Developing A Thick Skin

A young businessman asks an older and very successful businessman for the secret to success. The older man responds, “Good judgment!”

The younger man says, well, that’s great, but how do you get good judgment? “Experience!” is the reply.

Well, yeah, but how do you get experience? The reply: “Bad judgment!”

One of the worst things that can be said of any official is that he/she has thin skin. I know this because I had the thinnest skin around when I first got into officiating lacrosse. I thought of myself as the Boss whenever I was on my field. Notice I said “my” field, not “the” field. It is very easy to react negatively to every little comment you hear if you take such a possessive attitude towards the game you are working.

It took a lot of bad judgment for me to develop enough experience to develop a thicker skin. I was lightning quick with a flag my first two years if a coach ever opened his mouth at me. I thought I was sending the message that I was in charge and would not engage in any dispute. Instead I was telling everyone that I couldn’t handle a little heat and was not willing to engage with anyone.

I look back on those days and cringe, but those days were necessary because it provided me the chance to do the wrong thing so I could learn the reason why it was so important to do the right thing.

The first step in developing a thicker skin is losing the possessive attitude towards the game. It is not “your” field. It is the player’s field. You are the conduit through which the game flows. You are a part of the game, but you are not THE game. Your sole focus should be making the game better while you are on the field.

The second step in developing a thicker skin is to establish with the coaches and players your line. If coaches know how far you will let them go they will toe that line, and if they cross it they can’t dispute anything because you told them what your line was. When I started officiating I had no line. Every time a coach opened his mouth he went over my level of tolerance because I never established a line. Nowadays, if a coach is getting too hot I will tell him that if his comments get personal or if he adds cursing I will throw my flag. That is me putting a line down. If the coach crosses the line and I do not throw my flag, he has me for the rest of the game. Once you’ve issued your ultimatum you must follow through if the coach crosses.

The third step in developing a thicker skin comes from a much more experienced official who told me this after a game: “Gordon, before you throw your flag for a Conduct foul ask yourself ‘does this benefit the game?’ If yes, throw it. If no, keep it tucked in.”

The fourth and final step in developing a thicker skin is roleplaying. Have an officiating friend pretend to be a coach. Come up with professional responses to whatever your friend says. Some responses to get you started are:

  • Coach, I saw it a different way
  • Coach, I judged the hit to be illegal (since coaches cannot dispute judgement calls in lacrosse, this is a great one to use)
  • Coach, I will keep my eyes on it

I’ll leave you with this quote from Bruce Weber, author of As They See ‘Em

“As an umpire you are neither inside the game, as the players are, nor outside it among the fans, but that the game passes through you, like rainwater through a filter, and that your job is to influence it for the better, to strain out the impurities, to make it cleaner, fairer, and more transparent without impeding it, corrupting it, changing its course, or making it taste funny.”


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