Throw the Bums Out or Why Do We Yell at Referee Calls?

Richard Hunkler, PhD.
Water Polo Planet
08/15/08

Why do we yell at a referee’s calls in general and why do we yell at a water polo referee’s calls the loudest in particular. I don’t have a clue why people yell at other referee’s calls but I think I might know some primary reasons why we yell at a water polo referee’s calls.  Remember the old hackneyed saying, “You have to be one to know one” or in water polo we might say “You have to be a yeller to know a yeller”. In my opinion, the primary reasons as to why we yell at a water polo referee’s calls have to do with 1) the amount of the athletes’ body you can actually see when the sport is being played; 2) a person’s perception of what is happening and 3) the “advantage rule”.

We Can't See You!

On average only about one fourth of a water polo player’s body is shown during a game and this means three fourths of the player’s body is under water and not exposed. Do you know another sport in which this is true? In basketball, football, lacrosse, soccer, and or volleyball this is certainly not true.  In water polo you have to ponder, what is happening to that other four fifths of the player’s body that no one can see? In some games not much is happening and in other games you have the 9th circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno happening. What is worse is that one person thinks he or she is seeing the first type of game while another person thinks he or she is seeing the second type of game and both are watching the same game. Moreover, since the ball is moving around quickly you don’t have a lot time to determine just what is happening to the player’s body that is under water.

Compared to refereeing water polo refereeing other sports is a walk in the park or should I say a leisurely swim in a pool in which a water polo game is not being played.  In most other sports there is no guessing  about what is happening to the parts of the body that can’t be seen because all parts of the athlete’s body can be seen. In most sports 98% of the time the referees and spectators can clearly see a foul when it happens. Consequently, there is no need for the coach or fan to have to second guess the referee’s call (some coaches and fans will second guess the referee just because the person is a referee – some people still cross a street after the traffic light turns red also – what are you going to do?)   Usually the second guessing of the water polo referee’s call is based on the coach’s and/or fan’s perception of what is happening above and under water. Thus this brings us to the second reason that people give referees so much grief: “a person’s perception of what is happening”.

Heck I Thought It Was a Rorschach Inkblot Test!

A concise and precise definition of “perception” can be found in the free encyclopedia, Wikipedia and it is,” In psychology and the cognitive sciences, perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information.” The article goes on to say, “In the case of visual perception, some people can actually see the percept shift in their mind’s eye.” Consider the following two “ambiguous images” to explain what this sentence really means.

Ambiguous Images

Ambiguous Images

Looking at the image on the left blink your eyes several times and the perception of the image will change. In the second image what do you see a vase or two people staring at each other?

The Wikipedia article further says:

Perception alters what humans see, into a diluted version of  reality, which ultimately corrupts the way humans perceive the truth. When people view something with a preconceived idea about it, they tend to take those preconceived ideas and see them whether or not they are there. This problem stems from the fact that humans are unable to understand new information, without the inherent  bias of their previous knowledge. The extent of a person’s knowledge creates their reality as much as the  truth, because the human mind can only contemplate that which it has been exposed to.

In water polo the previous paragraph is saying to me that if a coach or initiated spectator goes into a game thinking the referee is going to make bad calls then in the “mind’s eye” of that person the referee will be making bad calls and if coach or initiated spectator goes into a game thinking the referee is going to make good calls then in the “mind’s eye” of that person the referee will be making good calls. An uninitiated spectator will just be confused. You say “hog wash” that is an over simplification of what is truly happening or worse, it is a “knee-jerk-liberal’s” excuse to allow the coach or fan to continue to yell at a referee’s calls. Well just try the second suggestion a couple of times and see if it doesn’t change your perception of how the referee is calling the game.

For Whom Is the "Advantage Rule" an Advantage?

This brings us to the final reason as to why I believe people yell at a water polo referee’s calls and that is the discombobulating “advantage rule”. Most people either love it or they hate it. What do I think? When the “advantage rule” is applied correctly then I think it makes water polo a better game but when it is not applied correctly all it does is confuse coaches and fans alike while it allows some incompetent referees to have an excuse for their bad calls. Furthermore this confusion on the part of the coaches and fans and the excuses on the part of some incompetent referees cause both coaches and fans to yell more at the referees.

At one time I argued that the application of the “advantage rule” was too complicated for the masses in water polo and I essentially said we needed to either toss it or simplify it. My suggestion for making it simpler was to make it more transparent. If you are interested in what I had to say about making the “advantage rule” more transparent then you can read the article at the following link, The Current Advantage Rule or Calculus Is NOT for the Masses. After writing the article I was told by some referees that having referees use hand signals to explain an “advantage rule” call would be demeaning to the referees because it would show that the water polo community didn’t trust their judgment. Don't tell that to the hockey referees!

Trust! Maybe trust, is a means of reducing the amount of yelling at a water polo referee’s call? Trust is a two way street and the coaches would have to trust the referees and the referees would have to trust the coaches. At this point in time I just don’t think this is going to happen. I would hope that it would happen but remember this point in the above discussion, “When people view something with a preconceived idea about it, they tend to take those preconceived ideas and see them whether or not they are there.” This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to get the coaches and referees to trust each other.

Legislate or Educate?

I have explained my three reasons why I think coaches and fans yell at a water polo referee’s calls and now it is time I should propose a way to stop this yelling or at least a way to keep it to a minimum (remember some people will run red traffic lights and some people will still yell at referee’s calls).  We can do nothing about the first reason “the amount of the athletes’ body you can actually see when the sport is being played” because it is inherently a part of the game and to change this changes the game. What we can do is understand that this is one of the reasons why our game is so difficult to referee and it should give us a renewed respect for those who do it. This renewed respect for referees by coaches could very easily foster some trust between the coaches and referees.

I think our best hope in eliminating the other two causes “a person’s perception of what is happening” and “the advantage rule” is through education. I really believe if we educate the coaches, referees, and fans about the rules that most of the yelling and animosity will become inaudible. How do we educate the coaches, referees, and fans?

Currently there are three methods of training or educating referees. FINA primarily uses FINA Schools or Clinics to dictate the rules and train the referees. For the most part the NCAA uses "Points of Interest", a form of a white paper, to teach and interpret the rules to the referees. Finally, the USAWP uses online computer courses to educate the referees. If I were Goldilocks of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and I had to choose one of these three methods of training referees I would probably chose "online computer courses".

The FINA method is too limited and it is too hard for mainstream referees to find the time or money to attend. Hopefully, after a new TWPC is elected the members will create a method of training referees that is less political and much more accessible. The TWCP should be constantly reminded by the World Water Polo Community that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The NCAA method is too lackadaisical and too soft on making certain the rules are followed by every NCAA referee across the USA. Many times West and East referees don't always interpret the white papers in the same way. Moreover there has been very little discipline in both the adding and the deleting of the "points of interest" and as a result the number of NCAA rules and their interpretations are becoming so large that it is difficult for some referees to master them in a single college water polo season. If you had all the butter pecan ice cream in the world you wouldn't want to have to eat it all in one setting.

Online computer classes are not going to be perfect for educating referees but they are much better than the other two methods and online computer courses are just about right because they are easy to access; they are pillars of consistency compared to other two; they can easily be kept current; they lend themselves to multimedia; they reduce politics to a minimum; they can be made available 24-7; and as an added bonus, they can pay for themselves.

(Note the blue text has been added to the original article and the term "Bums" in the title refers to coaches and players because only referees can throw both the coaches and players out of a game. Nobody said life was going to be fair.)

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com