Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Let's Talk - Mental Health in an Abusive Environment

Lin's Call: Let's talk about mental health in officiating. With umpire and referee abuse continuing to plague the sports world, chances are the average official has encountered more than one castigating coach or persecuting player. Combine that with a cocktail of a pre-existing or developing ailment, and it may feel overwhelming. October 10 is World Mental Health Day, a day for global mental health education, awareness, and advocacy.

Let's talk about abuse of officials.
Unfortunately, mental health resources specific to the unique challenges, aggravations, and circumstances of officiating are limited in nature. Very few careers—and virtually no avocations—carry as much regular vituperation as officiating.

In this article, we'll attempt to introduce the most common wellness tactics that relate to officiating: namely, dealing with verbal abuse and its associated environment.

In late June, off-duty MLB Umpire John Tumpane helped save a woman's life on the Roberto Clemente Bridge after she seemed poised to jump into the Allegheny River below. Among the woman's chief concerns were, "no one wants to help me," "I'm better off on this side," and "You don't care about me."

Among Tumpane's remarks were, "Let's talk this out," "We want you to get better," and "I'll never forget you."

The following discussion pertains largely to mental health challenges which occur before, during, or after an athletic contest. Sometimes, this "after" can be hours. Sometimes, it might even be days or weeks. If you or someone you know is in crisis or having thoughts of suicide or hopelessness, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also chat online with a trained operator.

MLB Umpire John Tumpane.
Officiating can be an extremely rewarding experience, and, for the most part, the various sports' participants exemplify the values of good sportsmanship that allow for the furtherance of these positive feelings.

While acknowledging philosopher John Locke's belief that in the state of nature, people are generally peaceful, good, and pleasant, we also dip into Thomas Hobbes' famous line about life: "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The more games one officiates, the more likely one is to encounter the classical Hobbesian bad actor. A 2012 University of Toronto study found that 92% of hockey referee respondents indicated they had been the recipients of aggression or anger on the ice, while 55% officiated contests that "ran out of control." Nonetheless, 80% of referees and linesmen indicated that they still enjoyed officiating.

Redmond tries saving face by scapegoating.
The strategy didn't work: he was still fired.
Why abusers do it: Sports, of course, create an artificial conflict (e.g., two teams compete to win) that departs from the nature state and places pressure on participants. This creates an atmosphere ripe for the blame game (umpire scapegoating). In short, participants who blame officials shirk personal responsibility for an undesirable outcome because accepting the result is too personally unpleasant. In doing so, scapegoats project negative emotions onto others in a Level 2, or immature, defense mechanism, similar to the defense of displacement, whose rationale is similar. Sometimes, abusers feel so pinned into a corner when something doesn't go their way—generally when they feel that failing to win might cost them a job or coveted role—that they lash out at anyone who will listen...they might even hope to convince their employer, coach, or fans that the umpire is to blame for their poor job performance. That's right, mismanagement of the Miami Marlins resulted in Mark Wegner ejecting Mike Redmond over a fairly obvious interference call in 2013. Nonetheless, the blame-game display wasn't enough to save Redmond's job, and he was eventually dismissed in May 2015 after racking up five ejections during the 2014 season. In modern ball, Brad Ausmus seems headed down a similarly ominous path.
Related Post: Gil's Call - The Blame Game (Umpire Scapegoating).

It sure doesn't look like it's about the ump.
In Plain Terms: When a player or coach abuses an official, the abuse is seldom about the official being abused. Yes, as absurd as it may sound, personal insults of an official generally have nothing to do with the official personally—most players and coaches don't know their officials all that well to begin with. The act often concerns some underlying issue within the person committing the abuse and may represent a personal struggle that person has with authority, lack of control, or accepting a result in conflict with one's own desires. Some people simply don't like being told "no" and rather than accept the answer, they attack the rejector. No doesn't always mean no to some people. Others may seek to maintain a false sense of bravado by blaming the referee for a poor performance that might otherwise hurt their self-image (and public persona).

In Plainer Terms: It's about the disturbed state of the participant, not about the official.

Defining Abuse: Verbal or physical abuse of officials can comprise a wide variety of bullying tactics and unwanted aggressive behavior that might include force, a threat, intimidation, or attempt to dominate. It can be a player who hurls personal insults, a coach who threatens to call one's assigner or supervisor, to throwing equipment, kicking dirt, threatening remarks such as "I'll see you in the parking lot," and anything in between.

A firm boundary is vital to stopping abuse.
How to Deal with Abuse - Outward Action: The first response is to set boundaries and put a stop to the abuse. Nearly all sports' rules books delineate "abuse of official" as an unsportsmanlike act that merits some measure of discipline. Whether it's a formal warning, minor penalty, unsportsmanlike foul, technical foul, misconduct, disqualification, ejection, or game misconduct, the various rulebooks all establish that abuse is unacceptable. Severe or repeated abuse may call for removal from the game. To ensure physical safety (in the event of intimidation or threats), it might be necessary to consult game management or even call the police. Severe physical abuse, assault, or battery of officials always calls for an arrest.
Related Link: Ejections - What and Wherefore? Standards for Removal from the Game.

Penalty for abuse might include ejection.
As I previously wrote, officials exist to enforce the rules so that each team has a chance to thrive in a fair and balanced environment. An unsporting or abusive coach who engages in tactics meant to tip the scales to as much as 51% to 49% has committed an unsporting act of attempting to change the rules or their enforcement so as to create an unfair advantage for his/her team. Some participants simply don't care how they win, as long as they do win, in a "the end always justifies the means" approach. Some are less nefarious in their intent, while others simply want to see how far they can push their luck. Officials exist to ensure that "the means" stay within the confines of the rules.
Related Post: Crew Consultation - Importance of the Call on the Field.

Furthermore, we can all take a page from Tumpane's book and apply it to the ballpark or arena, striving to be better crew-mates through praise, encouragement, and actively striving to strengthen the bonds of kinship and camaraderie both on and off the field. Before, during, and after a game, officials are often other officials' only friends.

Tim Timmons has had enough.
How to Deal with Abuse - Inward Action (Self-Talk): Although the aforementioned logic might help to depersonalize the abuse, regaining control of one's feelings during an abusive episode is another story entirely. Bullies are not pleasant no matter how wrong they are, and there is a real psychological toll on the official that goes farther than the logical brain.

Prior to conflict, learning the basic principles of self control—the ability to subdue impulses in order to achieve longer-term goals—will help later on when an incident does occur. In an abuse situation, the impulse is the self-critical emotional one, while the longer-term goal is simply to exit the situation in a healthy mental state.

Depersonalization—becoming a detached observer of your self or situation—when employed sparingly and strategically during an abusive episode may provide even further perspective to sterilize the abuse. Just be sure the strategy is a conscious short-term decision and not a routine way of conducting business. Dissociation is one of Vaillant's neurotic defense mechanisms, which, when taken to an extreme, is not healthy. HOWEVER, the humor that may result is a healthier strategy.

Farrell looks ridiculous yelling at a calm ump.
Understanding the presupposition that the abuser's claim of bias is wrong, that the discipline being imposed is a just step called for in the standard enforcement of a rule, or that the abuser is just upset because a call didn't go his/her way are all potential self-talk actions that could take the wind out of an abusive comment or action's sails.

Like any skill, willpower (the ability to exert self-control) becomes stronger with practice, so, yes, something as silly as sticking to a diet or finishing a work assignment instead of watching TV increases the willpower skill. Working on willpower helps to mediate not just impulse, but other emotions, which comes in handy during an abuse situation by giving the official the upper hand in sitting with, and then parsing through, unpleasant emotions. Mindfulness, meditation, and similar techniques also have the opportunity to contribute to this presence skill.

Even Jeff Kellogg can't believe Fredi's guff.
Speaking of presence, staying in the present after an unpleasant in-game incident helps recognize, regroup, and refocus (Referee briefly touched on the Three R's in September). Officiating the balance of the game offers a tremendous incentive to walk away from the emotionally charged abuse situation and direct energy back toward something that the official can do with confidence. Recognize and acknowledge what has happened and the mind-body's reaction to it, regroup by putting things in their proper perspective, and refocus for the task at hand (continuing the game). Confidence is a tremendous attribute toward combating a bully's attempt at lowering one's self esteem, and returning to officiate a game after the abusive incident builds confidence.

Post-Abuse Abuse: After an official has disciplined a participant for abuse, that participant is likely to get even more abusive. For instance, when officials are physically struck by players or coaches, this violent crime is significantly more likely to occur after the guilty participant has already been ejected from the game. First, the offender is embarrassed for having been called on his/her abusive behavior. Second, the offender thinks "what have I got to lose?" after being disciplined, which is further reinforced by the popular broadcasting term, "get your money's worth." Kill the Umpire culture certainly doesn't help.
Related PostDid Detroit Throw at Umpire Wolcott? A Visual Analysis (9/14/17).

After getting ejected, UCLA softball coach
Fernandez bumped plate umpire Peterson.
If the Abuse Caused the Game to End (or happened after the final out/horn): If the game has concluded or been abandoned, it might not be possible to refocus on officiating. A forfeit due to unsporting conduct in particular is an unusual circumstance. If possible, postgame the incident with a crew mate. Talking through the issue is another healthy coping mechanism that will greatly help reground the recipient of abuse. Adding just one other outside voice to combat the abuser's is a powerful tool in providing perspective, and strong bonds within a crew provide the necessary camaraderie to further combat "war story" bullies. Give extraordinarily insignificant credence to the bully's outlandish statements of fantasy.

The Four Types of Game Participants: There are generally three or four types of players and coaches, relative to officiating, and participants can bounce between neighboring types during a game, or from game-to-game:

Think: Is this coach an ally or adversary?
Allies: These players and coaches demonstrate a desire to create positive working relationships with officials. They'll say hi at the beginning and they'll look to shake hands or wave at the end. Yes, there might be disagreements—even loud ones—but allies are always respectful and generally proactive in trying to dissuade teammates from committing unsporting acts. Always remember, though, they are not the same as friends (though a select few might actually be a friend). They are game participants who happen to exhibit the attributes of allies. At the end of the day, naturally, they would prefer their team prevail, whereas our officiating friends care not one whit which wing wins.
Neutrals: Comprising the bulk of participants, these persons don't go out of their way to build much rapport, but neither will they antagonize officials. Neutrals generally don't interact much with referees and umpires, largely because they are either concentrating on their own game or simply don't bother themselves with officiating matters, which they see as outside of their locus of control. They might exhibit traits both congenial and challenging, though not too notable in either direction.
Adversaries: Some players and coaches thrive off building an adversarial relationship with nearly everyone on the playing field, including officials. For some, a "the world is against me" attitude has helped them succeed before, and, through positive reinforcement, they have adopted the mantra as their playing attitude. These participants may push buttons and attempt to find where the boundary line is, albeit without much malice.
Abusers: These are playground bullies on a sports field. Harassment is routine, yelling is generally constant or often simmering, and the worst thing about it is that the abusive behavior is durable, largely because it has worked for the abuser in the past through a lack of consequences or even a reward (or perceived positive result). Though an official must treat all game participants equally within their class of participation (e.g., more tolerance is shown to a head coach than an assistant coach, but equal tolerance should be extended to both teams' head coaches), an abuser will generally burn an official's fuse a lot quicker than the other three participant types—combined. Don't be afraid to discipline that which is abusive.

Scheurwater remains calm as Buck screams.
Although getting away from an abuser may temporarily halt the potentially unsporting behavior—and it is appealing to keep the ejection- or technical-gun in its holster—chances are that a future call that goes against the abuser's team will be met with an episode of greater harassment. Remember, intimidation or being made to feel guilty is a tactic of abuse and must be dealt with assertively. Bullies thrive on passive victims' behavior. Reassurance from an assignor or league supervisor might greatly help an official deal with such a situation, allowing the official to feel confident that the league will back his/her stance.

Officials' only true friends? Other officials.
If the league administration won't support you, the first step is to galvanize the troops: all of the league's officials must band together to demand fair and humane treatment, including support for enforcing the rules of the sport one is expected to officiate—it took all of one day for MLB to agree to meet with the World Umpires Association after WUA announced its white wristband protest. If this is not possible or the administration continues to balk, then the league's respect for its officials is far too low to merit quality officiating. Either walk away and regain your power or acknowledge that the league wants the game called a certain way, and if this is acceptable to you, continue to work, knowing that you may be dealing with a league whose rules are compromised. You may have to adjust expectations and learn to officiate "down" to the league's level.
Related PostWUA-MLB Relations Deteriorate with New Umpire Protest (8/19/17).
Related PostWUA Secures Commissioner Meeting, Suspends Protest (8/20/17).

Adrian Johnson uses a warning to stop abuse.
How to Prevent, Stop, or Curtail Abuse: We don't ordinarily discuss "how to prevent abuse" because, in society-at-large, we consider it largely taboo to place the burden of responsibility for preventing abuse on the victim: after all, the perpetrator shouldn't commit the abuse to begin with. No means no.

Except when, again, someone doesn't accept no as an answer.

In officiating, it is an unfortunate reality that abuse is a more-than-regular occurrence, and, fair or not, we have to arm ourselves with tools to prevent potential bullies from turning abusive. Sometimes, we put up with unpleasant behavior to prevent larger displays of abuse (similar to slowly releasing a steam valve so as to relieve pressure within a pipe so as to prevent the pipe from bursting), and other times we must warn or use a "stop sign" to reseal the metal.

Tact, composure, and demeanor go a long way in officiating. Confidence in game-calling—or even faux confidence—tells potential abusers that one is sure of the calls being made, and not susceptible to intimidation techniques. Every so often, humor helps disarm a would-be combatant.

Joe West employs humor to display "strength."
IMPORTANT NOTE: Confidence doesn't necessarily mean overselling every single call. Joe West might have one of the least enthusiastic strike three calls in the major leagues, yet there is no question as to his confidence in calling a ballgame. Rather, it's West's deliberate demeanor that conveys his assuredness ("You cannot back down as an umpire. You can't be scared as an umpire. You have to do what's right").

West explained a lesson taught to him by Hall of Famer Doug Harvey: "Don't let them ruin your day. You're having a good day. If they give you trouble to kick them out, kick them out. But don't let it ruin your day," a similar message to Tumpane's words after the bridge incident: "You never know what somebody's day looks like...Somebody's not having the same day you're having."
Related Post: Umpire Joe West Officiates 5,000th Regular Season Game (6/20/17).

Concentration on the task at hand—the game—might similarly disarm a potential abuser, akin to the simple action of ignoring a yelling coach or player while the ball is in play. Continuing to call the live-ball action might also give an official time to prepare a metered response (which portrays confidence). If appropriate, decisively addressing the issue during a dead ball period or between innings before it turns abusive may also deescalate the situation. Issuing a warning or other stern language that establishes a clear boundary might also stop the problem before it starts. Nearly all sports' rulebooks support disciplinary action, up to and including ejection, for abuse.

Is this really about Gooch, or about Joe?
Conclusion: When it comes to officiating and game-based mental health, playing field abuse is an unfortunate reality. However, certain wellness techniques may help recalibrate an official's disposition before, during, or after an encounter with one of the sports world's bad actors. Understanding that even if the insults are personal, the abuse isn't ordinarily about the official relieves the emotional pressure that comes with being on the receiving end of abuse, while employing grounding or refocusing techniques helps combat the emotional consequences of the most unwelcome of on-field interactions.

Related Link: Verbal abuse from parents, coaches is causing a referee shortage (Washington Post)
Related Link: Match officials shouldn't have to put up with the abuse they receive (RTE)
Related Link: Abuse, pay driving referees away in public high schools (USA Today)
Related Link: Refs say a culture of abuse has to change (USA Today)


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