Chest in pain, gasping for air, muscles aching, palms sweaty, and my gut so hollow I feel I could be sick at any moment. Tough five-gamer, right?
No, this is how I used to feel entering a major junior tournament in progress. Serving as the person in charge of most squash competition in the U.S., I took it personally every time I saw a bad call, poor sportsmanship, or behavior of parents or coaches that was incongruous with the values of the sport. I could not avoid the fact that in the end, I was responsible, and worse, I felt like I had no control over the situation.
During the last several years, we have taken steps to encourage more positive behavior on and off the court. We re-defined our mission to emphasize sportsmanship and added sportsmanship as a fourth strategic objective. We revised the Code of Conduct to strengthen it. We defined infractions and outlined disciplinary actions related to violations. We started regularly sending notification of violation letters and applying suspensions for repeat offenders.
We also added age appropriate levels to our officiating certification testing and started offering officiating clinics in clubs. We elevated the recognition of sportsmanship, adding and promoting national awards and the Character in Sports Day at the U.S. Open. Our fictional world champion, Chet Blitzer, speaks passionately about the value of sportsmanship, and the many opportunities the sport presents in practicing the virtues of good character.
I now feel the opposite at events. The kids are all right, and I am proud of them. The quality of sportsmanship improves with the level of play each year. They understand the values of courtesy and respect and that the fair outcome of every point and match ultimately rests in the hands of the players. On the whole, junior players are excellent referees.
Once again though, I have a deep pain in my chest, my palms feel sweaty and my breathing is shallow. Why? Because now I’m refereeing.
I enjoy being at our events early, and the first matches of the day need referees. Clipboard and pen, check. Extra ball, check. iTouch for Live Score, check. Identify the players, switch sides for warm up, announce the match, call the score. Serve. The first let is called…and all heads snap towards me. Time stops, and so does everyone’s breathing. “Yes let.” Group exhale, and the match continues. So does this disturbing pattern after every call.
I am struck by the amount of stress placed on the referee by this crowd interaction—even if non-verbal. It distracts the referee and affects the quality of decisions, and it simply makes playing in tournaments less fun for the players. Refereeing is an essential role, and can be truly rewarding, even enjoyable, under the appropriate circumstances. However, given my own experiences at junior tournaments, imagining this from the perspective of a twelve-year-old is cause for serious concern.
The mix “behind the glass” of referees, parents, coaches, friends and family, hanging on every call, ready to react depending on who it favors, regardless of the circumstance, needs our attention. The kids are all right, it’s the parents and the coaches who will now benefit most from our support.