A Strategy to Train Referees for the 21st Century

Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet
04/15/07

Anyone other than me tired of hearing the whining about how lousy the referees are?

I thought so.

What can be done about it?

Actually, a lot can be done about it and, more importantly, it would not be too difficult to do so. It requires a lot of us to throw off the shackles of how things have always been done and move into the 21st Century, but inasmuch as it is already 2007, it’s probably ok to begin. So, using the “what would YOU do if it were entirely up to you?” logic, here goes: First, we need to have modern training materials. I have the good fortune to work in an industry (higher education) where this is considered a normal part of the job, so constructing this sort of thing is not outside my normal universe of thinking.

The Bricks and Mortar in This Plan Are Modules

What would these training materials be like? If we were to treat training of referees in the same way as the training of, say, biology students (something I do professionally on a daily basis), we would do the following:

  1. Construct a step-wise set of teachable units. About a year ago, I offered to do this, and actually began to construct the teachable units, but stopped when it seemed that the restructuring of how referees would be taught was not going to happen any time soon. However, even now, they would be relatively easy to finish, at least as text-based units;

  2. The units would be staged, initially in three levels, eventually as four or more levels. The levels would be divided by content and level of depth. At this point, the modules I have begun are as follows:

    1. Level I – Introduction. There is only one introductory module, and it is to be taken only once, by beginner referees. The content is a basic presentation of the four classes of rules and fouls (Advantage, Fouls of Play, Fouls of Physicality, and Fouls of Behavior), mechanics (pool positioning, signals, and whistling), and a basic rules test.

    2. Level II – At this point, I have a framework for three intermediate modules. These are intended to address issues at a level of depth appropriate for a referee who has completed the introductory module, passed the rules test, and done some whistling. They are not intended to be taken in any particular order, but all should be taken only after the Level I module, and all should be taken before taking any Level III modules. Each is accompanied by a rules test, this one designed to test more complicated situations.

      1. The Rules – this module contains an in-depth presentation of the three classes of fouls (Play, Physicality, Behavior). This presentation is designed to provide a context for why these rules were written so that their application can be consistent with the intent of the rulesmakers.

      2. The Center – this module contains an in-depth presentation of how the fouls that are, or are not, called, at the center position, can impact the way the game occurs. Although the new rules have slightly de-emphasized the impact of how the center is called, it remains the most difficult area of the pool to call consistently well.

      3. The Perimeter – this module contains an in-depth presentation of how the fouls that are, or are not, called, away from the center position, can impact the way the game occurs. Particular attention is paid to four topics: direct shots, driving, counter-attacks, and contra (offensive) fouls.

      4. Administration – this module contains all the information about how to correctly perform the scoresheet and timing functions, rules about tie-breaking, and how to manage shoot-outs.

    3. Level III – Each is accompanied by a rules test, this one designed to assess the ability of the referee to handle the most complicated situations likely to be faced in high level competition.

      1. Advantage – this module contains a very detailed presentation of Rule 7.3. The presentation is made from three perspectives: two-player-one-ball, initiation of contact, good-vs-bad play, excessive physicality, and age-size-gender differences. Within each perspective, the presentation focuses on the consequences of thoroughly, vs not thoroughly, applying Rule 7.3.

      2. Flow of Game – this module contains a functional definition of “Flow of Game” and then a detailed presentation of what can be done, using the rules as they are written, to impact it.

      3. Tactics of Offense – this module is a presentation of the fundamentals of good offensive play. Ideally, most of this content is identical to that found in the analogous unit taken by coaches. Even better, most of the content is provided BY the Head Coaches of our National Teams.

      4. Tactics of Defense – just as above, this module is a presentation of the fundamentals of good defensive play.


  3. Who would take these modules? The Level I module would be taken, once, by beginners. Once past this introductory level, every referee in the USA would have to take at least one module each year, and have that coupled to an on-deck observation and approval. The Level II modules are all taken before the Level III modules are taken, and when all the Level III modules are taken, the referee moves into the mode of “continuing education” where Level II module “The Rules” and the Level III modules are all available for retake to maintain currency. And, in a year where the referee attends the FINA Referee School, that substitutes for taking one of the Level III modules.

  4. Each unit would include enough textual content to be largely self-sufficient. The units would have some vector-graphics and/or embedded videos to help illustrate some of the points being made.

  5. Each unit would be designed for delivery in two different modalities: a traditional in-class presentation and an online distance-learning presentation. Constructed properly, the exact same module works equally well in both settings.

    1. The in-class presentation itself ought to take about an hour or so. It would then be relatively easy for the presenter to handle questions or discussions so that in total, the presentation would take about 90 minutes or so.

    2. The online distance-learning presentation should be constructed as any other standard online presentation: the student referee logs into the server, watches the presentation, then uses the “chat room” of “discussion thread” feature as the online equivalent of the post-presentation question and discussion session. It would be setup so that the “course” starts on a Saturday and finishes nine days later on Sunday. Just as in any online course, the instructor logs into the course on a daily basis to direct the discussion threads and answer questions.

  6. How are these two different modalities managed, structurally, financially, etc…?

    1. In-class, it is done exactly the same way it is now. Groups of referees gather for their periodic training. This works well in those (few) areas of the country where there are lots of referees in a small area.

    2. Online is a different animal entirely.

      1. First, we would need to identify a host organization, most likely a community college or a university, that has a continuing education program with at least part of its curriculum online. We then mount our modules into their server, modify our modules to play well on the online program they use, and pay them whatever they consider reasonable to account for their real costs and some overhead for their tech support. This ought to cost us somewhere in the vicinity of $25 per head.

      2. The actual delivery is then easy. Student referees log into this site from anywhere in the world (it would shock me if we did not have referees from all over the world take these courses, if only for their own personal edification), pay USA Water Polo a fee (enough to cover what we pay the host and a small stipend for the time-energy-expertise of the instructor), take the course, and are credited for its completion at the end.

      3. The advantages of this are obvious – except in very few focal areas of the country, getting referees together with referee training is a geographic, travel-cost, and time-availability impossibility. Using this delivery paradigm, however, all those barriers to access are removed, making delivery of content simple.


  7. After this, all we have to do is initiate a separate on-deck qualification process, where the instructional staff actually SEES them whistle and provides in-person counseling, teaching, advising, mentoring, and judging.

  8. Who does this? Back in January 2005, we tried to create a functional USA Technical Water Polo Committee, modeling its name after the standard groups doing this internationally. For lots of reasons, not the least of which were those linked to who actually would make the decision(s) about who would be on this committee, what it would do, whose previous authority it would take, and how it would be funded, I for one lost the interest in sustaining the effort required to keep it functional. So it died. But the idea, one I stole, bold-faced, from Bob Corb, is no less a good idea as it was when Bob first proposed it. So, the answer is that the instructors are the members of the USA Technical Water Polo Committee.

The Devil Is in the Details

I am quite confident this would work, and work well. Sure, there are a few details to work out, including, but certainly not limited to:

  1. Actually doing the presentation construction. Done properly, this is done by a professional instructional designer. For the courses I teach online, I produce all the content, including the simple graphics, identify the more complex graphics and videos that need to embedded, deliver them all to our instructional designer, and a few days later, she has produced, for me, a first-class module. We would need to identify a way to get that expertise. My first suggestion would be to contract it from the instruction design team that works at the university that is hosting our online course;

  2. How we manage the on-deck QA. Actually, this is quite easy conceptually, if difficult to manage in practice. Our water polo culture is one of disposability. We dispose of our best and brightest once they reach an age where they are not actively usable for what they used to do, and we lose enormous expertise in this disposal. We have now internationally retired referees (like, as only one example, me), coaches (like, as only one example, Monte Nitzkowski), players (this list is both huge and tragic in its size), with enormous expertise and it is all wasted. The simplest system is to have this committee have membership by application, and ANYONE with expertise and knowledge would apply to be on it and then be asked to go watch referees whistle and provide the on-deck help and evaluation needed. Instead of dreading “retirement age,” instead you anticipate the possible “promotion” to this role. This is EXACTLY what happens in higher ed, as students move up the grades, eventually becoming professors, and after retirement, often finding extremely important roles as members of the Board of Trustees, etc… Why not here?

  3. At least for now, we might need to find a way to identify a way to provide direct travel expenses to pay for these people to go do this, but in that the content delivery now will allow most referees to get this training more easily and with no personal travel costs, this could be built into the system with ease.

Not only would this work, and work well, imagine the impact. All of a sudden, this content is available, to anyone, anywhere. The “mystery” of what referees are taught is, like magic, no longer a mystery, to anyone. Coaches could take these courses to understand what referees are taught and thus how to manage their own tactics to take advantage of this.

And this would have a similarly huge impact on the world stage. It would instantly make us a much bigger technical player. OUR curriculum would be out there, available, and would influence referees, and thus the game, throughout the world. Sure, our curriculum, and all related instructions, would HAVE to be identical to that offered by FINA. But in that the FINA instructions are only offered to a small number of referees, only at FINA events, and most referees only get these instructions once every two years, what we do would have enormous impact in getting this word spread. At the risk of using hyperbole, the byproduct of us doing this in this way would be a dramatic elevation of our technical place on the world stage.

Implement When the CEO and the USAWP Give the Marching Orders

How to proceed? Simple. Whenever enough other fires are put out so that CEO Ramsey can attend to this, he simply gives the order (to whomever he selects) to make this happen. And presto. I know there was talk of establishing a position, somewhere within our corporate structure, tasked with sport development. This could easily fall into that job. Alternatively, any number of others could be put together into a logical work group to make this happen.

Certainly, at this point, I have already constructed some of these modules, although only at the level of textual content. The “finished” modules require graphics and that is WAY beyond my skill set. The unfinished (and not-yet-started) modules are just that, unfinished and/or not-yet-started. But they could be finished, or at least filled with the textual content, in relatively short order. But the rest of this really requires USA Water Polo (functionally meaning Mr. Ramsey) to fit this into the master plan and roll it out when it makes sense to do so. I am extremely confident that IF this is in the master plan, Mr. Ramsey will make it happen, and make it happen so well that it will be the technical envy of every other NGB in the water polo world.

So, “what would YOU do if it were entirely up to you?”

I would write this editorial and hope it was persuasive enough to get picked up on the radarscope for the near future.

Which I just did.

Isn’t technology wonderful?