Lara stands in her volleyball referee uniform in front of a vertical banner that says 'Calgary 2015 Nationals'. Sport Officials. Spark Solutions.

Improving the Participation Experience for Sport Officials

I became a volleyball sport official in 2011. I played volleyball competitively during high school and in my first year of college and when I finished I wanted to remain a part of the sport. It was interesting to learn a new side of the sport and, being in university, I didn’t mind the pay. It turns out, I deeply love being an official. I like doing my part to ensure the sport remains fair. I like being courtside for the game. And, I enjoy sharing my passion for the sport with others, particularly youth, who love the sport too.

The atmosphere around officiating can be negative. The media give officials little to no forgiveness. One error in the public’s eyes and the referee is trash. Turn on the TV and you’ll be hard pressed to find a sport where the athletes and coaches don’t yell at the officials. Harassment and abuse are much more common than they should be. Lately, an important conversation has been happening around safe sport and ensuring that sport is safe, welcoming, and inclusive. However, that conversation doesn’t seem to include officials.

As a passionate official and a sport professional who is committed to improving sport experiences for all, I have a desire to work to change the culture around officiating and the perceptions of officials. I’ve had the great privilege to recently work on two projects with sport officials that aim to do just that.

A Collaborative Referee Development Plan

In April, I began working with Saskatchewan Soccer, FC Regina, QC United, and Regina Soccer Referees Association to develop a memorandum of understanding. This agreement will formalize a collaborative working relationship to develop soccer refereeing in the city of Regina. As well, we are developing a referee development plan which details the programs/initiatives, objectives, and targets around recruitment, development, and retention. We’ve been identifying the current landscape and where we want to be in one and three years.

A wall with multi coloured sticky notes

When this is formalized, the partners will be responsible to deliver in alignment with the plan. The MOU and RDP will be ready for implementation for September when the indoor season begins. We will meet and review next March and again in June, in order to make any necessary tweaks. The maintenance of the plan moving forward will be overseen by a collaborative group with representatives from each of the four parties. It’s an advancement of their current working relationship and I’m excited to see what it looks like in execution.

Focus Groups with Officials

The second project I’ve been working on is a smaller piece of a larger project by Ontario Sport Network to develop a new Officials Strategy. The strategy is meant to address key issues regarding recruitment and retention which has been a long-standing concern that has been exacerbated for many sports since the pandemic.

Lara sits in front of her computer with a Jamboard titled 'Officials Strategy Focus Group' behind her

I planned and delivered, along with key partners, 5 focus groups with over 90 officials across 29 sports in Ontario. We first asked officials what the main barriers were to recruitment, retention, education and training. Then we asked them to give us their ideas to address these barriers. Finally, we asked them to provide us with one big idea of a solution that would positively change the culture around officiating and officials. We heard so many good ideas, both big and small, on how sports could adjust to minimize barriers around officiating. Those ideas have been compiled into a robust report which will go back to Ontario Sport Network to inform the development of Officials Strategy.

Returning to the Whistle

In 2019, I stepped away from officiating so that I could make space in my life to pursue some other interests. Then the pandemic hit and sport wasn’t running hardly at all, I didn’t miss my whistle. I sure miss it now after working with all of these passionate sport officials. I’m tempted to get back on the referee stand in the near future. For now, I’ll be living my best life working with these groups, and hopefully others, to build a better sport participation experience for officials.

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