In Defense of the Volunteer Referee . . .

30 03 2011

Before Spring Break, our 14-year old son went to an all day Soccer Referee Clinic in our hometown. Caleb had been talking about this for quite some time and after exploring the opportunity, we encouraged him to “go for it”. From an early age, his mom and I discovered his passion for knowing and sticking to the rules, (you should see him in action at a Monopoly game!) and it seemed like this was a natural fit for him. Much to his delight, he became certified and proudly showed us his patch that demonstrated he was now among an elite group of people that could ref mini-ball, micro-ball and other soccer matches for kids under 10.

One of our destinations in Southern California last week became a soccer store in MountainView to purchase a referee jersey for his new occupation. We sought out an impressive retail outlet and  by the time we left, he had procured flags, a whistle with a wrist lanyard, a referee’s wallet complete with yellow and red cards, socks, shorts and of course a very official black with white pinstriped jersey. Caleb was all set!

Just yesterday, his brother participated in a Gr. 6 basketball game against a neighboring school. I ended up catching the latter half in this tight affair with my son’s team winning by a single basket. What struck me most though, was the tough job our ref had in officiating the game and as I observed the proceedings, a bunch of thoughts came to mind. Having been in that fellas’ shoes as a basketball ref of Elementary Schoolers, there was too many post-it-notes in my brain to ignore and so I thought I would storyboard the works in this blog. Here’s what I have come up with In Defence of the Volunteer Referee:

a) I’m doing the best that I can. Anyone who has competed at a high level of sports will tell you that it’s much easier to play the game than to coach or officiate it. As a ref, I’m not trying to be biased, I’m trying to be fair.

b) I’m not doing this to become popular, I’m doing this for the kids. I’m responding to a need that has arisen and I want the kids to enjoy the game that they’re playing in a safe and competitive manner. Part of the structure of inter-school sports includes having a ref to oversee the game and that’s what I signed on to do. Without me, there would be no game or competition. You need me.

c) I’ve only got one set of eyes and I cannot possibly see everything. Imagine you were at an intersection where a car accident just occurred. Your perspective would be limited and may in fact be quite different from the bystander across the street. It’s the same in sports. Simply put, as an official I am going to miss calls and I am going to make mistakes. Even the makers of pencils have figured that one out – that’s why they put erasers on the ends of them.

d) I’m the one with the whistle, which makes me the one who gets to control the flow of the game. In yesterday’s match, the ref certainly could have been blowing the whistle more with all of the double-dribbles and traveling that was going on. On several occasions he intentionally chose not to acknowledge those. When kids are learning a sport, I have taken the approach of calling the blatant fouls and using those ones as teachable moment for both teams by explaining the infraction and why I whistled it down. I’ve also used the “Play On!” phrase to acknowledge that I’ve seen what went on and yet kept the play moving. I want the kids to know what is wrong and what is fair, but I also understand that it’s hard for any team to gain a sense of momentum when the whistle is always blowing.

e) Every game I ref gives me more experience and more experience will make me a better ref. Do we expect our kids to stand and walk fresh out of the womb? Is it fair to expect excellence from the first day driver before he’s had the chance to go out on the highway or navigate winter conditions? It’s the same in the officiating world. With practice comes improvement. In the amateur sport’s arena or the even in the classroom, it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress.

f) Learning for me (and you) occurs when split-second judgement calls are made. Even though I have some skill and I have a whistle, I’m learning too! One piece of advice I’ve given less experienced refs is to blow the whistle hard. Right or wrong, your whistle needs to indicate to everyone that you’re in charge. You can’t project that image with a soft whistle.

g) I need encouragement too. In an NHL game, there are 4 officals on the ice and several more beyond the glass (and even at a control center in Toronto) to make sure the right calls are made. They are paid and have hundreds (thousands?) of games of experience to make sure the game is called in a fair manner. As volunteers, we do not have the luxury of other eyes, video review and several camera angles. This is not our full time occupation. A bit of encouragement (specific encouragement rather than “good job!”) every once in a while will do much to affirm the developing gifts that refs have. We are people too and deserve the respect that our striped jersey affords us. Parent shouts and player cursing does nothing to enhance our experience either.

I’m sure there are more. These are the ones on the front burner for now.


Cartoon Insights

27 03 2011

One of the great things about an extended Spring Break is the fact that you get to do things you may not otherwise get to do throughout the school year. Our family went on our first big road trip to Southern California to meet with family along the way and spend three days at the “Happiest Place On Earth”. Our school district experimented with a 2-week break this year which meant that car travel was possible. Next year, School District 33 is going back to a one-week Spring Break, so this year we decided it was a great opportunity for us to make the big journey.

Exotic breakfasts, sleeping in or getting up early to watch cartoons are rare and luxurious morning choices in our family, but on several occasions on this trip, our boys got to do just that. One one of our stops, our two little fellas discovered that their aunt had a plethora of channels to choose from and they quite enjoyed plunking themselves in front of the giant T.V., (which I’ve learned stands for “thought vacuum”) and flipping through the channels. Apparently it’s wired into the male DNA that we don’t control the remote to see what’s on – we flip channels every few seconds because want to see what else is on.

A bunch of things struck me as we watched cartoons together. Many of today’s cartoons have a lesson (e.g. good people share, it’s wrong to hurt someone without saying sorry, or it’s proper to be polite and respectful to adults). As superficial as these messages may be, today’s cartoons all seem to have a point to them with a moral lesson to be learned. Good always triumphs over evil and in a 1/2 hour program, things always work out and get restored to the original state no matter how many accidents and messes occur.

When I was growing up, (makes me sound like an old timer now, doesn’t it?) the grainy animated images on KVOS-TV 12 were pretty bad. Violent even. Popeye would get walloped by Brutus, people were getting bonked on the head with cast iron frying pans and that poor coyote had a lot of anvils dropped on him.  How many ACME dynamite boxes exploded in his face? How many times did he chase the RoadRunner and have hard landings from impromptu cliff dives when the road ran out? Cartoons were extremely graphic back then and bullying behavior seemed to be the norm.

Not so anymore. What changed? Cartoons back in the day were terribly aggressive and abusive, but respect for others in real life seemed to be quite high. A shift happened and the cartoons got tamer with moral messages and yet in youth culture these days, there seems to be greater incidences of injustice, racism, bullying, violence and homophobia. Don’t get me wrong, there many GREAT things happening in the classrooms I’m in and so many inspirational young people in the schools that I visit. I’m aware of the good stories. I just want to know what shifted and why.

Could it be that it was our parents that taught us those moral lessons back then and that isn’t happening as much anymore? Could it be that (for some families) it is a struggle just to make it through the day and that intentional moments of what we may have called “good parenting” in the past just aren’t on the front burner anymore? I’m noticing a trend in that there are a lot of “surrogate parents” out there for kids (teachers, coaches, club leaders, youth leaders) and maybe, just maybe, our kids are getting bombarded with positive messages from all angles and that parents no longer feel that their voice is the only one that kids need to hear anymore. But in situations of moral and ethical issues, shouldn’t mom & dad’s voices be the loudest one that rings in our kid’s ears?

Watching cartoons with my boys over the Spring Break sure seemed to raise a lot of questions.

The Friends That Shape Us: (Stan, Lev, Chris and Ryan)

7 03 2011

What does the Stanley Cup, a dead psychologist, a friend’s blog and an out-of shape goalie have in common? All of these otherwise unconnected items have wiggled their way into my thoughts this week and together are shaping the way I look at the world.

My brother-in-law Dave (far left) standing with my niece Jasmine (front left) and their new friend Stan.

It was a historic day in my hometown this past Saturday as a local bank had a very special guest: the holy grail of hockey – the Stanley Cup. My brother-in-law Dave, is a coach and a prominent figure in Chilliwack Minor Hockey and his team (including my niece Jasmine) got to have their picture with the historic icon. Very cool. The line-ups were long and yet they both agreed it was well worth the wait. What a special memory for the two of them, and a day that I’m sure will have a lot of meaning for their family in years to come!

While cameras were flashing at Scotiabank, I was making a presentation to my cohort in a neighboring town. Two Saturdays a month, I meet with 19 other educators, all who share a journey which will end in a Masters of Education Degree. The presentation I was giving was on a Jewish Psychologist named Vygotsky, who grew up in the early 1900s (during the Russian Revolution) in the former Soviet Union, became a prolific author and educator and studied quite a range of human behaviors. In teacher circles, he is probably best known for his Social Development theory, the Zone of Proximal Development and MKOs. It was Vygotsky’s Most Knowledgeable Other concept which was most interesting to me. He believed that the greatest atmosphere for learning would take place when students were around peers, coaches, teachers and others who knew more about the area of focus than the student himself. In other words, you could learn a lot when you hang around people who know a lot about something. Vygotsky’s MKO term was groundbreaking stuff (framed in a scientific way) to examine and affirm the concepts of mentoring and modeling in an atmosphere of learning.

The day after my presentation, a principal friend of mine whom I greatly admire posted a blog about affirming the gifts of each student. In his post, he shared two separate stories of girls who had a passion for the Arts and yet were both discouraged from following their dreams by influencial people who felt the University route was a better career path. He writes, “Numeracy and literacy are very important skills, but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?” (from These words have been ringing in my ears as I think of the way that many teachers (myself included) smugly convey an attitude that “we really know what is best for our students”. It’s quite an arrogant premise really, and a belief I hope we are willing to let go of.

And finally, I got the nod last night to be a G.O.C. (yes, you guessed it: a “Goalie On Call”). I’m an avid hockey fan and have been playing goal since my University days when a roommate of mine took a puck to the throat and became gun-shy. He unloaded his equipment on me, (sticks skates and everything) for $200 and I’ve been hooked ever since. Since I’m not playing on a team this year, I’ve made myself available to a number of “over 40” teams that find themselves in a pinch where they need a, (ahem), reliable starter. Last night’s game was a late one – a 10:45 start – but the adrenaline was pumping and we ended up winning a close one, 4 to 3.

So here’s where I put all four of these experiences together: As a hockey goaltender, my #1 objective when I hit the ice is to protect my team’s goal. As an educator, there is a parallel here in that I need to deliberately step back and make it my purpose to protect the goals of those who look up to me (thanks for the reminder C.W.).  I have had many experienced goalies (MKOs) over the years recognize that I was a late bloomer to the position and give me tips and informal coaching sessions to make me a stronger player.

One of the best pieces of advice came from Stanley Cup Winner and former Canuck, Ryan Walter at a Men’s Conference we shared speaking duties at. Ryan said, “Some nights, you’re gonna feel you can stop everything and other nights it’s going to be like they’re firing dimes at you. As you gain confidence,  you’ll be tempted to play the puck more, But don’t forget that your primary job is to stop pucks. The best advice I can give you is to make sure you square up to every shooter and make yourself look big.”

Isn’t it great when important, but random things in your mind manage to find a common thread and connect themselves to each other?