Seven Keys to the Coach-Referee Relationship

By August 28, 2015 No Comments

All officials are bad, right? All coaches are egotistical, right? No, no they’re not. Too often we see or hear of ugly incidents at sporting events involving coaches and officials. These incidents occur across the board and in all sports. The deterioration of a positive relationship between coaches, officials, and fans is a serious issue and needs to be addressed.

As an athlete, referee, fan, and now coach I have witnessed many youth and high school basketball, football, baseball, and soccer games throughout the years. During these years I have (as I am sure you have too) witnessed extremely poor behavior by coaches, officials, and fans. The biggest problems and concerns in youth and high school sports have nothing to do with the kids who play them. It has everything to do with the adults involved in them. I believe by following these seven keys, we the adults, can change the sports experience for the good.

Here are seven keys to establishing a positive coach and referee relationship.

-Teach and model respect. Whether you’re the coach or the referee, be the example you would like to see. Players will follow the example that is being set for them. Both the coach and referee should make it a point to be courteous and respectful to one another. If you’re a fan do not make it a point to loudly criticize every call made. Try officiating a game first before you critique every single call. Respect must be given; not claimed. In order to get respect you have to give it.

-Set clear expectations and boundaries. This is essential, especially for coaches. As a the leader of a team or program, it is the head coach’s job to set clear expectations and boundaries for all coaches, players, and fans of the program. At the beginning of the season there should be a meeting held where the coach addresses this topic. Here the coach should explain what appropriate conduct towards the officials looks like, and how inappropriate behavior will be handled. It’s extremely important for all parties involved to always be aware that they are representing the team and community at every game.

Understand their why. Remember, we are talking about youth and high school sports. The coaches and officials involved are not doing what they’re doing to get rich. Are there some bad coaches and officials? Yes. Are there some egotistical coaches and officials who think it’s all about them? Yes. But you will find people who are bad at their job in any career field. The vast majority of coaches and officials are in it because they love the game and still want to be a part of it. They are spending time away from their families in order for the games to be played.

-Do not challenge or degrade integrity. Nothing will lead to an ugly incident more quickly than challenging someone’s integrity. It’s fine and acceptable to question a call (notice I said question, not berate) but do not question someone’s character. If there’s a bad call, realize the person who made it is human, and mistakes happen. As a coach, you need to be present and move onto the next play. Remember, your players will follow your lead. If you’re an official who has missed a call, simply say: “Sorry, coach that’s on me. I missed that one.” As a coach I will appreciate and respect you for your honesty.


-Have continuous dialogue. Before the game, coaches and officials will have a brief meeting. Do not let this be the only time where there is dialogue between the two parties. Dialogue does not involve screaming. Coaches, if you yell and scream instead of asking and carrying on a conversation, you will put off the official and it will be a long night. Officials, there is nothing worse than telling a coach in the pre-game meeting to come to you with any questions or concerns, but when the coach does so you respond by telling them to “be quiet. Sit down. I don’t want to hear it.” It’s a two-way street and both sides need to have a positive, polite dialogue throughout the game.

-Understand and value the role of each party. Let’s face it, the games could not be played without coaches, officials, and obviously the players. It’s very easy to overlook the importance of each role, especially the officials. Officiating is an extremely difficult job to do and often is not appreciated enough. If coaches took the time to discuss the importance of the officials to their team it would make a big difference. An ideal would be to have players officiate a scrimmage during practice. They will quickly appreciate the job officials have. 

-Congratulate and say “Thank You.” When we appreciate and value the role each party plays it makes for a truly great experience. Sports can be a magical thing. But only when all parts are in harmony. If we all just took a little bit of time to express gratitude or congratulate one for a great play, call, or game it would make for a much better experience for all involved. All sides need to have realistic expectations and understand that we’re human and mistakes will be made. As my friend Brent Schlotfeldt said, “Let him who has not sinned throw the first stone.” A little appreciation will go a long way.

What are some keys to developing and maintaing positive coach and referee relationships? Please share your thoughts.

As always, thanks for reading, have a great week, and be an RGP today!

Coach Elmendorf is available to speak to your group, team, or organization. Message him for details.