“WE ARE NOT ENEMIES”
As referees, we are volunteers giving back to the sport we love and cherish. One of the best things about being a referee is being on the mat with wrestlers. Having the privilege to referee the Olympians of tomorrow at the local level or the Olympians of today at the senior level, it is an honor to be part of their journey. We want to see every wrestler be successful on the mat and win a gold medal. But we know that’s not going to happen. Just like the coaches and athletes have a job, we also have a job to do. We spend countless hours watching video, studying rules, and attending clinics to improve our skills. We work with our mentors for professional development/guidance and seek out coaches to help us understand the techniques being taught so we will recognize them on the mat and make the correct calls. We work very hard to give the athletes the best refereeing they deserve and even though we enforce the rules of wrestling we are not adversaries, quite the opposite. We want to partner with our coaches and help them take the step from being good technicians towards becoming exceptional strategists. We are an untapped resource ready for any coach who wants to improve their understanding of the rules. No I’m not talking about basic rules. If that were the case, just read the rulebook. I’m talking about the philosophies and interpretations of the rules; things you can’t read in a rulebook. An example would be the fine art of calling passivity or fleeing the hold late in a bout. Are there indicators which call the referee is going make? You bet, and working together we can help our coaches recognize these indicators so they can transfer this knowledge to their wrestlers. Now that’s strategy.
As referees, we strive to bring the same level of intensity and emphasis to every bout regardless of the age group or skill level. Anyone who thinks every bout is not important has never refereed a pair of six year olds giving everything they had and one comes up short. Watch the loser’s reaction and then tell me every bout is not important. Every time a wrestler steps on the mat, it is the most important bout of their life and it is equally important to us. We realize every call we make, someone is not going to like it. There is a 100 percent chance a coach is going to be upset on every call we make. Believe me; dealing with an upset coach can be very challenging at times as emotions can run extremely high, but that does not make us enemies.
Wrestling is an emotional sport that has winners and losers. Wrestling is a sport where coaches completely invest themselves in their wrestlers. As referees, we have the pleasure of watching the thrill of victory and displeasure of witnessing the agony of defeat as a wrestler incurs a devastating loss. It is during the times of loss that coaches sometimes lash out at the closest person to them and typically that person is the referee. It’s not personal and we understand that. To all the coaches who have been on our mats, we understand and feel your pain. As referees, we recognize how much time, energy, and emotion a coach has invested and how badly they want the very best for their wrestlers. We’d be exactly the same way if we were a coach. But we’re not a coach nor are we emotionally invested in your wrestler; but that does not make us enemies, nor does it mean we don’t care. “Coach, we care more than you realize.” We are only calling the action on the mat as we see it occur. We have no hidden agendas or calloused motives. We just want to make the right call at the right time. Yes, we occasionally punt a call in the stands, but coaches are not immune from punting a challenge in the stands. It happens to both of us. I wish it didn’t; but it does. That doesn’t make us enemies; it means we’re both human.
We want to continually improve my relationships with our coaches. Together, we’re all working towards the same goal of helping our wrestlers achieve their fullest potential. Yes, we will have disagreements and get annoyed with each other, but that does not make us enemies. Each of us has such a strong passion for our sport and our wrestlers that occasionally our passions get in the way of clear thinking. Trust me when I say, referees are not out to get a coach nor do I believe coaches have real animosity towards referees. I believe our intense passion for our sport is the catalyst that fuels some of our; shall I say, more interesting and colorful discussions. Again, that does not make us enemies. As referees, we want our coaches to respect us. Respect doesn’t flow one way; it’s a two-way street. To be respected, you must give respect. We must also respect our coaches. Coaches and referees mutually support each other and the first step in mutual support is respect. If a coach approaches the table respectfully, welcome them and actively listen to their question. No, I’m not insinuating you have a picnic together, but I am asking you to present a non-aggressive demeanor. An approachable demeanor will go a long way in keeping everyone calm or calming an emotional situation. Your ability to work with the coaches is critical to your success or failure as a referee.
Coaches will approach the table for a myriad of reasons. When you see a coach begin his or her approach to the table, you should already have an idea why they are moving your way. Most of the time you will, but there will be occasions that the question will be completely unrelated to the action that just occurred on the mat. Those questions can be very interesting. Regardless, you should always have an answer for the coach. Now this is not the time or place for “what ifs”, respectfully address the issue at hand and continue the bout. Always remember, the coach is fighting for their wrestler and we’d do the exact same thing.
We have a responsibility to completely understand the rules of our sport. Anything less is a disservice to our athletes. Coaches should know the rules, but you will have occasions when the wrong application of a rule is being questioned or they have a misunderstanding of a rule. We have a lot of folkstyle influence in our sport, and occasionally our coaches get the rules mixed up. Like many of us they simply get the rules flip-flopped. When this happens, and it will, and a coach approaches the table work with them. If the issue is more philosophical or interpretation based, you and the coach may have to work with each other after the bout. Your demeanor will set the tone for the coach/referee interaction. You never want to cop an attitude or become dismissive and make the coach feel like he or she is inferior or wasting your time. How many times have we gotten something confused and needed help? Perfect example of this is a Merkel. How many times have you been on the mat, a Merkel goes in and you hear “that’s two, that’s two.” In folkstyle it is two, but in freestyle it’s nothing. When I don’t give two, the coach usually approaches me. I calmly explain the criteria for a takedown and explain it is a takedown in folkstyle but not freestyle. I usually get a response of “Oh ya” or “Really?” Is the coach uneducated? No! They’re just applying folkstyle criteria. After we talk, we’re good. Now if you can’t answer a coach’s question; be honest. Don’t make something up. Coaches are pretty smart and making something up to appease them is disrespectful and they know when you’re lying. If you make a mistake, own it, and be up-front about it. Look, we all make mistakes. I‘ve made enough mistakes for all of us, but you should have enough respect for the coach to be honest. The coach may not be happy with you, but they will respect your honesty and that is the key to a mutually supporting relationship.
When dealing with a coach you should always maintain your composure and professionalism. Every bout has a winner and a loser and no coach or wrestler likes being on the losing side of a bout. If you are not taking things seriously on the mat, you may inadvertently trigger a very negative response from the losing coach. I have seen referees grin or laugh while walking off the mat and the losing coach felt they were being disrespected. That’s when “it” hits the fan and the referee team had their hands full trying to calm down a now very irate coach. Coaches get upset, but when they feel they are being made fun of or disrespected by the referees, oh boy, they can get real ugly, real fast. Don’t add fuel to the fire. If you feel the need to joke around, laugh or whatever, wait until you are off the mat and away from the losing coach. Be observant to what is occurring on and around your mat. Your observation skills might just keep you out of an emotionally charged situation.
Conversely, if you are an off-duty referee or not assigned to the mat, keep your comments and opinions to yourself. If you are not working the bout, “SHUT-UP!” The referees and coaches are working the bout just fine and they don’t need your input. Making off-hand comments or giving your opinions about a bout can trigger a hostile situation for the referee team working the bout. People are listening and misplaced comments or opinions can be received as antagonistic and folks may take exception. A few years ago, I had a fiercely contested cadet dual between Michigan and Oklahoma. The bouts were heated, the score was dead even, and the teams were very intense. It was a slugfest between these two teams, yet everyone was doing a great job maintaining civility and that’s when it happened. Unbeknownst to us, an off-duty referee walked up to our mat, made an off-hand comment to a parent of one of the teams and walked away. When the dual was over, a very angry “Paul Bunyan clone” walked up to me and wanted to know who “that” referee was. I was the mat chairman/leader and had no idea what he was talking about or why he was so angry. It took us 20 minutes to calm this massive human being down and get things back in order. Was our Paul Bunyan clone at fault for this situation? No, I blame the off-handed comment that got this massive human being so fired up. The worst part, it was someone completely unrelated to the bout threw us under the bus and caused the chaos. So please, if you are not part of the bout, don’t make comments, add opinions, or try to help. If the referee team wants or needs your help, they’ll ask. Otherwise, SHUT UP!
Emotions can cause simple things or comments to get out of control quickly. There will be times when no matter what we do or say, we will not be able to calm the situation down. In these situations we have a yellow and red card in our toolbox. These two little cards are extremely powerful tools and should not be used frivolously. Think of your cards like bullets in a gun. Once we squeeze the trigger and a bullet leaves the chamber, we can’t get the bullet back. Same thing applies with our cards; once a card leaves your pocket, you can’t take it back. Think before reaching for your cards. As referees, we should do everything in our power to first calm the situation. Our demeanor will dictate which direction the situation will go. The majority of time, we can ease a coach off the ledge by calmly conversing with them. The key phrase here is “calmly conversing.” We should always strive to use our cards as the last option. Not every situation is an automatic yellow card. You need to understand what is occurring and recognize there may be times when pulling out a yellow card will just make the situation worse. Coaches are going to talk, yell, clap, cheer, etc.; it’s what coaches do. Don’t be so thin skinned; you reach for your yellow card every time a coach looks at you funny. The last thing you want is to be known as a referee who’s a quick-draw with your cards. You need to effectively balance “using” or “not using” your cards.
Keep “your” emotions in check. If we ramp up our emotions to meet the coach’s emotions, things will get out of control in a nanosecond. These situations typically turn into a manhood contest where the referee and coach must save face and get the upper hand, not a good scenario. As referees, we need to bring calmness to situations, not make them worse. I also realize there will be situations that will warrant an immediate yellow card and there will be times the coaches are fully aware they are heading straight for a yellow card. If you are in one of these situations, let the card fly. You won’t have any other option. When this happens to me I can draw my yellow card faster than an old west gunfighter can draw his six-shooter. Yes, I want to try and calm the coach, but I won’t let a coach abuse my team or me. That is simply unacceptable. Now if a coach really over steps their bounds or says something egregious, then they may be a perfect candidates for a red card. In layman’s term, they have just been disqualified from competition. When you reach for your red card, you must fully understand what you’re doing and the impacts of the red card. The national governing body will sanction a coach that receives a red card. Internationally, if a coach gets a red card, I believe it’s a huge fine and a two-year suspension, yikes. As referees, we have to be responsible in the application of issuing yellow and red cards.
If you are a mat chairman/leader, do not place your yellow and red cards on the table for everyone to see. You are sending an adversarial message to the coaches; “Hey coaches, I’m ready to pick a fight and looking for any reason to card you.” The referee has yet to start the bout and the chairman has set an adversarial tone for the bout. Put your cards out of sight, but them available if required. So after all your attempts to calm the situation have failed and the coach is still on the ledge having a meltdown, perhaps now it’s time for your yellow card.
Coaches and referees approach the sport of wrestling from different perspectives and we are more interrelated than most of us will admit. We have coaches who referee and referees who coach, what an interesting combination. Our distinct approach to our sport does not make any one of us greater or lesser in importance than the other. Our mutual support and understanding of each other only strengthens our bond in support of our athletes and that’s what’s most important. Coaches and referees may not always agree, have differences, and at times, annoy heck out of each other; but one thing is for sure, we are not enemies!