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How to Recruit Train and Retain Sports Officials

Recruiting referees and umpires is a yearly ordeal for almost every league, association and school on the planet. If you or your group is struggling to keep an adequate supply of qualified officials ready to go for every game, I can assure you that you are not alone.

BeachSports image 3 nightWhile creating the Officials101 newsfeeds, I have made almost 10,000 Twitter posts at the time of this writing, regarding officials in all sports. I am not really sure what that means, but I have probably done a little more research on the topic than the average person. In my conversations with officials representing all levels, in dozens of sports, and in leagues all around the world, I have noticed many associations share similarities and connections between their challenges and successes.  Recruiting and training new officials are two of the most common issues that I get asked about. How to Recruit, Train and Retain Sports Officials is my response to this common problem.

What are the Numbers?

30 per centThere are no definitive statistics with exact turnover rates that I am aware of. I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that a 30 per cent turnover rate is probably about average for many associations regardless of the sport. The reasons for the turnover are varied and often include things like school, work, location and family commitments. It is a sad fact that abuse is often a contributing factor and that must be addressed in order to create a successful program. First, let’s take a look at what the turnover rate does to a sports association and its officiating team.

High Turnover

Recruit Train Retain Football crewA higher turnover rate will cost more, produce less and create a lower overall experience pool of officials. It is that simple. Having a new group of officials to train every season is always a positive goal but it is best if the new group is still available next year so the experience gained, and the training costs, are not wasted. The experience lost to turnover is crucial to what is happening on the playing surface and will affect the mood of both the players and spectators. A solid core of qualified and experienced officials is one of the most important factors to consider when creating a successful association.

When inexperienced officials are thrown into situations they are not ready for, due to a lack of more experienced officials being available, there are bound to be mistakes. While the association is aware and empathetic of the situation, the players, coaches and the parents, or fans, are not. They will definitely be able to spot the mistakes and they will often voice their displeasure. Of course that will only increase the nervous tension and the number of mistakes the new officials will make. This scenario often ends the careers of new referees and umpires before they even learn how to do the job. The whole process will usually repeat itself next season in order to replace the officials who have just quit. It is a crazy cycle that is very difficult for volunteer associations to deal with. Fortunately, with leadership and patience, it is possible to break the cycle.

Low Turnover

ZebrasA lower turnover will cost less and add more to the experience pool. The end result will be fewer mistakes and a higher overall experience level, with happier players, coaches and fans. New referees and umpires can work with more experienced crews and ease into the position so that many of the mistakes of pressure can be avoided. Because there is now less emphasis on beginner level training, the class time, and therefore cost, can now be invested to train experienced officials to even higher levels. By having a stable system such as this, the overall quality of officiating, in any sport, will increase. Training costs can now become investments instead of desperate gambles and contribute to increased skill levels in the game. To become one of those successful leagues that have a waiting list of officials, the goal is low turnover.

Many volunteer associations have a constant turnover of league executives and organizers who hand off the file to another parent for next season. This does create challenges but those challenges can be overcome if the association has a common purpose to recruit, train and retain its officials.

How to Recruit Sports Officials

We are hiring signThere are many different recruiting techniques. Most associations try to recruit from within and ask players to give it a go. A simple ad in the school newsletter or a classified ad in the local newspaper is common. Some associations go all out and actually post ads at job search websites. The tech savvy will use their social media networks. Probably the most productive method is by ‘word of mouth’. An association with a successful officiating team is noticed by everyone. That includes officials in nearby associations and locations. Provide an environment of success and they will eventually come to you.

If you have tried the above methods and still haven’t had any luck, you can try these little known tricks. Broaden your search by opening your mind. The qualities required to be a great official include skills like leadership, organization and knowledge of the rules. It is often surprising to people to realize that gender, skin colour and sexuality have no bearing on anyone’s ability to be the best official in the world. Many associations don’t even notice their bias because it is ‘just the way it has always been’. If your association is one of those, it is time for it to rethink the program.

If your association does all the right things and accepts all who wish to participate, but still can’t get enough officials, I suggest you attend games in other sports, or neighbouring communities  and watch for officials who show the personal qualities you are looking for. The leadership and organizational skills that most officials strive for are common across all sports. The rules can be taught. There are thousands of officials who referee in one sport for the winter and umpire another sport in the summer. If you see an official in another sport that seems to have some skills that you find impressive, then approach them. Ask if they would be interested in officiating in your sport. You may be pleasantly surprised at their response.

How to Train Sports Officials

Recruit Train Retain TeamEvery sport is different. The governing bodies all have systems and programs that work for them. I am not going to undermine the sport specific training that has been developed over many years. However, the sports world is evolving quickly, and so are the training programs being presented to the officials. New rules to accommodate technological changes, increased fitness levels and the unforgiving scrutiny of the digital age are just a few of the challenges facing officiating teams in all sports. Every sport will have to adapt to these changes as smoothly as possible.

I can’t give sport specific advice on this topic, but I can give you some basic advice that I hope is helpful. While the digital age has added some challenges, it has also provided the opportunity for associations of all sports to provide top level training programs. Scour the newsfeeds of websites like Officials101 to find content and resources that will provide you with all the training programs you need to create a well prepared team of officials. At Officials101, you can find thousands of links to schools, rules and tools in almost every sport. Use those links to help find and build a custom program for your association using the teaching of the top officials from the top leagues in the world. Use their social media pages to stay informed and motivated about the training of referees or umpires in your sport. New technology provides an incredible opportunity to change the future.

How to Retain Sports Officials

Recruit Train Retain Whistle TrophyThe key to it all! How to retain the officials you have recruited and trained? Now you have them, how do you keep them? This is the missing link to creating the most successful officiating teams your association has ever seen. This is also the step that often gets overlooked. Without making an extraordinary effort to retain your officials, all of the time and resources expended to recruit and train will be lost and the association will have to restart the process again next season. 

The most successful associations will cultivate a team environment. They provide regular meetings, consistent pay, training sessions, mentors and emotional support. Great friendships that last a lifetime are common amongst many referee and umpire associations. They work hard together as a unit and strive to improve with every match. Provide social opportunities with recognition of association milestones and personal achievements. Provide professional opportunities by keeping the team informed of educational options, tournament postings and job opportunities. Creating and encouraging participation in these opportunities to gain experience will help everyone on the team when the event is over and the official returns to the home territory.

Cricket image 3The final and most delicate piece of this whole program is the part that involves the non-officiating members of the association. Players, coaches and spectators are a critical component to retaining officials in your association. Respect for all must be the most important policy in the league. A zero tolerance standard for abuse that includes harsh punishments of lengthy suspensions, and meaningful monetary fines in the professional ranks, need to become normal. Any participant that physically accosts an official should be instantly ejected from the sport and criminal charges pursued. There should be no doubt in the minds of all participants in sports that violence towards officials will not be tolerated.

Thank you for reading. I hope you have found this article helpful. Follow the links below to read some of our other articles or visit some of our other collections. Please enjoy and have a great day!

Jim Clarke
Founder of Officials101

You may find these links interesting:

7 Trends to Watch for Referees and Umpires 101 Article
Decline in Sports Officials infographic from Ohio University

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