third rail topic between coaches and officials. Let’s go ahead and bring it up. Technical fouls. I’ve learned in my short time officiating high school basketball that good calls and bad calls fade away with time, but technical fouls are remembered forever. Those memories reside in a very prominent space near the front of every coach’s brain. (I hope all coaches reading this know that I’m exaggerating for effect…….. But only slightly) I am not even going to try and defend every technical foul because you won’t believe me even if I’m right. I don’t intend to litigate any specific call.  However, I’ll highlight some things that this referee would like coaches to consider that they may not have thought about.

  • When is it okay to yell at another human being? If my coworker shows up late to PLC, do I get to yell at him/her in front of other teachers? Do referees get to yell at coaches when they call a play that doesn’t work out? Can referees yell at coaches and say it’s okay to do so because we are “just fighting for our team”?
  • Did you know that there is a shortage of officials? “It’s true. According to a recent survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, more than 75 percent of all high school officials say “adult behavior” is the primary reason they quit. And 80 percent of all young officials hang up their stripes after just two years of whistle blowing.”
  • Some nights I just don’t have much patience left in my tank. Teaching apathetic teenagers all day, rushing home to pick up my son from daycare, getting dinner ready before I drive across the state to get to the gym an hour before tipoff takes a lot out of me. This doesn’t make it alright for me to make bad calls, but it’s just a reality. Mental fatigue is a really tough thing for officials to battle because we work so many games over a season.
  • Honestly, most refs view technical fouls as just a part of the game. The penalty is two free throws, possession of the ball, and the coach has to sit down the rest of the game. This is not a game altering penalty from most referee’s perspective (unless it’s called in the last minute of a one score game, and techs are almost never called in that situation). How often does the other team get more points from technical free throws than from points off of your own team’s turnovers? Almost never. It’s not nothing, but it’s also not a call that decides the game in the third quarter. We as referees get the impression that coaches view a technical foul as the ultimate disrespect and something used to change the outcome of the game, while referees don’t view it as that big of a deal
  • Lastly, we are taught to give technical fouls only if they meet 3 requirements: Does it fit the situation, does it make the game better, is it defendable by rule. We’re not trying to be disrespectful to you as the coach and we’re not trying to swing the game for one team or the other. We’re thinking about those three questions and if the answer is yes to all of them, then we’re probably going to do it.

If you’ve made it this far into my story, I want to thank you. My love for talking at length about topics other people have only a mild interest in is quite beneficial for teaching Algebra 2, but can make for a bit of a long read. I’ll finish this essay with some refereeing philosophy. Officials can break decisions up based on Art vs. Science. The science of officiating describes the black and white things outlined in the rule book. These things are fairly easy to learn and memorize if you put in an adequate amount of effort. The art of officiating describes the more subjective parts such as when and how you apply those rules on a given night. The art of officiating is very hard to get good at and requires an outstanding Feel For The Game. Let’s take the situation from the beginning of this essay as an example. The science of refereeing tells me that he directed inappropriate language at an official, which by rule, is a flagrant technical foul and that coach should be ejected. However, the art of officiating tells me that he was letting me know that he disagreed with the call in a way that brought about some humor. Because I have a good working relationship already built up with that coach, it was much easier to understand his admittedly twisted sense of humor. I appreciate all of you for wanting to get better at your craft. Self improvement makes you vulnerable, but you’re better for it in the long run. I encourage coaches to seek out referees who they trust and ask them about plays in an atmosphere of productive, constructive criticism. I encourage any referees reading this to do the same in a professional manner. Coaches and referees have a lot more alike than we realize. We have to start having more conversations where we talk with each other instead of talking at each other. We can learn from each other and can make the atmosphere on Friday nights better for everyone.

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