Why You Never Argue with the Game Official, but Can and Should Ask for Clarification

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Good sportsmanship is essential for players to learn and grow into over their time as an athlete. This involves respectful conduct between players on and off their teams, their coaches, and most importantly, with game officiators. There’s a certain humility that players need to learn toward the authority of a game official, starting from a very young age. Learning how to properly communicate with the umpire or referee is key to understanding why certain calls are made or when they will be made, and sometimes asking for clarification in instances like this can help players learn something directly applicable to their own play. Here are some things to keep in mind while coaching players on how to communicate with officials.

Arguing with the Official

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There are plenty of reasons why it’s not responsible coaching to encourage players to confrontationally engage with officials. For starters, it’s a clear display of poor sportsmanship. Players should be taught from early in their development that good sportsmanship is a crucial tenant in a great athlete. Acting up toward game officials is a particularly poor showing of temperament, attitude, and respect for the game. Players who interrupt the game to cause a scene or argue disrupt the flow of the game for the other players and can offset an official toward a team -- while no umpire or ref is allowed to show bias in any way, one could imagine how much easier it might be to call a penalty on someone who showed a bad attitude earlier.

Beyond that, there’s not much to learn by taking on a bad attitude and challenging an official. At that point, a player isn’t going to change the official’s mind or the result of the call, especially not if they engage angrily. The official is also much less likely to want to help a player understand the call and why it was made if they see hostility. It can become even worse if that official is commonly working that league or division, as a player may cross paths with them again at some point and know they have at least one enemy on the field. If your goal is to get the call observed or even changed, engaging with the official in a civil and polite manner is instrumental to having any kind of productive result. Otherwise, arguing is usually severely penalized at the pro level, so players have to learn that one way or another.

Asking for Clarification

For most players, it’s easy for them to internalize that an officiator’s call will stand and that they are not to be questioned. From there, that player’s relationship with the game’s official starts to shape itself in a much more productive way. A player who understands their relationship with an official and their authority can engage with officials from a place of genuine interest and respect. From there, it’s on the official as a professional to help guide the player’s understanding of the game’s rules to the best of their ability. This is so that players can grow as athletes and performers as they develop their vocabulary for the more subtle aspects of their game. Understanding the more niche rules of a sport can help athletes be better versed in their problem solving abilities, as they can have more possibilities in front of them for plays and execution -- for example, knowing the minute differences between a fair and foul ground ball in the infield can save a team a run if they play it correctly.

When an umpire or referee makes a close call, most sports have it in place in their rules such that the play becomes a judgment call. That is to say, the play’s outcome is determined by the ruling of the official regardless of how the play may have appeared. Some close calls can make a profound impact on the outcome of a game, so it’s natural for some players to get more temperamental or passionate about these kinds of calls. It’s important to teach athletes restraint during these experiences and remind them of the official’s authority. These close calls can then be elaborated on if so desired by either team’s coaches or players, and all involved can learn something big or small about how that play worked and went down.

Respecting Officials

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Referees and umpires primarily work these games to make decisions on calls in real-time that biased participants can’t determine. Second to that however, they serve a duty to all involved to guide them toward figuring out the fine details of the sport. After all, they are the ones that are expected to know the most about the technicalities of the game so they can make these decisions in the first place. So it makes sense that treating them, their knowledge, and their opinions with the utmost respect is paramount to having a positive experience playing under them. Players that understand their relationship with the official can use it to their advantage and grow as players, athletes, and problem solvers by leveraging it properly.

While certainly one of the more passive skills involved with playing a given sport, learning this patience and respect for the game’s officiators proves time and time again to be one of the most useful and important ones too. The best well-rounded athletes are both respectful and knowledgeable, and that’s not a coincidence.

Felipe Leon