Youth-Sports Officiating

By John Engh

There has been so much publicity about the struggle to recruit and keep officials in youth sports these days. The constant abuse that officials endure—from T-ball to high school—has turned what was once a labor of love into something seemingly no one wants to do.

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Let’s face it, not many people over the age of 18 are officiating youth games for the money. Many officials were participants, perhaps even coaches, and they have found that officiating allows them to stay in touch with sport they love while performing a valuable service to their community at the same time.

When my own daughter began playing soccer, there was one gentleman—at least 65 years old—who would come out every Saturday at 8 a.m. for her soccer league. I live in South Florida, and even though it was fall, the temperatures were always approaching 90 degrees. He would not only officiate the games until noon, but also take time to talk to the new coaches about the intricacies of the game.

Most of the dads—like me—had played other sports while growing up, but never soccer. My fondest memory of this man was the time I was shouting instructions to one of my 7-year-olds across the field. I can’t remember what I was yelling, but what he said to me has stuck to this day. As he was jogging by, he casually told me: “How will they learn to make their own decisions if you are always telling them what to do?” Man, did that hit home. I preach and preach in my job about life lessons being part of the game, and I was actively taking that very lesson out of my players’ experience.

Those who officiate youth sports are a valuable part of games, and not what I have heard some refer to as a “necessary evils.” Not only do we want the best people in those positions, but we need players and coaches who will treat officials with the respect they deserve.

Holding Players Accountable
I recently had lunch with Daniel Caldwell, an active official who has found his calling and created a new program called Silbo, which matches up sports officials with leagues that need their services. He gave me a unique perspective on officiating that I had never considered. I asked him to email me his thoughts on our conversation:

“There is an increasing issue with the treatment of officials in youth sports. Recently, I witnessed this problem firsthand while umpiring behind the plate at a 13U baseball game. A pitcher threw a wild pitch to start the game. The second pitch was not as wild, but nonetheless a ball. After throwing only his second pitch, and second ball of the day, he threw both of his hands up in the air, shouting ‘Where was that’ as if I had made a poor call.

“I was caught off guard by his aggressive approach and looked to his coach in the dugout to handle the situation. Unfortunately, his coach did not seem to have an issue with the pitcher’s complaint. It is easy for the athletes, coaches, and players to blame the umpire or referee instead of looking at themselves for ways to improve. In this instance, it was very easy for the player and coach to try to blame me for throwing two balls in a row instead of wondering if the pitcher himself could have warmed up better or practiced more that week to ensure he started off the game with more strikes.

“If parents, coaches, and other authority figures allow young athletes to question umpires without any type of reprimand, then what stops them from questioning a teacher, future boss, or a police officer?

“As parents and coaches, we want our kids and teams to win; however, youth sports are about much more than just the game. In youth sports kids learn to hold themselves accountable and learn about the importance of hard work and respect. We cannot allow kids to point fingers, but instead take these opportunities to guide young kids through much more than sports.”

Provide Support
I always thought that the way officials were treated was a fan-behavior problem because of how it affected parents watching the games. Dan’s perspective shines an entirely new, real, and sad light on this issue. Brent Peintner, Director of the Cheney (Kan.) Recreation Commission and a Certified Youth Sports Administrator (CYSA), also weighs in on this topic:

“This is one of the most difficult things we have to do in parks and recreation nowadays—find and keep good officials and get adults to act appropriately. I am in a small community and am rarely lucky enough to get adult officials, but a few teachers help out. So, I usually have to rely on high school kids. I am heavily involved in our school system and have been around long enough to know the kids over the years and watch them grow, which helps me see which kids I hope to go after as officials. I also look to recruit National Honor Society students, student council members, team captains, and honor roll students. Most likely, these kids are the ones with more confidence, are leaders and reliable, are smart and desire to help kids, want to do a good job, and don't just act like a warm body.

“Take the time to ensure that officials know the rules and understand the reasons for them as we often modify rules for kids. Hold training sessions—and if possible—live scrimmages to help with getting game experience. Go over situations where a coach yells at them negatively and how to possibly handle it. If possible, pair young officials with more experienced ones to help, or at least have a supervisor or mentor on location to help with their games.”

It also is important to have parents and coaches trained in expectations and conduct. Never allow them to think that inappropriate behavior is OK. Have them do NAYS coaching- and parent-training and hold them accountable. Situations of no training, no mentor, and no help will most likely lead to bad officiating, with officials quitting, and then you have to find replacements.

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.