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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Referees don't lose you games!

Recent street protests about and legal challenges to a recent refereeing decision offer us an insight to sport that coaches urgently need to make clear to athletes. And, in some cases, need to remind themselves. First, professional coaches have a long record of complaining about refereeing decisions. For instance, the American NFL and NCAA football competitions produce television- worthy but not coach-worthy quotes week-on-week. Second, the mass media often set themselves up as self-proclaimed experts on the rules: frequently fanning the flames of dissent.

Well all this is easy to say from my blog post bully pulpit. However, think on this. I coached over 1,500 junior development team basketball games in my career, and many other volleyball games. I never lost because of the referee. It’s simple, we lost because we didn’t score enough points. That’s an end to it. Basketball and volleyball are sports with sophisticated statistical analytics. We had lots of game data to track where we won and lost. There was no column for the referee on the stats sheet. You had a good basketball game if you shot 50%+ from the field. In other words – you missed five out of ten shots.

Every game is a mix of successful and unsuccessful execution. Of forced error and unforced error. Of good substitutions and bad ones. Of great game plans and not so great. The best athletes take immediate responsibility for the winning and losing of games. The best coaches too, take responsibility for their decisions. Referees are judged to have good and bad games, but they don’t cause you to lose.

So let’s talk a little about refereeing. Referees make two kinds of decisions. Matters of fact and matters of opinion. So six players on a basketball court instead of five, is a matter of fact. Foot on the line or not, is a matter of opinion. For the vast majority of referees, those decisions are made without the benefit of video replay, and for the most part players and coaches accept those decisions.

So by the time players and coaches arrive at the semi-professional or professional level, they should be immersed in the understanding of a critical working principle - ‘the referee is always right, even when he/she isn’t’. The video umpire and technological assistance in professional sport only addresses some decisions. So what happened to the immersion in principles of fair play?

As the rewards from sport success get greater, we have leaped to the conclusion that technological support will lead to a fairer or better refereed game and a greater chance of “our team” winning! In my view that's a misconception. We will more likely win if we make fewer errors, our opponents make more and we score more points.

And just as I was about to post this article, I read that a lawyer is considering formally raising concerns about a referee's mental health history because he [the lawyer] didn't like the referee's decision! What an insult to those with real mental illness.

(photo source: Chicago SunTimes)

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