The Game Within The Game: Tricks of The Trade For Conflict Resolution in Basketball

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One of the main talking points in the 2016 NBA Playoffs has been the impact of officiating on game outcomes.

Officials will forever be a focal point of post-game criticism because of technology’s growing role in sports—shining an ever-brightening spotlight on human error— and the allure of counterfactual thinking.

It brought to mind an article written by a friend earlier this year: Jimm Paull.

(No, that’s not a typo: two ‘m’s’ and two ‘l’s.)

Jimm Paull has spent years in and around the game of basketball, as both a player and an official. He’s an Honorary Life Member of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials (IAABO) and has been training officials at the youth, collegiate, and professional levels for over three decades.

A version of this article, “Conflict Resolution and The Basketball Official”, appeared in the March 2016 issue of Referee Magazine, the premier trade publication of sports officials at all levels.

It provides insight in to how (smart) referees can navigate in-game conflict and preserve the integrity of a game.

(Article begins below)

Basketball games have situations where conflicts arise between game officials and coaches. The purpose of this article is to help both new and veteran officials resolve this conflict.

The points that will be covered in this article are:

– understanding the meaning of conflict for sports officials

– strategies for minimizing conflict

– positive mechanisms for the resolution of conflict within the game

Conflict can be defined as when two or more people disagree over values, motivations, perceptions, or desires. Conflict may be real or perceived by the individuals involved.

An important point to keep in mind:

Coaches desire to win every game, sometimes, at any cost.

For coaches, it’s always about the “W’s”, whether we are referring to a CYO game, an NCAA Final Four game or the championship round of the NBA. As officials in any basketball contest, our major concern is to create a balance of play and to provide equal opportunity between the offense and the defense. We should not care which team wins or loses.

Because of these divergent perspectives, conflict will forever be a part of our game.

A prime factor in the minimizing of conflict is being the professional that we as officials should be. 

Officials should have a professional attitude which creates believability in what an official does on the court. When coaches believe in what we are doing, it minimizes conflict.early.

A professional looks the part of a professional. 

Coming to a game in uniform is verboten. When one arrives at the facility where the game will take place, they do not have to (although it is preferable) wear a shirt and tie. They should be neat and clean. The “professional should obviously, look the part in uniform (i.e. a clean, pressed uniform) with shined shoes.”

These comments are not addressed to the officials who work the NBA, the WNBA and the division one college officials. Those officials have protocols that set the time of arrival for games and appearance. This is a lesson that younger officials have to learn. By not arriving early for an assignment and not dressing appropriately (in a professional manner) they can create a negative impression that is very hard to overcome.

The old adage “You only get one chance to make a good first impression” is so true for officials.

A professional has to be a rules expert.

Missing a call can, under certain circumstances, be accepted by a coach.

“Kicking a call” in a game situation because of a misinterpretation of a rule is inexcusable.

Hustle is an integral component of being a professional. Coaches may sometimes give the benefit of the doubt to an official if they perceive that the official is hustling.

Conflicts between coaches and officials usually trigger strong emotional responses.

If we examine most technical fouls that are called, the majority involve an emotional reaction to a game situation. As officials, we have to be able to resolve differences between the coaches and ourselves in a manner that works at building trust and confidence in our decisions on the court. We cannot directly manage the emotions of a coach, but we can manage our own emotions. We should work at becoming “the calm in the eye of the storm” during any confrontation on the court.

When dealing with conflict resolution, officials have to be patient enough hear the coach’s complaint about a situation, find a solution, if possible, and then have the coach “buy in” to what the official proposes. Sometimes, the fact that the official was willing to listen without agreeing with the coach helps to resolve the conflict

Emotional awareness is key to understanding yourself and others.

Emotion management will help settle situations that arise during a game when the emotional climate gets turbulent.

There are certain phrases that we have heard officials use during a game that show that that official is not managing his or her emotions.

When you hear an official say any of these terms…

“Sit down, coach!!

“You coach and I’ll ref!”

or, in my humble opinion, the worst possible answer an official can give by passing responsibility onto his or her partner(s):

“It wasn’t my call.” 

Those comments will not resolve a coach/official conflict, but exacerbate it.

Think before you speak.

Listen to the message that you, the official, are both giving and receiving.

There is an expression found in another industry called “Feel, Felt, Found,” that can provide value in times of conflict.

It works this way:

Once the problem is stated by the coach, your response could be:

“I know how you feel coach and If I were in your position, I might have felt the same way, however I have found that (INSERT a proposed solution)”. 

This technique can create enough empathy between the coach(es) and the official(s) to resolve the conflict.

Body language is important, too.

Eye contact, facial expressions, postures and gestures: An official has to have a keen awareness of non-verbal communication keys to maintain good rapport with everyone on the court.

Personal space cognizance is a factor as well. Most people feel uncomfortable when an official encroaches on their personal space, so keep that in mind while arbitrating disputes.

Now, some tips on resolving conflicts:

– During a conflict situation, officials should not attempt to answer a statement or a rhetorical question made by a coach. The coach is not really listening to your response when they make rhetorical comments; they are just trying to make their point.

Conversely, don’t hesitate to answer fair questions asked in a professional manner.

– The goal of conflict resolution is not to decide who is right or wrong; it’s to reach a solution everyone can live with. Conflict resolution is rarely a black and white issue; there are many shades of gray.

– Find common areas of agreement, no matter how small. In a conflict situation, any perceived common ground is a start of something good.

– Listen with empathy and try to see the conflict from the coach’s perspective. Sometimes, coaches just wants to be heard.

Bill Russell, the former Celtic great, states in his book, Russell Rules:

“…someone who listens obviously has many advantages that others do not have, among them: being able to discriminate between what someone says and what he or she really means….When listening is most productive, it is always about communication. It is two-sided even when one person is left to make a decision. It takes into account the words, the viewpoints, of others and then respects them.

Make sure that any issues are identified clearly and concisely. Always remain flexible. Positions in any conflict should not be set in stone.

– Humor can defuse tension. It can help broach uncomfortable subjects. Be careful that humor is not misconstrued, though.

Laugh with the coaches, not at them.

– Always be approachable.

Although officials are authority figures, we should not carry ourselves in an overly-authoritative manner. When a coach cannot approach an official to discuss a perceived issue, an increase in hostility is sure to follow.

A summary of the key factors in resolving conflict:

1. Approachability

2. Attention to non-verbal communication

3. Being a “professional” 

4. Control of your emotions

5. Utilization of humor (when appropriate)

6. Be a great listener

7. Being patient

An official who keeps these points in mind will be well-prepared to manage the conflicts that inevitably arise during a game.

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