Remedies for Loren's Explanations of Cheating

Andrew Selder
Northeast Zone Chairperson

In response to Loren’s very insightful analysis of the different types of refereeing malfeasance, I’d like to add my own thoughts on how to eliminate them. Loren’s 7 types of “cheating” can be broken into two general categories: "simple incompetence" and "something else".

Stomp Out Simple Incompetence with Effective Training

Eliminating simple incompetence is very simple in theory: effective referee training. This simple solution has many parts, many of which are logistically difficult and/or have their subtleties.

Effective training materials are needed. This shouldn’t be too difficult. There are many intelligent water polo people with educational backgrounds who are willing and able to put these materials together.

Provide opportunities to disseminate knowledge to less experienced referees. Currently, the large majority of structures in this country place no or little value on referees who don’t have a whistle in their mouth. There are very few senior referees who this kind of mentoring out of their own goodness, but the majority of time, the senior referees are too busy refereeing to train officials who might replace them someday. We need to put structures in place whereby senior retired/semi-retired referees are treated like they are important (because they are), and make them feel valued for mentoring and training.

Make thoughtful assignments. Here is where many organizations fail in referee development because the pitfalls are many. The most important facet in eliminating referee problems is often the most overlooked: the assignment of referees to games. Unlike many leagues that pawn off the assigning of referees to some administrator, effective assigning requires a knowledgeable referee to accomplish successfully. There are many subtle concerns that require careful thought, some of which are in conflict. Having never refereed, administrators don’t understand theses subtleties and are constantly wondering why the coaches and referees aren’t happy.

There is the tension of making sure that games are not so far over a referee’s head that they actually regress by doing the game versus challenging a referee with difficult games so that they can get better. If a referee is too far over their head, the outcome is almost predetermined: they get screamed at by both coaches even though they are trying their best, they don’t learn anything because they are too busy just trying to survive, and the coaches and league witness the performance and write off the referee. The referee then spends the next several years trying to regain the credibility lost by one careless assignment.

Obviously referees don’t get better by staying safely ensconced in their comfort zone. So how do you get referees to see games outside their comfort zone, but avoid the above scenario? The answer is deceptively simple: careful planning. The assignor needs to identify games which will challenge the referee without being impossible, and then they need to assign a more experienced partner for that referee to work with. This senior partner serves several purposes. Most importantly, the junior referee has a sense of safety knowing that their senior partner won’t let thing go too wrong. The senior referee can deflect and control the coaches’ criticisms. The senior referee can also step up and take charge if they feel their partner is flailing too badly. And last but not least, the senior referee can give almost immediate feedback to their partner.

After these considerations, the assignor must work to ensure that referees are not over exposed to the same teams. This type of overexposure benefits no one. The teams see the same referee over and over and adapt to the referee’s style, and then when they see a different referee it is harder to adjust. Similarly, the referee doesn’t benefit, they see the same team over and over and only see one style of play. And there are more subtle problems: coaches will remember the one time the referee “screwed them” not the fifteen times they had no problems with the referee. In the same vein, it is incumbent on assignors to ensure that referees see a wide variety of partners.

Another balancing act in assigning referees is sometimes deciding between assigning a referee where they are needed most, and keeping the referee happy. I realize that most people don’t see the need to keep the referees happy because they are viewed as employees who should just shut up and go where they are told. While it is true that referees are paid, let me assure you that the large majority of referees don’t do much better than break even. So when you are asking people to give up large chunks of their time for little monetary gain, they need to have some other motivation. And this can and does vary from referee to referee. Some referees prefer to stay close to home regardless of the level of the game, some referees enjoy traveling even if it costs them more, and yet others crave for the big game regardless if that mean losing money. Yes, referees will often have to go places that they would rather not go, but if they never go where they want to go, they quit and the league has lost the time and effort expended to train them.

The last component in training referees is constant, effective, feedback from neutral positions. Once again, this needs to be done by more senior referees. Just by the nature of their roles, referees approach a water polo game differently than coaches and athletes. Referees think a certain way and process the events coming from the pool in a certain ways. Asking coaches and administrators to try and teach these thought processes when they have never practiced it is sheer folly.

As shown above, problems caused by inexperience or “bad” officials is a problem that isn’t that hard to address. It requires the cooperation of the leagues with some of their senior referees and the willingness of the league to trust that those same senior referees will use the knowledge that only they have to train the next generation.

Get Rid of the Bumps in the Night or Eliminate "Something Else" Varieties of Cheating

To deal with the “something else” varieties of “cheating” requires a much different set of solutions because the root causes are much different. Fear, cowardice, and opportunism thrive when referees feel they need to cave in for self-preservation.

Dealing with referees in fear is very simple to deal with; it just requires the sanctioning organization to have a little backbone. If it is made very clear to the referees that the league will support them to the utmost, and if it is made very clear to the coaches that attempting to intimidate referees will not be tolerated and be punished severely, the fear factor stops. If the referee ends up being the one telling a coach that their intimidation in unacceptable, the league must stand behind that official in the strongest way. This is not to say that the league needs to tolerate poor officiating by its officials; when a official transgresses, is need to be clear it will be addressed by the organization in charge of the referees, the coach of the offended team isn’t the one to yell and scream and berate the referee in question. Often coaches, especially those in a hotly contested game aren’t able to distinguish between a legitimate refereeing error and a call they didn’t like. The coaches need to have faith that a knowledgeable-enough observer is watching to take whatever corrective action is necessary.

Dealing with cowardice is very similar to dealing with fear. Remove the coaches involved in the competition from anything related to evaluating, selecting, and influencing officials.

Corruption really isn’t an issue. As Loren correctly pointed out, pure corruption is very rare. There is no benefit to the referee to corruption; but in the rare event it does happen, it is again very easy to deal with. A knowledgeable observer sees it, and the referee’s career is over. End of story.

Yes, it is really this simple. If a referee doesn’t get intimidated by the coaches on deck, and doesn’t have to worry about career repercussions from a coach who doesn’t like a call, there is absolutely no reason for a referee to do anything other than impartial best.

Experience Teaches Only the Teachable - Aldos Huxley

Notice a theme in the above remarks: effective referee development comes from having experienced referees acting in a supervisory role. Only they have the skills and experience to train, monitor, and, when necessary, discipline referees. In the rest of the world, at almost every game, even down to local age group league game, there is person called the “delegate.” They are senior, often retired, referee whose job it is to be the knowledgeable observer of the game and administer the referees. Short of heads of state attending the game, they are treated like the most important person at the pool. Their mere presence guarantees “fairness.” As representative of the governing body, the coaches know that attempted intimidation of the referees will be dealt with, the referees know that any corruption type cheating will be dealt with. They evaluate the officials, deal with complaints from the coaches, oversee the desk to ensure no mistakes are made, and generally make sure that the technical side of things runs smoothly.

I’m not sure why this practice isn’t widely adopted in this country, but I have a theory. Having officiated in other sports, one thing strikes me as very peculiar in water polo: the refusal of coaches and administrators to trust the officials. In water polo, I’ve met many coaches and administrators who are convinced that all referees “cheat.” This truly baffles me and I haven’t experience in any other sport; why in the world do I care who wins a particular water polo game? Have I blown a call, sure; have I made calls I wouldn’t have made looking back on them, of course; have I ever maliciously said I want to screw this team, hell no.

But the coaches are convinced that the referees “cheat” when in actuality it is more a failure of the league to train and assign referees, so what do they do? They create structures to “control” the rampaging referees. By creating structures where the coaches evaluate the referees, where the coaches get to scream at the referees, and where the coaches have opportunities to punish and reward referees. Coaches can't solve the problem; they just exasperate the problem. They provide opportunities for fear, cowardice, and opportunism to flourish. This causes referees to alter what they would otherwise do, and the vicious cycle has begun. Some referees cave to the pressures and the coaches increase that pressure, which leads to more problems, etc... And when some referees have the spine to not cave in to the pressure, these same organizations get rid of those referees because “they are out of control.” So these organization ends up with a self fulfilling prophecy.

Trust is the Key to Success and to the Door to Good Relationships

If the coaches and administrator can trust that 99.99% of referees are doing the best possible job that they can and let the senior referees take care of the tasks they are suited for, after some adjustment for all parties, you end up with a much better situation. The referees referee knowing that they don’t have the appease coaches, the coaches concentrate on coaching knowing that any problems will be dealt with appropriately, and there is peace on Earth.

I’m not sure what causes this mistrust in our sport, but I think it is the single most destructive issue in water polo. I have no idea where it came from, but until the institutional paranoia stops, we will continue to be a fractured sport relegated to fourth-rate status.