Self-awareness in coaching

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“Slug bug … one point!”

“BLUE slug bug…that is my point not yours!”

“I said it first!”

“You didn’t say the right color … those are the rules.”

“If I call it out first, but didn’t say the color does it still count, dad?”

“No…you have to say the color too otherwise it doesn’t count.”

“Last time you counted it though!”

This exchange actually happened while I was bobbing and weaving around traffic to get to the 7:50 a.m. drop-off time at my kids’ school.

If you read closely there are several teaching points within this little exchange in how to deal with a referee.

Wait … what? The “slug bug” game can help a coach and a player understand how to deal with a basketball referee?!

The answer is a resounding YES!  (side note…if you do not know what the Volkswagen Slug Bug Game is then just stop reading now because this will make even less sense and I am not explaining it in great detail).

Over the past few years I have played the “slug bug” game with my team of children hundreds of times.

I introduced it to them a few years ago. At first it was a fun way to pass the time of the mundaneness of being their full-time, unpaid Uber driver. 

However, nowadays it has morphed into its own full-time job, as I’m constantly trying to stop arguments, regulate points and enforce the rules.

Each time I sit in the driver’s seat and chauffeur my team to dance, school, games or a park I am instantaneously converted into a referee for the “slug bug” game.

I have come to the realization that as a referee my human nature often kicks in and sometimes it leads to me viewing the rules in one child’s favor instead of the other’s. Ok, that’s a little too diplomatic sounding. I mean … I often find myself choosing to enforce some rules and not others.  Still bad? OK fine, I CHEAT!

I said it … refs cheat.

Well, that is a bit drastic and I do plan on being a non-stay-at-home coach again, so let me explain.

I love my kids. I honestly do not love one more than another. However, on certain days one child pushes my “love” a little too far. This results in me enforcing the rules of the slug bug game in one child’s favor over another. Usually, it just happens; it’s not always even a conscious choice.

It was happening the other day, and suddenly it hit me: if circumstances can affect the way I call a game between kids who I love equally, you’d better believe that it can affect a ref calling any other game. When there is pressure – whether it be feeding three kids and getting them out the door on time to school after waking up 15 minutes late, or whether it be the various pressures of higher-level sports – human nature is going to have an effect.

If one child may have been the cause of our potential tardiness he or she tends to get fewer “calls in their favor.” Again, I love all my kids equally, BUT sometimes the love is … distributed with different levels of objectivity during the slug bug game.

If my son got ready, ate and brushed his teeth while my daughters lumbered around in the morning, he may get away with only saying “slug bug convertible.” (The unwritten rules clearly state that you need to call out the color as well). As the referee there are times where I choose to “give him the call.”  We all know the importance of a slug bug convertible’s five points, so this decision is a potential “game changer.”

And understanding and accepting that reality is only the first step. As a coach, I have tried and seen all tactics in trying to help a referee enforce the rules that are in the rule book. I have seen humor, directness, aggressive confrontation and pleading. Being able to communicate the right way with a referee can be as important as drawing up the perfect play.

Being a referee myself now, I have gained a better and bigger appreciation of the job. I started to imagine what I would do if I had thousands of people in a crowd, an 18-year-old athlete, and a 40-year-old coach all telling me that they are right and I am wrong.

Some of the best referees I have been around are the ones that are willing to understand the importance of the game.  They understand who the best players are and the style of play each team plays. They are willing to listen, but also stand by their calls. The best referees are willing to admit a mistake and not let it compound into more mistakes. They are able to understand their own human nature while also having a certain ability to shut it off and try to act objectively.

It is not an easy thing to do. It is difficult to carry all of those traits and skills into a game. As a coach I feel it is important to understand the referees’ position. As I said, I love all of my kids and it is very difficult to not let my frustrations, lack of sleep, or crunch for time to overcome the basic rules of a game.

As a coach the main thing to do is to worry about your team and then your opponent. Worrying too much about a referee can affect a game negatively.

A lot of referees are good at what they do.  Some referees are not good. Sometimes what they do can almost be seen as cheating because they seem to have their own version of changing the “slug bug” rules. Sometimes they simply make a bad call.

Communication and an understanding of a referee is an overlooked skill that some of the best coaches have. I have been on some very intense sidelines where the respect a coach and referee have for one another allows the players to determine the game. I have also been on sidelines where a coach has negatively affected how a referee reacts in certain situations (allegedly, of course).

Referees have also seen all the tactics of a coach who is trying to get the calls to go their way. Being consistent and respectful in dealing with a referee gives a coach a better whistle. Not because the referee is getting tricked into making calls go their way. It is more because the referee is allowed to do his or her job without several other variables clouding their mind.

So as a coach, focus on eliminating the lack of getting ready on time, whining, and tattling on one another during a game. It may just get you a better chance of getting credit for the coveted 10 points slug bug van that you may pass on the road.

Brian Barone played basketball at Texas A&M University and Marquette University and holds a master’s degree in communications. He now coaches men’s basketball at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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