Dealing With Conflict on the Playing Field


“Are you kidding me, my grandma could do better than you?!” Yelling at referees has become as much of a mainstay in sports as ‘the wave’ or the seventh inning stretch. Players and coaches demand that the officials notice the exact spot of a football when someone was downed running full speed while fans get to watch the big screen and instant replay and watch it over and over. While it certainly is the referee’s goal to get every call correct, situations often arise that prevent that.

Whether a football tackle coming right at you or a basketball going out of bounds right where you are standing, the slightest movement of your head or eyes can impact whether you see the ball go out of bounds off of the green team’s leg or if you catch it deflecting off of the red team’s foot after. As a former high school basketball official and current high school football official and Coordinator of Intramural Sports at the University of Michigan responsible for training student referees, I have had to learn and get to teach different methods of dealing with potential conflict that can arise on the sports field.

The first piece when dealing with emotional moments during a game involves those very emotions and the importance of keeping them in check. We often teach new officials that behavior comes in three levels: a child, an adult and a parent. Coming from Dr. Eric Berne’s philosophy of Transactional Analysis, typically most people are able to behave as adults meaning they can have normal, productive conversations with a cool head. With sports, a lot of people have the tendency to slip down into the child state of mind, marred with whining, outbursts and temper tantrums. Human nature usually makes officials want to retaliate and respond to those, thus also bringing them down to the child temperament as well.

This doesn’t often end well. Instead, it is more helpful to rise to the parent level with the intention of bringing the child back up to adult behavior. They are able to speak in a quiet, yet forceful voice reminding them that they are willing to talk and have a normal conversation but not one with yelling and pettiness. It can be difficult to keep one’s emotions in check, especially when a coach is berating you for how terrible of a call you just made even though you know it was the correct one. Letting cooler heads prevail will always be a better option in the long run.

The second aspect of dealing with tough conversations is understanding the timing, and potentially the correct timing, to have this type of conversation. A good friend of mine shared a story about the night her son finally received his driver’s license. His curfew of 11:00 pm came and went, without a text as to where he might be. As worried mom’s do, she stayed up until he finally arrived home at 12:30 am. Her initial response of worry, anger and disappointment was met with his walking in the door with the biggest smile on his face after the great night he just had with his friends. She was able to quickly pull herself together and know having a conversation right then would not have been productive and would have only led to strains on the relationship. In the morning, they understood each other in a more clear sense as to where the other’s frame of reference was coming from.

This process is very similar in officiating. The game of basketball can be very quick, up and down the floor. A coach may yell about a foul that didn’t get called and you may not be able to address her until five minutes later. And that time may only allow for a quick chat because you need to inbound the ball. Understanding that there are occasions, such as during timeouts or in between quarters to have a slightly longer conversation, gives you the time and space to process why you did or didn’t make that call and explain it to the coach. If you had to stop the game every time a player or coach had a complaint, games would take three days to complete.

The next step in having a productive tough conversation is making sure to truly listen to what the other person is saying. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey explains the important habit of seeking first to understand and then be understood. It can be human nature while listening to another person to already be framing your response to what they’re currently saying, instead of trying to actually process what they are saying. This can put one in a bind because those conversations quickly turn into simply trying to get a point across instead of understanding what the other’s point even is.

This habit can be very beneficial later in a football season after a head coach has already seen five different crews of officials and been officiated slightly differently five different times. While there are rule books and mechanics for officials, there is also a philosophy as to how to best apply those rules that some may apply slightly differently. If for example the officiating crew from week 3 called pass interference on every play in which a wide receiver was touched and the officiating crew from week 5 didn’t call a single pass interference penalty the entire game, the coach may understandably be upset with a call you do or don’t make during a week 6 game. But listening to him and gathering where the frustration comes from,  can allow you to better articulate what you explain to him on a certain play instead of just dismissing him as another coach complaining about every call.

The final piece of dealing with a potential conflict is taking responsibility for your own actions. It is okay to admit that you made a mistake. People are generally more willing to forgive if you own up to your mistakes and learn from it instead of making excuses. This is even true in officiating. One big example of this occurred on June 2, 2010. Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from pitching a perfect game, allowing zero walks, hits or runs. On what should have been the final out, umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly ruled the runner safe at first. Following the game upon realizing the mistake, Joyce acknowledged his mistake and apologized to Galarraga. Joyce said, “I just cost that kid a perfect game.” Galarraga understood it was a mistake and forgave him. The umpire owning the mistake and taking responsibility allowed him to move on and own it. He did not try to hide and pretend that it didn’t happen.

Tough conversations and conflict happen everywhere. In the workplace, in relationships or on a football field, they can cause unpleasant feelings but need to happen in order to keep one advancing. Keeping the emotions in check allows for a productive conversation to happen instead of constant bickering and yelling. Understanding the importance that timing plays into having a tough conversation limits the other aspects of a relationship to come into that particular situation and allows cooler heads to prevail. When you are able to listen and understand what someone is saying gives you the chance to respond to someone instead of reacting. And owning up to your mistakes and accepting responsibility allows one to move on and learn from it. Utilizing these skills will empower you to turn a potential conflict into an opportunity to learn.


Berne, Eric. Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1961.

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic. [Rev. ed.]. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Press, Associated. “Umpire: ‘I just cost that kid a perfect game'” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 03 June 2010. Web. 05 Jan. 2017.


Emily Harbourne was a previous editor for Campus Rec Magazine.

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