I’m hustling for an errant pass. I get there and deliver a nice set to my hitter. I’ve got the right height, the right trajectory, the right location. Maybe I’m not proud of the set, but it’s good enough, way clean enough, I think smugly.
Then the play stops. Depending on whether or not there’s a roof over my head, I hear a referee’s whistle, or outside, maybe just a muttered “no” from the referee.
My first reaction, of course, is a mixture of indignation, injustice, and rage.
How dare the official call that set!
It was fine!
What was the official thinking?
The second reaction is where cooler heads prevail.
Having lost that point, can I influence the referee to change the call? Influence the next call? What is the best long-term strategy for “winning friends and influencing referees,” with apologies to Dale Carnegie?
Based on our conversations, I offer the following tips on strategies to maximize your effectiveness when working with referees.
Tip No. 1: Keep it civil
Chan has officiated AVP matches since 1996, gaining his national beach certification in 1999 and his FIVB beach certification in 2013. On the indoor side, he received his national certification in 1997, and has officiated five NCAA men’s national championships.
His advice is to stay calm.
“A very common-sense calm discussion will go much further than a yelling and screaming emotional one,” Chan said.
“In general, one of the things that players and fans — in all sports — need to recognize is that screaming and yelling isn’t going to change that call.
“Some players prefer to do it by emotion, to irk you, or to get under your skin or get into your head that ‘You’ve got to make that call for me next time.’
“The general consensus of the referees that I work with is that yelling is not the way to get there but that a common-sense approach gets you a lot further.”
Tip No. 2: Know the rules
Rogers, now the head beach volleyball coach at Cal Poly, is generally acknowledged as one of the more effective players when working with officials. He believes in addressing the rule rather than the official’s competence.
“That’s a pet peeve of mine, how many players, especially the pros, they don’t know the rulebook,” Rogers said. “It drives me bonkers. If you’re going to make an argument, make sure you know what you’re arguing about. Most of the time it’s like, ‘I’m angry, and you’re an idiot.’ ”
The most common arguments are over setting or touch calls. Rogers knows that the chances of reversing a setting call are slim to none.
“A setting call is a judgement call, and when a referee makes or doesn’t make that call, you’re never going to win that argument,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean that you can’t do a, ‘Hey, you don’t think that was a bad set, you don’t think that was a double?’ but know the rulebook, and show them when you’re making the argument.
“Not that it was spinny, because in the rulebook, sets aren’t judged on spin. If you argue on spin, the referee will respond, ‘Hey, you’re an idiot, because the rulebook doesn’t say anything about spin.’
“As a player, nothing annoyed me more than when a player starts arguing, and they clearly don’t know the rulebook, and you can see the referee rolling their eyes while they’re arguing. That’s when a referee tells you to go back and play, essentially saying that you’re an idiot.
“But if you make the argument that, ‘Hey, I thought that his left hand was significantly in front of his right hand when he finished, but the hand placement was pretty poor, and then it came out with spin,’ the referee knows what you’re talking about and you can have a discussion.
“You have to know the rule interpretation and have your thought process in place. Ninety-percent of the time I argued, I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish. The other 10 percent, I just thought that the referee was really, really bad, completely blowing calls, or more often than not it was a huge call at 19-all, or a great play and all of a sudden we got the short end of the stick.
“Respect the referee, but at the same time, if you have a difference of opinion, let them know what you think. And know the rule, know the rulebook, don’t just get mad randomly, recognize when they will listen to you, when they won’t listen to you, and when you’ve gotten to that point. You have to recognize it and be thinking through it.”
Chan sees veteran players gaining experience about how to argue their cases over time.
“The guys that have been around longer have learned how to communicate with the officials,” Chan said. “The guy in my mind, that early in his career did a lot of yelling, a very common-sense guy, is Jake Gibb. Jake was fiery, he’s still a fiery guy, he’ll react initially, but then when he approaches the stand it’s usually very logical and very communicative in trying to understand.”
Tip No. 3: Ask questions, don’t make statements
By asking questions, a player puts the burden of proof upon the official rather than the player.
Rogers explains his rationale for using questions.
“I always ask questions,” he said. “I always start off every angry moment with a question. ‘What did you see there? Did you not think that was a double? Why did you not call that set?’
“Most referees feel that they should answer that question. The right thing to do is answer the question and show that you have the knowledge to be able to make or not make that call.
“I try and approach them whether I’m angry or quiet, from a cerebral perspective. ‘In my opinion, we both know that you blew this call, so get it right, get your stuff back together, and let’s move forward.’ ”
Many players try to influence referees with statements like “You’re better than that,” or “You owe me one.”
King, not only the head of officials for the AVP, but a national beach official since 2001, believes such statements are ineffectual.
“To the extent possible, we try never to play into the human nature of the ‘I owe you one.’ Every call, every situation is unique on its own,” King said. “There’s no statistical relevance, every set is on its own.”
Tip No. 4: Don’t over-question an official’s judgement
There are players who question nearly every call in an attempt to influence an official long-term or at a critical time. King explains why it doesn’t work.
“There are some chronic whiners and we always try and remain neutral. We know that the desired outcome of whining on point one is that on point two, then maybe they’ll get the benefit of the doubt,” King said.
“In fact, I would say that human nature as a referee dictates that if you have a chronic whiner, that the credibility of that individual drops a hair. So the next time one of those 50-50 what happened situations arises, maybe that call isn’t likely to go the chronic whiner’s way. I don’t think it benefits the chronic whiner.”
For that matter, many times a player or coach who rarely questions calls, like, for example, Phil Dalhausser or (former Pepperdine men’s coach) Marv Dunphy, can create doubt in the minds of an official, Chan said.
“Marv Dunphy was a great example of that. Phil’s a quiet guy, he’s really competitive, but doesn’t say a lot,” Chan said. “But when he does, you really have to think about it.
“We find, too, that indoors, players that generally don’t say a lot, when they do decide to say something, you think, ‘Hmm, did I miss something?’ ”
Tip No 5: Acknowledge good calls as well as bad
According to Chan, by acknowledging an official’s skills, players can build trust.
“The players that acknowledge that you made a good call get a little more leeway when they want to discuss something with the referees,” Chan said. “A lot of these FIVB players, when the officials make a call, they’ll give the official a thumbs up. ‘That’s a good call,’ even if you call it on them.
“Some of them give you a little nod, and those guys get a little more leeway because you have more of a sense that they’re being fair and honest because they call it on themselves as well as on the other team.
“That’s a good strategy. If you’re going to scream and yell about what your opponent’s doing, be honest when you make the mistake. That goes a long way with any official in any sport.”
Tip No 6: Build a relationship
Referees are human and make mistakes.
“I think that’s where I had a lot of success, accepting that they’re human, they screw up, and I’m not going to yell, and I have that conversation with them,” Rogers said. “Most players don’t treat them like humans. They treat them like pieces of crap.
“I always remember that referees are human too, and they make errors. Sometimes they’ll just flat-out own it. ‘Hey, I made a mistake.’
“But that mistake cost me how-many-thousands of dollars, or a point, or whatever. But I get it, I’m human, you’re human, I make hitting errors, passing errors, setting errors, and you’ve got to get past it and over it.”
Rogers makes a habit of circling back after the match, even when he went on a particularly long rant captured on YouTube.
“For example, I went off on a Polish referee when I set a ball over the net. I circled back with her two hours later. We had a 15-20 minute conversation on why I thought she blew that call, and she actually owned it, and said, ‘You’re right, I blew the call, you were squared up, it came out clean. I freaked out.’
“She’s a good person, just made a bad call at the time.”
Once a relationship is built, it can open up other opportunities for players.
“Know what your end goal is. Are you trying to influence the next call? Sometimes my partner and I weren’t playing very well. We just didn’t have any energy, and I just needed to create something,” Rogers admitted. “There were times when my partner was playing poorly, and I didn’t want to yell at him, because it was just going to go downhill from there if I did. Maybe I’m playing well, he’s playing poorly, so I’m just going to yell at the referee for a perceived non-call to get some juice flowing, so to speak.
“Some referees like Keith (Murless) and Dan (Apol) would call me out on this: ‘I know you’re just trying to get fired up, are you done here?’ And I’d reply, ‘Yeah, I’m done, damn you.’
“And then I’d walk back, and hopefully have some juice and testosterone flowing, and hopefully we’d start playing better.”