Tips for Minimizing Negative Interactions Between Fans and Officials

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Negative enthusiasm at athletic events can turn into verbal abuse, swearing, physical threats, and even physical violence.Sports fans and athletes’ parents are known for their enthusiasm. Positive enthusiasm enhances matches and creates an exciting atmosphere for everyone involved. But sometimes spectator enthusiasm tips over into frustration — and from there it can morph into ugly behavior such as verbal abuse, swearing, physical threats, and even physical violence.

Much of this behavior is directed at officials, who are in the hot seat when it comes to making tough calls during competition. Officials at all levels, from peewee sports to professional leagues, are regular targets of fan abuse. According to a 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials, however, the situation seems to be worst in recreational youth, competitive youth, and high school sports. Out of nearly 17,500 survey respondents, 65% cited these areas as being the most extreme in terms of negative interactions between fans and officials.

Although angry fans and parents cannot be totally avoided, athletic directors and other high-level administrators have a role to play in setting and maintaining a positive atmosphere during competition. The confidence and know-how to approach this task can be obtained through academic programs such as Ohio University’s Master of Athletic Administration online. Featuring targeted instruction in sports administration, this program provides background information that can prepare candidates for on-the-job success.

Laying the Groundwork

Much of the work of regulating fan behavior takes place before game time arrives. Athletic directors John Atkins of Corydon Central High School (Indiana) and Jeff Callahan of Bedford North Lawrence High School (Indiana) put together a series of suggestions for ways to encourage a positive atmosphere:

Laying the Groundwork

Much of the work of regulating fan behavior takes place before game time arrives. Athletic directors John Atkins of Corydon Central High School (Indiana) and Jeff Callahan of Bedford North Lawrence High School (Indiana) put together a series of suggestions for ways to encourage a positive atmosphere:

  • Set the tone early. Get to know the personnel involved in youth athletic leagues that feed into your school. Make sure they understand your expectations of fan behavior and have them hold their athletes’ parents to this standard. Starting early can stop potential bad fan behavior before it starts.
  • Be clear about your expectations for your athletes’ parents. The athletic director and individual coaches should discuss game-time behavior with parents at the beginning of the season. Doing so puts parents on notice that poor behavior is not acceptable.
  • Be clear about your expectations for non-parent fans and visitors. Create banners, posters, and fliers that clearly list the behavior you expect from your fans. Post them prominently around your sporting field or site.
  • Recognize good sportsmanship. Make a habit of regularly recognizing good sportsmanship among your athletes, their parents, and your fans. Post supportive notices on social media as often as possible. By doing so, you communicate that sportsmanship is important, expected, and celebrated at your school.

Managing the Game

When game time arrives, additional strategies come into play. Atkins and Callahan have these suggestions:

  • Communicate with your officials. Before the game, take the time to talk with your officials. Let them know how to get help if they need it and warn them about any issues they are likely to encounter. A short talk will make your officials feel supported and appreciated and can make a world of difference in their level of trust and confidence.
  • Establish an authoritative presence. Fans are less likely to act out if there is a clear authoritative presence at a game. A visible security team goes a long way toward avoiding problems. Athletic administration staff, too, should be present and visible.
  • Set a good example. The first time a negative interaction occurs — and it will — the athletic director should deal with it quickly, calmly, and professionally. Not only will you solve the immediate problem, but you will also provide a positive example for other fans.

The Parent’s Role

Parents occupy a unique niche in the sporting world. They are more than just fans — they have a personal stake in their children’s athletic success. They often care desperately about the outcomes of games, and this feeling may incite bad behavior toward officials.

For this reason, athletic directors should pay special attention to parents when laying the groundwork for minimizing negative interactions with officials. In a recent Psychology Today article, psychologist Frank L. Smoll suggests a list of simple “do’s” and “don’ts” that sports administrators should share with their athletes’ families:

  • Do stay seated in the spectator area during the game.
  • Don’t interfere with your child’s coach. Parents must recognize that during practice or competition, their children are the coach’s responsibility.
  • Do support your child. Regularly express interest, encouragement, and support.
  • Don’t shout criticisms or instructions to your child individually or the group collectively.
  • Do step up and assist if a coach or official asks for help.
  • Don’t make abusive comments to anyone, for any reason, including to athletes, other parents, officials, or the coaches of either team.

To help parents remember these guidelines, athletic administrators can suggest something Smoll calls a “video rule.” Parents should imagine they are being videotaped during any competition, then imagine watching a playback of the film later. “Don’t do anything that would embarrass yourself or your child. Do things that would make your son or daughter proud,” Smoll explains. Through simple techniques like this one, athletic administrators can greatly reduce the likelihood of negative fan/official encounters.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Program

Ohio University’s online MAA program is designed to teach professionals how to successfully approach sports administration jobs. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education.

Ohio University’s Online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring its dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA). For more information, contact Ohio University’s MAA program representatives now.

 

Recommended Reading:

Including Parents in Interscholastic Sports

Interscholastic Sports Officiating

Teaching Fair Play and Sportsmanship to Youth at All Levels

Sources:

2017 sports officials survey – National Association of Sports Officials

Laying the groundwork – Proactive Approaches to Minimizing Negative Interactions Between Fans & Officials

Managing the game – Proactive Approaches to Minimizing Negative Interactions Between Fans & Officials

The parent’s role – Psychology Today