Lessons from my first year as a youth basketball umpire

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I whistled. Then I froze.

It was a few minutes after the start of my first scrum as a basketball official last December. Two seventh grade boys were entangled up to 80 feet from the basketball and turned their heads to take the call.

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What was the call? It was a million miles per hour moment.

“Was that a defensive foul? An offensive push? A ball? What’s the proper mechanism? Why are they looking at me like that?”

I almost went with the “Jordan Shrug”.

It was then that my partner – a much more experienced civil servant whom I met about an hour before – came to the rescue.

“I have 13. Illegal use of hands. Red ball,” he said.

These children did not fight. My partner nodded to me. We were on the next whistle.

Why would anyone want to become a basketball official?

For me it was a necessity. I wanted to be a better basketball coach for my son Grant, a fourth grader, and my daughter Bella, a first grader. The low point was ejected from a game last season. Pickerington Youth Athletic Association athletic director Bill Andrews encouraged me to take the course afterwards.

The progression of first year coach at coach expelled for the first time to the first-year official is inadmissible. I would recommend taking the officials class first for future youth basketball coaches.

Take the course

Andrews has been an active official of the Ohio High School Athletic Association since 1987. He has officiated in three state tournaments. Andrews still remembers being called up for too many cheap fouls while playing playmaker in Cambridge High School. It was his motivation.

“I wanted to referee the game the way I thought it should be played,” Andrews said. “It’s not a ticky-tack foul. Let the players play. Call the obvious, but let the players dictate the play. I want to referee the play the player brings us.”

He has noticed a trend in recent years, which has amplified with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021: the number of students taking his refereeing class continues to decline.

“In my humble opinion, it’s just based on what people are watching, whether it’s a girls game or a boys basketball game,” Andrews said. “It’s the fans and the coaches, with their behavior and the way they react. It depends on the level of the players. There has been an increase in unsportsmanlike behavior.”

So why not be part of the solution? I missed out on a few NFL Sundays to take the course. If that can help develop players of all ages and make me a better coach in the youth league, then it’s easy two-on-one possession. How difficult could that be?

It’s hard.

I was passed halfway through first class. I had never heard Dick Vitale use the expression “at the disposal of the pitcher”. Forget about a high school game. I’m not going to be able to handle a PYAA recess game this winter.

It was the wrong approach. Once you start to see the game from an official’s perspective, all of your basketball outlook changes. I wanted to learn more every week. If I was a coach in high school then I would make it mandatory for players to take the course.

Of course, anyone can pass the written test. It was time to get on the field.

Learn from mistakes

The first month – and if we’re honest, the first season – was brutal. My mechanics and positioning need work, but Andrews would tell me the same thing I say to our fourth-grade travel basketball players every two minutes.

“Slow down.”

With children, that means physically. With the officials for the first time, it’s mentally.

“Process the game in your mind,” Andrews said. “Then make the call.”

He told me to focus on two things to improve each time, even though it’s a long list.

Raise your hand with every whistle. Stand straight on the baseline. Report faults correctly. Look at what’s going on in front of you. Then focus on two other things in the second half.

When you miss something, have a short-term memory. Believe me, you are going to miss a lot in the first few games. If I was working with a more experienced official, then I would accept their criticism. Treat it as a constant learning experience instead of a cash grab.

It also reverberates. After a long morning of refereeing, I found myself waiting for the next set of four games. I started watching college games to learn more about three-a-side refereeing teams. I texted Andrews every Saturday, “You won’t believe what happened in my game today!”

Imagine trying to say that to someone who has been a referee since 1987.

The enlightenment, however, was worth it. Arbitration is… fun?

Well, most of the time.

“It’s a mistake!

It’s the most popular catchphrase you’ll hear during a game. The coaches. Parents. Players. Everyone says it, all the time, every time. Seriously, all the time.

Other frequent submissions include:

“It’s a postponement.” It’s not football.

“On the back.” This call does not exist.

Andrews hears something else all the time.

“Call it both ways.”

How many games do the two teams commit the same number of faults? You call the game you see it, and one of the best lessons you learned was to not let coaches control your emotions. Andrews’ lesson got stuck. If a trainer is harassing you for something – “Three seconds! Three seconds!” – then approach it like this:

“Is this a comment or a question?”

Of course, there have been clashes in some of my games. A coach yelled at a parent on the other team, and vice versa. A girl accidentally nudged another girl in the face. And yes, ejections do occur. In terms of recreation, I have found that it is better to defuse these situations. There are enough viral videos of coaches and parents taking action on youth basketball. We don’t need to contribute to this.

I haven’t issued a technical fault yet, but I have had wind up ready in one case. At the end of the line? You shouldn’t have to do this unless it’s an extreme recess case. At this point, the coach has earned it.

After all, it should be about kids, right?

Teaching by refereeing

I’m not yet ready to officiate high school basketball. My mechanics need work and I still don’t have enough experience to take on this challenge – where the stakes are much higher.

Its good. This is something that I will be working on over the summer and next season.

This year, recreational basketball was more rewarding. I went back to my gaming experiences at this level. The times have changed. I only played organized basketball in fifth grade. Grant has been playing for five years – and he’ll be in fifth grade next year.

When you see the children in the field, even at the youth level, you can feel the pressure they are feeling because of this environment. Look at their faces.

With that in mind, it makes more sense to educate whenever possible.

“This is how you set a screen without moving.”

“That’s why I called this foul for a push.”

“Take your time on the free throws.”

You don’t need to give a two-minute tutorial, but you can take on this role to make it a more user-friendly learning environment.

Throw a joke. If you have the same group every week, get to know the names of the players and coaches.

My most frequent refereeing partner, another rookie by the name of Craig Gramlich, is very good at it. Unsurprisingly, he already participates in junior college matches. If the kids see you having fun, they might feed on it. We have our style and it clicks.

As for the coaches, they will give you a hard time no matter what.

Don’t take it personally.

After all, you could be one of those trainers too.

Become a better coach

I improved as a coach after becoming an official. A better head coach for Bella. Maybe an even better assistant coach for Grant because I can watch the officials a bit more during the game.

It is not so much that public servants are good or bad. How many times have you walked out of a gym and heard, “Dude, those umpires were awesome!”

It’s more about seeing their process as the flow of the game and how it may differ from yours. Then you can adjust your coaching with your players. It’s a win-win situation. You can also use these lessons in practice. For that, I am grateful for taking the course as it constitutes useful scrums. I can officiate while our head coach and another assistant teach. Again, win-win.

Well, most of the time.

In our last practice of the year, Grant inadvertently took an elbow in the face of one of his teammates. He was shaken for a few seconds, and another of his teammates blurted out the not-so-obvious fault.

“Looks like you’ve been attacked by a flamingo.”

It went viral within seconds. Our children did their best flamingo poses and dances. Everyone was laughing. Maybe we stumbled upon a revolutionary new 2-3 zone tactic. Grant had a huge smile on his face.

I whistled. Then I froze.

You want to slow this moment down to millions of miles per hour, especially in a year where we weren’t sure we were playing at all.

So what was the call this time?

I have to use this “Jordan Shrug” after all.



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