Officiate Minnesota: A great day in Minneapolis

My sabbatical is over. Since the end of the high school basketball season I turned 40 years old (and celebrated appropriately), watched our third child, Nash, arrive in this world and took the entire spring season off to spend time with my family. It’s always good to take time away from what you enjoy; it makes you realize how much you truly miss something.

Like I’ve done for the past seven summers, I did attend one basketball officials camp this summer in River Falls, Wisconsin (a good experience), and was hired into a new college conference, the UMAC, and added to the roster of another conference, the MIAC. I worked some games in a MIAC summer league on Sunday nights, including a couple of games last night. Had one outburst from a dad after my partner called a charge on a 50-50 play. “Call it both ways” predictably came out of his mouth. Ah, you can never get enough of one of the “Ten senseless sayings from Parents Row” that is highlighted in my book, “BasketCases: How Youth Basketball Parents Can Lower Their Blood Pressure and Keep Their Sanity.”

I wanted to share some lessons and insights I learned at Officiate Minnesota, a gathering of officials from Minnesota (all sports) in conjunction with the NASO (National Association of Sports Officials) annual conference held in Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago (the last time the NASO conference was in the Twin Cities was 28 years ago). More than 1,000 officials from Minnesota spent a warm summer day inside learning about officiating (we’re a crazy group). The theme of the event was “Educating, Celebrating and Recognizing Sports Officials.”

The day started with “The 23 Most Powerful Lessons in Officiating,” a session by Bill Topp, Vice President of Referee Magazine. Bill did a great job talking about issues that affect officials across the country. I highlighted a couple of “lessons” that resonated with me:

* Eighty percent of the job is managing people (you need superior communication skills to succeed)
* This business is seldom fair (some officials receive certain state tournament assignments based on race, gender or geography, get over it and do the best you can — if you are good enough, you will get noticed)
* The hallmark of officiating is being impartial, not neutral (neutral is like Switzerland in WWI and WWII, the Swiss didn’t get involved; being impartial is not caring who wins, but being involved in the action as an official)
* There is no score at the start of the game (don’t come into a game holding a grudge against anyone)
* Impersonations won’t work (if you aren’t a good employer or a good person, chances are you won’t be a good official)
* Fair-minded, accountable, decisive: skills for a lifetime (skills needed in officiating translate to success in other areas of your life)

Following Bill’s presentation, I watched NBA referee Pat Fraher and college official John Yorkovich lead a session that studied a DVD of basketball calls made at the state tournament. Pat is a friend of mine who has worked in the NBA for about eight seasons. He worked three NBA playoff games last year. Yorky, another friend, is regarded by many as one of the best collegiate officials in Minnesota. He works in the Big Ten and several other Division I conferences.

The first call that was reviewed was a 50/50 block-charge call. We were asked to watch the call in live speed and make a decision. Nor surprisingly, the audience was split: half thought it was a charge; half thought it was a block (I got that one right). It was called a block in the game, but it should have been called a charge. Yorky and Pat said the two reasons officials get calls wrong are: officials are not in the right spot or not looking at the right thing. That’s an interesting take because at the River Falls camp, MIAC and UMAC assignor George Drouches said officials get calls wrong because: they are moving or are too close (all four reasons are correct). Pat also said its important for officials to beat the players to THE spot, not a spot. He also made a good point about ants and elephants. There are smaller players (ants) and elephants (bigger players). It’s important to know the difference and focus on the elephants. It was a good session to study DVD, which doesn’t lie. Yorky encouraged officials to watch as much videotape or DVDs of their games as possible to improve their skills.

I attended a breakout session ”Career Development: Advancement and Challenges” led by one of my bosses, Roy Ward, a supervisor for the Northern Sun, and Jon Lucivansky, a longtime football and basketball official from Wisconsin, who will work his second season in the NFL this fall. Perhaps the most poignant comment came from Roy who said that 3-person officiating “has hurt us all.” He was explaining that because officials don’t have to run as much in three-person officiating that many officials don’t keep themselves in as good of shape as they should. Jon mentioned that in his effort to make it to the NFL, officiating took a toll on his health, job and family life. Jon said it took many years, but he now has found more balance in his life.

Jon mentioned that football is all about concentration and basketball is all about reaction. He also gave some tips about advancing to the next level:
* Make sure people know you are interested in moving up (but don’t bug them too much)
* You need officiating advocates to help you get to the next level
* Find a mentor and listen to what they have to say
* How well do you mind the store? (make sure to take care of your business as an official)
* When the spotlight shines, do you make the right call? (during the last two minutes of the game)
* It’s all about getting better
* Evaluate yourself

Roy noted that when he was an official, he kept a diary about different plays that helped him improve. Another point he mentioned was what kind of person are you? Are you the kind of person with whom other officials want to ride in a car three or four hours one-way to a game?

Following a luncheon that honored some distinguished officials with storied careers, I attended a workshop by one official who was honored, Steve Makowske, a veteran basketball official who I worked my first Northern Sun men’s game with a few years ago, and Vicki Davis, a former official who observes officials in the Big Ten and the WNBA.

Vicki had the best line of the session: “I always found the ones who yell the loudest know the least.” Amen, Vicki. Steve and Vicki talked about perception, attitude and communication, the art of officiating. Steve did a great job of going through his pregame speech with coaches, which prevents a bunch of problems.

Officiate Minnesota closed with a humorous presentation by retired NFL referee Jerry Markbreit, the only NFL referee “white hat” to work four Super Bowls. Jerry told numerous funny stories from his days in the NFL and told a moving story how he developed a special relationship with a young man who has cerebral palsy that he remains friends with today. Jerry’s message was to “do something” to make help someone out who needs it.

All in all, a great day to learn about officiating and take pride in the role we play as officials. As the saying goes, “without officials, It’s only a scrimmage.” Thanks to all who planned and executed such a meaningful event.

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