Leagues and Officials: Increasing cohesion

I was asked to talk at UKROC. Well, that’s not really true. I was asked if I would share some of my findings and work so that a talk could go ahead. I said yes of course, let me know what you need… you can have anything. A long pause later and the question of “Well, if you’re free and you FEEL like talking…”

So that’s how it happened. The event is pretty new to the UK, but takes its cues from a similarly named European event. It’s run by the UKRDA and although small at the moment, anything that strives to further the sport and those within it is usually worth the effort of a few hours driving in my mind.

I was asked to speak about building relationships within leagues, aimed at both officials and skaters. It’s not usually a topic I would talk about, but with a history as a league-leader for a few years followed by an official for the last three years, I actually had a fair bit of advice to share. So I set to putting together a PowerPoint presentation because I usually just talk… but I wanted to be MORE PROFESSIONAL. And nothing says professional like slides.

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/\ Look at the lovely pink and blue lines on THAT. Aww. So lovely.

ANYWAY, the event was in Salford, but me and Mat stayed over in a hotel in Bolton the night before because it had free breakfast and a gym. It seemed like a good idea until I dropped a 10kg dumbell on my middle finger (it still won’t straighten and hurts to type… why am I writing a blog post right now??).

I had stress-packed several changes of top, but was handed a UKROC tshirt with my name on the back to wear for the day:

12654638_10153230481791640_4850216506372806020_n.jpgtshirt

I did the talk and it went really well. I was really pleased with it. I had lots of interaction, lots of questions; a couple of people messaged me afterwards to talk more in-depth about their issues. I felt like I did a good job. So when someone asked me to share my slides, I decided to put the talk down in a blog… mainly because I was told never to share your slides, it’s poor presentation etiquette (the slides shouldn’t tell the full story, you should) and also because, well, when you see the slides below you’ll realise how fucking useless it would have been to send these to anyone.

So, sit back, relax, and enjoy my thoughts on building a better league relationship with all your league members.

Leagues and Officials UKROC v2

I don’t know everything and I would never pretend to. I have experienced a few things and I’m willing to share those experiences with everyone. But all experiences are valid, and anyone with views that contradict mine are welcome to speak up. Anyone with anything to add is welcome to speak up. Just be polite, be considerate, and be humble.

So I start by saying who I am and why I think I have any right to be talking to them today. Skater with two leagues, co-creator of one. Captain and Vice Captain and league-leader for several years before learning to officiate, struggling to find my way around the stripy world and then eventually end up doing pretty well for myself.

I tell them how and why I created Ref School. How I was one of the lucky ones and I had a lot of support. But that in travelling around I realise that’s not the norm. I encourage people to run proper training, to help other leagues starting out, and to create their own plans. Everyone nods along in agreement.

I know both sides of this issue. I’ve been a brand new referee. I know what it’s like. I’ve also been that Captain trying to get refs to stick with the league and having no idea how to do it. 

I ask how many people feel supported in their progression within their league. For the first time in a long time I’m faced with a lot of happy officials who feel their league offers them what they want. This is amazing for me. I usually talk to refs who are asked to skate at the side of the hall during practice and are (genuinely) told to “keep quiet” so they don’t interrupt the skaters (whaaaaaaaaa).

But these people are still here to make things better, so I press on, waiting to hear where the issues lie.

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(See what I mean about the slides now? I was told the best PowerPoints contain no words at all… So I illustrated all my points with photos)

Referees are important. You need them in order to run games and stay within the rules. They will get you a crew when you need it. They will come to training and help point out how to stay on the right side of the rules during drills. They pay subs and contribute to the league. (I’d HIGHLY recommend nominal subs for your officials if your league can afford it. Have them pay £2 or so a month which includes the right to vote within the league but shows them that you value their time and skills more than you value their coin… and if you’re from a league that doesn’t let your officials vote you may want to consider why you’ve taken this stance. I can’t see a single benefit in it.)

They also look good in stripes. (See me and Big Smack, bottom)

Skaters are important. We wouldn’t need refs if we didn’t have skaters. They give refs something to work on, they push us to always try our best. They are the people that bring in the audience. They are “the game”. They will also be your cheerleaders when you do well. (See left middle, the Central City Rollergirls travelled to the Gotham v London game in Leeds where we supported one of our referees, Major Travis T aka Trav)

Raise the standard of game play. More refs, better refs… more people to discuss rules with, and more eyes on your training helping you to work within the rules spending less time in the box as a team. Skaters have to trust referees, they make calls that impact on gameplay. It’s important to work together to improve the league as a whole.

Create a nurturing environment. This works both ways. If your league is happy with a growing ref crew and you all get on… skaters will want to join you too because of the benefits this brings to any newbie. Also your new referees will see that skaters are polite and supportive of newer refs and will feel happier pushing themselves in that group. (See picture top right. This is the turn out for the first of my Ref School sessions with the Birmingham Blitz. They created an environment where everyone felt included, and had over 30 people sign up to the training. Amazing work.)

Grow your league. It’s what we all want right? If your league is harmonious you’ll automatically be a league people want to join. You’ll be an inviting prospect for skaters and officials who are relocating, and you’ll be a place where people want to bring their friends to try out the sport.

(The picture on the top left is the first time I managed to get together an all-female referee crew. It was a huge celebration for me because I had helped train some of them and was so pleased to have this lovely easy-going game where we all worked perfectly together.)

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This is one area that I feel very strongly. Like I said, I had a better start than most. But I still had people being angry with me when I smiled at myself for FINALLY making a call correct from start to finish. And I had people shouting at me for not calling out of plays when all I was working on was back blocks. I had it good, but it could be better.

I talk to new refs a lot; I teach Ref School and see people completely fresh to the idea of refereeing. Not all of them are from a derby background. Some of them have to learn to skate, learn what the hell we do, and then learn how to officiate. It’s a lot to take in.

But I still see the skaters’ view too: You’re in stripes, why aren’t you reffing?

So I always give three pieces of advice:

For referees:

  1. Don’t let anyone else tell you how fast or how slow to go. Go at your own pace.
  2. Be honest. With others and yourself.  Speak to the coach – can you work with them to slowly build your skills? Then tell the team what you’re working on that week. Don’t expect to be Cherry Fury in your second week.
  3. Network. Go to mixed scrims, make friends with other newbies and learn together.

For leagues:

  1. Don’t rush anyone. Trying to get someone to IPR, JR and call cuts on the outside is going to make them feel unloved, unwelcome and like a failure before they begin. As a skater we spend AGES on min skills, refs are going back to square one and learning ref skills. Give them time to do it.
  2. Be constructive. You don’t have the same view on track as they do off track. I can tell you I didn’t deserve a single penalty I received in derby… all those calls were absolute crap. However I managed to foul out of a game once and regularly spent time in the box… because you know what, I have absolutely no idea what my body is doing when it’s full of adrenaline and a desire to win. So don’t assume what you did was legal. ALSO… your refs are learning. Don’t kick off that they don’t know everything instantly.
  3. Be inviting. Getting others to come along and help your refs will be a huge benefit to you and your zebras. If you can host mixed scrims, invite other local referees along, or take your ref with you when you go to mixed events… do it. It makes a huge difference.

At this point someone raised the issue of people who just AREN’T getting any better. We’ve all seen them. I used to be the person brought in on the final week of Fresh Meat to tell the skaters they didn’t pass. I guess the idea of saying that to someone is horrifying to most, but then being told that info badly is the actual issue.

The example raised was someone who has been officiating for years and is still not “getting it” despite so much support and time and effort. It sounds callous, but that person needs to have less attention given to them. We all do this in our spare time, we don’t have endless amounts of time to waste on people that don’t want to put in the effort. Like we say to skaters – you’re responsible for your actions; so are referees. You’re responsible for your own progression, you’re responsible for making sure you’re pushing yourself, keeping on top of the rule changes, and developing your skills as the game changes around you.

My advice to the question was to set clear goals (we get on to this in a second) and stipulate that now these goals are personal to that official, so they need to work to reach them. In this situation that official was one of very few in the league and therefore always ended up on crews even when their skill set wasn’t at the desired level. This is an issue that you should address with your officiating structure within your league. stubble entendre shared a “level” grading system with me and I tweaked it for Ref School. It’s something you could consider implementing in your league to help officials keep pushing themselves to reach the next level and not become complacent with just doing the bare minimum. Have your HR and HNSO work on this; don’t let skaters grade your officials, it will become a popularity contest.

Always be open, honest, and if you have the balls, sit the person down and explain where you would like to see them get to in the next six months, and ask if they see any reason why they shouldn’t reach those goals. It may turn out they’re not trying because they don’t want to progress and then you can stop worrying about pushing them along. We have rec skaters, some people want to blow whistles on a weekend and never give it any more thought than that. Remember though, there is pussy-footing around someone and there is being a complete dick. You want to be somewhere in the middle – you would want someone to tell you if you had a leaf on your face, you wouldn’t want them to take a photo of you and put it online saying LOOK HOW STUPID YOU ARE YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU HAVE A LEAF ON YOUR FACE. Got it? Good.

Then Rocky complained that he wasn’t in a single one of my photos, so I took a selfie with him:

rocky

BACK TO THE TALK…

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Time for some quick wins. We all want to make things better, but what can we do? These tips should be easy to start implementing, they should be easy for everyone to adapt to:

Talk to each other. Compliment each other when necessary. Consider your language when you do talk – stop saying “us” and “them”. 

Don’t keep officials and skaters separate. Give them all the same perks. If you help fund skaters to events, do the same for your officials. If you can’t afford this, do fundraising. Do your skaters get reduced kit? Give your refs reduced cost stripes. (See top left image. Newcastle Roller Girls’ officials created a team called Agents of S.T.R.I.P.E they had hoodies printed up and gave them to all the officials that had helped the league that year. Wonderful gift. I was given mine at the Last Action Heroes tournament and I am pretty sure I cried. The league contributed to costs.)

Give them as much coverage as you do your skaters.  Put them on your website, talk about their achievements on FB and Twitter. Give them awards at the annual party.

Include them in your plans. Don’t book games without telling them. The leagues that I consistently hear positivity from are the leagues where an official is on their Board of Directors, they have input at that high level and know all the league decisions.

Treat them like a team within your league. Arrange training for your officials and arrange events for them just like you would your A, B or C team. This includes having a ref come teach them things, or putting on mixed scrims just so they can meet new refs. (See middle top photo, at Central City Rollergirls all the officials decided to solidify their team status by having varsity jackets made up with our names on. One skater said we always look like we’re having so much fun that the skaters get jealous. I don’t think many ref crews hear that from their skater buddies?)

Train like it’s game day. Skaters wear numbers, refs in tops that clearly make them stand out. Have a captain and an alt, and direct your questions to the ref crew. It allows everyone to learn together and not have one ref be inundated with questions. It stops the newbies getting their confidence dashed, and it teaches skaters to take a breath and raise issues through their captain or alt.

(The other images tie in with general engagement. The middle left is when my leaguemates at Newcastle Roller Girls came along to one of my first games as an official and held up supportive signs for me. Top right is when me and a few Midlands-based officials got together to do some fundraising by doing Europe’s longest zip wire. It was haggard but we survived. Bottom left is when we had a family day (all the CCR refs and their partners and children) went water zorbing, then we met up with the CCR skaters for a meal afterward. And bottom right is the first group to ever do Ref School – the Crash Test Brummies ref crew of 2015. We went out for a few meals together just because we wanted to get to know eachother. I will admit that SOMETIMES I sprung homework and quizzes on them. But mainly it was just a fun get together.)

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So now you have the quick wins down, it’s time to start looking at actual proper engagement within your league. These are the things that will take time, perseverance and constant re-assessments. Just like all good relationships. Put in the effort and reap the rewards.

Train together. This is vital to bonding. Try to split your sessions into non-contact and then contact. Make it clear that everyone is invited to join in with the non-contact stuff. It will help your officials to mix with your team and keep them fit.

Mutual respect only comes from knowing each other and seeing how hard you work to be the best you can be. If this doesn’t happen naturally in your training sessions, organise additional events outside of skating. Whether it be going for a curry, or to try another sport. Make the time to get to know and respect each other.

Goal setting. Be clear about what you want from everyone. Set clear league goals and include everyone in these goals. Then look at how you can reach these goals together. Your officials can help you and you can help them.

Act consistently. Don’t make changes for a week and then change. Build in change and stick to it. like we said earlier, train like it’s game day and everyone will always know what is expected of them.

Deal with conflict. Have a proper way to deal with complaints and issues that come up. If you don’t have one, create a complaints and grievance procedure, get the entire league to sign off on it and sign up to it… and then USE IT. If you don’t have one of these, message me. I have made a heap of them in my time using info from when I used to be a union rep. I will happily share what I have for you to build on.

Always assume good intentions – from both sides, this is just good life advice.

Create support structures and perceive everyone’s mistakes, including your own, as team mistakes. Work to rectify mistakes, learn from them and move on together.

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And that was it. My timer alarm went off to tell me I had hit 75mins (and I couldn’t turn it off) and everyone said thank you and politely wrote down my blog details. I took a selfie with the room.. look how many people came!:  talk

And I went to meet friends for lunch, where I was asked advice on dealing with building cohesion between officials and their league… I shit you not.

6 thoughts on “Leagues and Officials: Increasing cohesion

  1. It’s a great talk. I can agree with every point you make and every suggestion for fostering a better working relationship between officials and thr skaters. And yet, as I kept going through the post, I just kept getting a sinking feeling as I started to realize that, despite, the use of “officials,” it feels very much that the concerns you discuss are very much limited to the skating officials. Which is fine, if that was your intent. But I can’t help but feel that it’s not addressing the inclusion of the other 11 officials on the track during a game, the Non-Skating Officials. The situation amongst the leagues I’ve worked with seems to have gotten better in the last few years, but I still encounter referees and ref crews who might do better to focus being inclusive to their NSOs as much as being concerned with how they’re integrated within their home leagues. Well, at least, you mentioned the HNSO.

    • Hello Mike, thanks for reading 🙂 I made a point at the start of my presentation at UKROC to say that I’m not an NSO. My blog is all about my experiences as a referee, I have NSOd a handful of times so although I will talk about officiating it is always from the viewpoint of a referee.

      I have said I don’t know everything and I will only talk about my experiences. I don’t think I should talk about what I don’t know… I will leave that to the NSO-experts, but the whole message was about being inclusive regardless of where you are in roller derby. I hope that comes across.

  2. As a clarification point, the materials I wrote were inspired by and based on the work of Riff Reff. He deserves all the credit for that 🙂

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