By Fred Engh
One of the biggest challenges recreation professionals face is finding—and keeping—quality volunteer coaches.
And that difficulty only escalates when it comes to retaining officials.
A growing number of officials are walking away from games due to the verbal abuse that often rains down on them, along with the threat of physical violence that some endure. And others are calling it quits simply because they may not feel qualified to handle the responsibilities that accompany the position.
But these individuals play a critical role in youth-sports programming, so I checked in with some Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) to see the steps they have taken to keep good officials in their programs for the benefit of young athletes:
Logan Singhisen, Recreation Supervisor—Youth Sports for the City of Manhattan (Kan.) Parks & Recreation: A lot of finding officials happens through word of mouth. We’ll get a handful of high school kids and a handful of college kids who apply, and we will ask them to recruit their friends and anyone they know who played the sport. Our main area of focus, though, is retention. In most sports (basketball, football, soccer), we’ve had very good luck with people coming back without big efforts on our end. However, with baseball, that is never the case. So, in order to try to combat that, I hired a “Baseball/Softball Umpire Coordinator” to work 10 to 15 hours per week scheduling, evaluating, and training umpires. We have shown umpires that we are invested in them and want them to get better and come back to work for us—no matter the skill level. The Umpire Coordinator is responsible for writing up an honest evaluation of each umpire by the end of the season. Then we distribute the evaluations to the umpires so they know what areas to improve in and in what areas they have already done very well. We found that a majority of the umpires really appreciate the feedback and are eager to improve upon the areas that were rated lower.
My advice to other organizations is to make sure to follow up with umpires. Too many times we can get complacent and let games happen without checking in. One thing I like to do a few times per week is to check in with umpires to see how (from their point of view) the games have gone and if there’s anything that I can do to help. Often, the umpires won’t mention anything that is bothering them unless I ask, so I try to ask frequently. I feel it shows that we care about them, and we genuinely want to make their job easier.
We have a competitive basketball league that typically has very heated games. This is my first basketball season at this agency—I read through reports last year and there were multiple games each weekend with technical fouls being assessed. At the coaches’ meeting this year, I invited an official to speak to the coaches about what officials do and how tough their job is. The message seems to have been received well, as there has only been one game so far where a technical was assessed and no issues aside from that. I feel this makes the officials’ job much easier, and we will likely be able to retain more of them as well.
David Cuervo, Director of the Panther (Fla.) Sports Academy: I take a proactive approach in creating an environment in which parents and others who are present at the games … respect the officials and are not abusive towards them. For starters, I have a parent-orientation meeting where I inform them of what is expected at games. I then follow up the meeting most of the time by emailing parents (those present and not present at the meeting) recapping what was discussed. If during a game, a parent or spectator begins to behave in a hostile manner, and the official does not address it immediately, I take a proactive approach and will personally speak to the individual about unacceptable behavior not being tolerated. In a few instances over the years, I have had to ask spectators to please leave the game after they have been warned for inappropriate behavior.
On one occasion the game was stopped and was not restarted until the individual left the game and was escorted out by the school’s security guard. During intramural games, if I or one of my coaches, or even a contracted official, is officiating a soccer game, I will stop the game and inform any spectators behaving inappropriately or standing behind one of the goals to please move away from that area. If an official is officiating the game and in order to not draw any unnecessary attention, I will politely ask the individual to move.
In my opinion, most individuals who officiate games do so because they enjoy sports more than the money earned. Therefore, I am very mindful of that and strive to create a positive environment for the officials and all of those present at the game or event. Being proactive is the best way to go about it, and enforcing and implementing order is important, as many will adhere to such requests.
Fred Engh is founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at email@example.com or (800) 729-2057.