The Science and Art of Officiating

Sports officiating is both a science and an art. It is a science because officiating is based on a known body of skills and knowledge, such as playing rules, positioning, mechanics, and procedures, all of which are acquired by formal education and training programs. Officiating, however, is also an art because much of the officiating craft--perhaps even most of it--involves nuances and subtleties in applying those skills that become unique to each official, much as individual painters or sculptors interpret the same subject differently, even though they may have had comparable training. In hockey officiating, as in the art world, the work of some individuals will be highly prized while that of others will be ignored, or even scorned.

All too often, young officials spend too much of their time on the "science" of officiating--able to recite arcane provisions of obscure playing rules--while ignoring the "arts," like judgement, discretion, and poise that enable him or her to apply the right rule at the right time under the right circumstances for the right reasons.

Of all the major team sports, hockey officiating is, by far, the most demanding. Hockey officials not only are required to apply complex rules in a consistent and acceptable manner, but also must skate well enough to get to the proper position to make the right judgement, all the while dodging players, sticks, and flying pucks under the fire of intense athletic competition that invariably produces significant mental and emotional pressures. In addition, hockey officials probably have far more discretion in applying or not applying the rules depending on a host of circumstances.

As an official, you are charged with responsibility to manage each game within a prescribed set of rules. However, any game that is officiated literally "by the book" would soon become uninteresting to the spectators and frustrating to the players. A contest that is frequently and unnecessarily interrupted by the officials' whistles leaves no one satisfied. The most accomplished and respected officials develop an instinct for each game, using their discretion to encourage sportsmanlike, competitive play while discouraging and penalizing unsportsmanlike, overly aggressive, or unfair conduct. In addition to "scientific" knowledge, these officials clearly have an artist's touch.

Enter the Artist

The "art" of officiating essentially involves the ability of an official to "sell" his paintings (decisions) with little or no dialog on the part of participants. He or she sells each painting by presence, poise, and obvious command of the situation. The artist exhibits a certain savvy about each game. He or she can tell the difference between an intensely contested game and one with malicious overtones. He or she also has enough "rink smarts" to gauge the intent of the participants. Although called an official, the artist also recognizes that he or she was not hired to be officious, overbearing, authoritarian, or a tough guy. The artist enforces the rules tempered with reason. That is a good word to remember. The most respected officials, invariably, are reasonable people.

Players and coaches respond well to reasonable treatment. But it is not always easy to be reasonable. Under pressure, the scientific official falls back on invoking rules, making it immediately known that he or she knows the rules and that's that. The artist also knows the rules but is also concerned with emotions, and tries to handle each situation in a manner that maintains respect on all sides. Although the artist knows that the official is the final authority, he or she is willing to explain decisions or interpretations when called for and "drops the hammer" only when absolutely necessary.

Why do you do it?

Hockey officiating isn't easy. The most commonly asked question of officials at all levels is "Why do you do it?"

Perhaps money is the first motivator, especially for younger people who see officiating as an attractive alternative to flipping burgers after school. But experience has shown that the desire to be part of the game and to help maintain a level of physical conditioning are also important factors. Looking further, personality studies have found that, as a group, sports officials exhibit a higher degree of dominance characteristics than the general population. Officials like to be in charge. Once on center stage, they enjoy having to make split-second decisions under pressure. Additionally, they are strong-willed and goal-conscious.

These traits generally don't give one a tendency to be humble. Humility is the opposite of arrogance. Yet, the artist is always able to inject a dash of humility into his or her personality. While the arrogant official will be more visible, the one with some humility will get more respect.

Refining Your "Brush Strokes"

Once you have mastered the "science" of officiating, you must develop the intangibles that separate one official from another. In other words, your "artist's touch."

Your acceptability will be based on how artistic a job you do. Common sense, sound judgement, and discretion are three fundamental intangibles that, together, form the basis of your artistry. Another important intangible is self-confidence. If you have confidence in your ability and the courage of your convictions, you will show pride in your work without being arrogant, become determined without being overbearing, and generally have a good feeling about yourself and your role as a hockey official.

When watching games as a spectator, don't worry about judgement calls. Instead, pay attention to how the officials deal with the irritants that crop up in every game. Note how top-notch officials get their jobs done. They make the difficult seem easy and generally handle things in a way that makes everybody reasonable. They don't get ruffled, become red in the face, or lose their tempers. In short, they give the impression that they've been there before.

To sum up, hockey officiating is not easy. It is a challenge that, with a little thought and a lot of hard work, can become an exciting and rewarding experience.