Student Officials: The Few, The Despised, The Needed



– Angry participant (circa invention of sport and officiating)

Not exactly the most welcoming start to a post about student officials.  I guarantee you, though, that if you are a student official in a campus recreation program, you have heard a derivation of this exclamation at least once while you have officiated a game.  If this, or any other similarly venomous phrase, has never been barked at you during your officiating career, then do me a favor: Tell me your secretBetter yet, write a book on how to avoid that behavior, and make a ton of money.

For the rest of you, dissension from participants concerning officiating is a fairly frequent occurrence.  As a director of intramural sports, a current official and a former student official myself, I empathize with the situation in which directors and coordinators put you. We give you training to be functional on the court/field, ask you to mediate your peers, slap you on the back and say “Go get ’em tiger!”  We evaluate your performance every game, ask you to subtly improve 20-25 things each time, slap you on the back again and say, “given ’em hell harry!” and send you back to do the next game.

After many years of officiating, I’ve come to notice that when presented with all of this, all new student officials have the same look: anxiety, discomfort, with a façade of confidence. Still, they go out there and try their hardest to control the game. Luckily, in campus recreation, we have an excellent support system for student officials. Most directors and coordinators have an intense understanding of officiating, and are there to help along the path of student officiating.

Those of us in campus recreation, particularly in intramural sports, knows the importance of officials and their role in officiated games. A very high percentage of us are also officials on various levels of play, from middle school/high school to the professional level. We understand the flak officials get on all levels. Referees tend to function as lightning rods in many games, out there just to catch the bolts tossed by coaches, players and spectators. Officials are under the microscope more than ever (NBA officials for example), especially now in an age of instant video and technology. No call is safe from opinion. We get one shot to make the right decision in an instant, while others can review our call over, and over, and over, and over…and over. Room for mistakes is narrower now than it ever has been.

Student officials are judged, ridiculed, lambasted, underpaid and overworked. However, now… for the first time ever… we can add an additional trait.

Student officials are needed. Desperately. The population of officials in the United States is shrinking at such a rate that school systems are now altering schedules to play at the availability of officials, meaning in some places, Friday Night Lights is becoming Thursday Night Lights, or Saturday Morning Lights. High schools are cutting games from schedules due to a lack of available officials. Veteran officials are aging out of local boards faster than they can be replaced. Young officials have no interest in working because of multiple factors, with disrespect and unsportsmanlike conduct being cited as the most popular reasons.

If you are a student official reading this: Not only do we (intramural professionals) want you as officials, it seems like everyone does now! If you stick with officiating, not only will you learn so much about yourself and your abilities, and learn and improve new skills, but you could find a few $urpri$ing perk$ a$ well.

The lack of experience and intricate knowledge of rules and mechanics are the main reason beginning and developing student officials struggle in games. Here are some steps that student officials can take during this stage of their career to improve dramatically:

  1. Study your rulebook!  Learn the rules of the games, so you can enforce them correctly.
  2. Work as many games as you can. Experience is the best teacher. The more games you do, the more plays your see and the more confident you become calling those plays.
  3. Find a mentor you can trust. There are many officials willing to teach you the tricks of the trade. Know what you are looking for, and going find that someone.
  4. Watch film of yourself officiating. The best way to learn about mechanics, positioning, and your look is by watching yourself ref, and breaking down what you can do better.
  5. Practice signaling in the mirror. It sounds weird, but it’s extremely helpful. Practice your signals and points in a mirror and get that professional look.

Doing any, or all, of those suggestions will help you improve your officiating game immediately. We, as campus recreation professionals, are more than happy to help you achieve your goal of becoming a better official as well. We want nothing but success for you and will utilize the resources we have available to give you additional opportunities for growth.

A wise official once said, “You are only as good as your last call.  Make sure they are all great calls!”  If you are a student official already, you’ve already made a great call!  Keep working and improving, and enjoy a long and successful officiating career.


Scott Flickinger is the Robert D. Kennedy ’54 Director of Intramural Sports at Cornell University. He has been in campus rec as a professional since 2003 and is also the current Brand Management Chair for the NIRSA Championship Series.

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