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Where have all the officials gone?

There has been a decline in sports officials nationwide

If you’ve been thinking lately that it’s a tough time for officials in a number of sports including fastpitch softball, you’d be right. As this infographic from Ohio University demonstrates, the number of officials nationwide is on a steady decline.

That’s bad news for everyone involved in youth sports, because even though you may not always like their calls, and in some cases may think they are biased/blind/complete idiots, umpires and referees are still essential for competitive sports. You could play without them, I suppose, but if you’re counting on all the coaches and players to be completely honest about close calls you’re bound to be sorely disappointed.

Where are they all going? Well, like the rest of the workforce, older officials are retiring. Unfortunately, not enough people are stepping up to replace them. It seems that players who are either finishing or have finished their playing careers aren’t exactly stepping up to stay involved in softball by becoming umpires. Although there are some exceptions.

The opportunities to advance from high school to college officiating aren’t exactly abundant either, which may discourage some. The pay isn’t exactly great, the hours can be long and inconvenient, and so forth.

Then there is the issue of the hostile environment these days. More and more, youth sports contests are beginning to sound like political debates on Facebook. This has led more than 85% of current officials to “consider terminating their services if (the) environment worsens.”

What’s the consequence? According to the infographic, potentially it could mean fewer games, fewer opportunities at the lower levels in high school, and perhaps some sports being dropped altogether at some schools.

While the infographic doesn’t get into travel/club ball, fewer officials could mean even shorter games in an effort to cover the same number of games, or perhaps bringing in unqualified or untrained volunteers to pick up the slack. Yes, I know there are some bad umpires out there even with training, but the situation could get a whole lot worse.

So what’s the solution? I can think of a couple of things.

One is to be sure coaches, parents, and players treat officials with respect rather than imitating the bad behavior they see on TV. That not only gives current officials a reason to stay in it; it also encourages current players to stay in the game by officiating when their careers are done.

As part of that, coaches and players should shake the officials’ hands after every game – even if you think they blew a call that cost you the game. Just that act alone can mean a lot.

Stiffer penalties for those who verbally or especially physically abuse or threaten officials should be put in place and enforced vigorously. No official should ever have to wonder if he/she will be confronted by an angry coach or parent after a game.

Officiating organizations should also make an effort to reach out to high school and college players (and their parents, for that matter), encouraging them to sign up when they’re done playing. Sometimes all it takes is asking someone. They should do more than send an email. They should actually show up in person and present, in my opinion.

Those are just a few ideas I had. What about you? What do you think we can do to turn the tide and swell the ranks of quality officials?

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The definition of sportsmanship – and class

This isn’t a fastpitch softball story, but it’s still one I found worth sharing because it demonstrates everything great about sports and what they teach you. Full disclosure: I am friends with Abbey D’Agostino’s uncle Tim and Aunt Janet Boivin so the story has a little extra impact for me.

If you haven’t heard, this happened during the women’s 5000 meter race at the Olympics. Everyone was running in a pack when Nikki (no relation to Hillary) Hamblin of New Zealand tripped, and the USA’s Abbey D’Agostino fell over her.

Understand that Abbey has waited a long time for this opportunity. If I recall correctly she just missed the cut for the 2012 Olympics while she was still in college, so making the team and having the opportunity to go for the gold was the fulfillment of a dream.

After falling like that, many runners would have just gotten up and tried to make up the time. That’s what being a competitor is supposedly all about. But Abbey saw that Nikki was hurt, and instead of taking off she stopped to help Nikki up off the ground and start running again.

Then, in an interesting turn, after both ran a few meters Abbey went down again. (Later we would discover she tore her ACL and meniscus when she fell originally. Nikki stopped to help her up, and the two of them proceeded to help each other finish the race. (Shades of Cool Runnings, eh?)

The other thing to understand is they weren’t friends before. They didn’t know each other at all. But they are bound together for life now.

We see a lot of negative things out there in the world. At softball parks we see all kinds of bad behavior from players, coaches, parents and fans. But this story is a reminder, on the biggest stage of all for most sports, of what it’s really all about.

If you’d like to learn more, here’s one of the many stories that have come out of this incident, complete with an interview of both runners.

Hopefully Abbey will be back on the track sooner rather than later and will have another shot at a medal. But if she never runs competitively again, she’s set an amazing standard for all athletes. Watch for the Disney movie in about five years. 🙂

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

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