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Skating a Mile in an Official's Stripes

By Michael Doyle, 11/11/22, 11:00AM MST

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How USA Hockey is bridging the gap between coaches and officials.

We’ve all seen it. A close, heated game between two evenly matched teams in the waning minutes. There is a penalty and the referee’s hand goes up. The infracting team’s coach blows their top and starts yelling at the official before the whistle is even blown. This is a recipe for a not-very-positive exchange between the coach and ref.

So, how can we improve the coach-official relationship?

“We start with the level of respect, overall,” said Heather Mannix, USA Hockey Player Development Manager. “I would like to see that improve with both officials and coaches.”

She is also the USA Hockey manager of education with the intent of trying to bridge the gaps between the Coaching Education Program and the Officiating Education Program. This year, USA Hockey has updated the coaching curriculum with the objectives to humanize officials and get coaches to recognize how difficult that job can be.  

“We actually consulted hostage negotiators when creating the coaching curriculum. When we tell coaches that, they all laugh and then you see them pause and begin to nod their head as if to say, ‘Oh, that actually makes sense…’” Mannix said. Negotiators identified many similarities between their objectives and the coach-official dynamics. Both must ask themselves: “How do you quickly build rapport in a highly emotional situation?”

Relationship Built on Respect

“We want our coaches to be competitive and keep their desire to win,” Mannix said. “But at the end of the day, the adults in the arena have to find the common ground and communicate with respect. This communication directly impacts the kids and their experience. How do we create the best experience for them?” 

Considering that most communication is non-verbal, coaches can do a lot just by getting eye-level with the ref. Instead of standing on the bench with a foot on the dasher talking (or yelling) at officials from above, it is more constructive to have a conversation by asking questions instead of making accusations. 

Coaches can do a lot just by getting eye-level with the ref – rather than standing on the bench with a foot on the dasher – and trying to have a constructive conversation by asking questions instead of making accusations.

After speaking with many officials, Mannix said, “they all agree that ’how did that look from your angle’ or ‘what can I tell my player to do differently in that situation to not get a call’ carries more weight than simply the ‘You gotta be kidding me,' or worse.”

Bridging the Gap

Mannix and USA Hockey are looking at knocking down silos between the coaching and officiating curricula, which they hope will get both sides to be a little more empathetic towards each other. 

It’s not a secret that there is a shortage of experienced officials. We need to do what we can to support the refs we have. Most coaches don’t know that 60% of youth officials have less than three years of experience. With many officials still in their teens, coaches must have realistic expectations when it comes to who’s calling their games. 

Coaches can utilize the USA Hockey mobile rulebook, and look at it from time to time after games and practices.

Another step coaches can take to improve their understanding of refs – along with rules – is by getting certified as an official themselves. One of the comments from this year’s updated coaching curriculum is that coaches are showing interest in getting the Level 1 referee certification after going through the coaching clinic. 

This is the equivalent of a coach skating a mile in a ref’s stripes.

The importance of this message is why the segment is delivered in all Level 1-4 coaching clinics. By December 31st, 2022, when the 2022 Coaching Clinic season ends, over 30,000 youth coaches will have received this information. Although it is not every coach, it is an impactful start.