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Managing Emotions is Key When Mistakes are Made

By Tim Leighton on February 07, 2017 officials

It is a moment of dread that no official wants to face.

You, or another member of your crew, has just made a mistake while officiating a contest. The angst quickly builds as you assess the play where a misapplication of the rules or a miscalculation in judgement were used.

A byproduct of such an occurrence is what follows: the wrath of a coach or an emotion-filled reaction from players. You know it is coming, but how does an official deal with it? Where is that magic point where you allow a coach or player to fume, yet make sure the backlash doesn’t carry over into a violation of the rules?

“Managing emotions and maintaining a high level of game decorum are two major keys in these situations,” said Bryan Kemnetz, a 27-year high school official from Stillwater, Minn. “There are limits to them being upset or frustrated. We have to reel in emotions during these tense times.”

Coaches and players aren’t the only frustrated ones in these situations. The officials are seething, too, albeit silently, or amongst their crew members as they sort through the damage. Making mistakes isn’t a part of their mantra and reversing calls is rare.

“Mistakes are made, and by rule, we’ve got to move on,” said Jason Nickleby, coordinator of officials for the Minnesota State High School League. “Rules books don’t allow us to go back in time to fix things. It’s always a strong idea during these times to listen, acknowledge an error has been made, and then proceed with the game. The worst thing is to compound the matter by issuing a technical (foul) or ejecting someone.”

Nickleby, a collegiate football official in the Big Ten and the Mid-America conferences, says discussion of these situations can be handled as a crew during pregame meetings.

“Officials must be ready for anything during a contest,” he said. “That even means when things don’t go well.”

Rick Benish, a veteran basketball official also from Stillwater, Minn., said when a mistake is made in a game can have an impact on the emotional reaction.

“If a crew boots a call, the coaches and players have a right to be upset,” he said. “We need to have a long fuse in those situations. Things will be more heated in the final minutes of a game. If you kick a call in the opening minutes, there is time for water to go under the bridge. If not, and the incident happens in the final minutes, it is a much more magnified situation. Tensions will be that much higher. It all comes down to managing the emotions for all involved.”

Tips for handling conflict (Source: Australian Sports Commission):

  • Be professional – speak clearly and stay composed in heated situations. This demonstrates confidence in managing the situation. Avoid argument or debate, and don’t try to bluff through with unjustified rulings.
  • Remain calm – don’t over-react. Stay relaxed and adopt a low-key posture/body language. Use objective, neutral language.
  • Address the problem, not the emotions – try to put aside the emotions of all parties. Emotions inevitably inflame the situation. By dealing with the facts and the available evidence, the official is more likely to be seen as making a fair and appropriate decision.
  • Focus on the person: people are not objects, and they don’t like being treated as such. Acknowledge a participant with eye contact and use their name if possible. Recognise that they have something to say, and don’t just dismiss them.
  • Be fair – avoid team or individual bias at all costs. Demonstrating integrity is one of the greatest assets of an official.
  • Be confident and open – don’t be defensive or try to justify actions. Clarify decisions when appropriate, based on the facts and the evidence presented.

Be firm – deal with unacceptable behaviour firmly and quickly. Set boundaries in a polite, professional and assertive manner.