Friday, January 25, 2008

Why ref volleyball?

I get this question a lot from friends and co-workers when they find out I ref volleyball. A lot of folks don't quite understand why anyone would willingly be a ref or official (sometimes I agree with them).

I always ask this question of new officials when they start their training. I think it's really important to consider why are you getting into this trade? Is it for a love of the sport? A desire to give back? Wanting to be involved at some level? Or just to make some extra money?

Most of these are perfectly valid, we all have our interests for different reasons. Although I do always tell folks that no one ever got rich officiating volleyball, so if it's just another sport to you, I'd say don't do it. No one likes to work with the ref who's disengaged and not really interested in what they do. I've worked with officials like this, and I've seen them work as a spectator, and it really just makes it harder for the rest of officiating community to be respected.

Fortunately, the vast majority of officials that I've worked with have been great. And for me, I officiate volleyball because I love the sport (both as a fan and a player), and I love helping teams have a great match. I'm a member of a community that is fun to be in. And I'm working on improving my skills to be the best possible official I can be.

That's for me. But the question remains: Why do you ref volleyball?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What would you like to talk about?

I've been spinning the last few days trying to pick which topic to post about next, so I figured I'd get some input from those of you who are interested. I've put a little poll in the sidebar, please vote on what interests you - what do you want to discuss and share thoughts about?

And if you don't see any options you like, please feel free to contact me!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tips for new officials

I really enjoy working with new officials. Partly because I can remember when I was a rookie, and was trying to soak up all this information like a sponge, coordinating signals, transition, rules, bench control. I really appreciated when veteran officials would take the time to give me feedback and help me improve as an official.

I also enjoy training new officials, and so in that same vein here are some starter tips for new officials. I'm planning on expanding on this topic in later posts too.

  1. Breathe. I see so many new officials try to think of everything at once that they stand perfectly stiff and forget to breathe because they're nervous about making a mistake or missing a call. My advice: relax. :-) Everyone makes mistakes all the time, and it's likely that if you're working a non-varsity or other match that is low key, everyone will understand.
  2. Don't try to work on everything at once. You're probably working on a lot of different things to get a handle on. If you try to think about all of them you're going to overload your brain and end up doing nothing well. Pick 1 or 2 things to really focus on during a match, and let the others go. Once you feel more comfortable with the first two, pick two more and improve those. A great thing to do is let your partner know what you're trying to focus on so they can focus their feedback on those areas rather than giving you feedback on a point that you aren't even paying attention to right now.
  3. For officials that pick up volleyball from other sports - keep in mind that volleyball has an etiquette and more collaborative environment with players and coaches than other sports like basketball. I've seen some new officials make very ticky-tack calls about a player not exchanging exactly in the right part of the court. That may be expected in basketball, but in volleyball it'll just annoy the coaches and put your partner in a tough spot. Take your pointers from how your partner approaches the match and ask questions if you're not sure about what to call.

I'd like to hear what advice other officials would give new officials? Or what did you appreciate as a new official that one of your partners did for you?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Tracking rotation

In my last post I mentioned that in the last year I've gotten a lot better at tracking rotational faults. I think rotation is one of the hardest skills to master, and it's one I get asked about a lot by newer officials. I've asked many veteran officials how they track rotation. Each had their own system which worked for them, hopefully one of these will help you if you're still struggling with rotation.
  • Rote memorization - Few folks I know are successful with this, but it's how many rookie officials try at first and get frustrated. Unless you have a laser memory, this is not the way to go. You have 6 random numbers on each side, for a total of 12, not counting substitutions! Most likely you'll spend more time getting frustrated with the numbers in your head than with watching the match!
  • Setter and opposite/adjacent - This is one a lot more refs use, although I could never get it to work for me. You should always start with identifying the setter for each team. If you remember no one else, remember the setter! Next, find her opposite (i.e. - the player 3 rotations away from the setter, so when the setter is left front her opposite is right back). Start with just tracking those 2 players on each side. When you're looking at those 2, if they aren't positioned oppositely, most likely they're out of rotation. As you get better with that, now try adding the two adjacent players to the setter, so you are tracking 4 players on each side. This is less than 6, but still a lot of numbers to keep in your head.
Why do you track just these 4? Because the vast majority of rotational faults occur near the setter. Since the setter is often positioned most aggressively on receive to be able to get to her spot as quickly as possible, most faults occur because the players opposite or adjacent to the setter haven't positioned themselves correctly to ensure the correct rotation. 

Personally, I still found this method unintuitive. It was just too many numbers to try and memorize.
  • Mnemonics - For several years I tried this method. I would scan the numbers of the rotation trying to find some kind of pattern that would be easy for me to remember. Almost all the time I could find something that worked. For example, maybe the numbers of the setter and her opposite were both multiples of 3 (like 3 and 9). Or maybe the rotation went in decreasing numerical order across the entire team (e.g. - 18, 17, 12, 6, 3, 1). This way I could find one player whom I knew was in correct position and then pivot the rest of the team to determine if they were in order or not.
This system worked OK for me, but not great. Often times I'd start my scan, realize something was amiss but wasn't able to backtrack my math fast enough to be sure before the ball was served. So I still didn't feel comfortable with this aspect of my officiating.
  • Common serve receive patterns - This approach takes several years experience with the sport, either as a player, coach, or ref. After a while, you start to recognize common serve receive strategies (such as Stack 3 Left). Once you recognize the way this lineup should look visually, it's a lot easier to just glance at it and intuitively recognize if someone is out of position. Also, when you recognize what the players should look like, you can anticipate the most likely rotational errors the players will make and just watch for that.
I was finally able to use this approach this past season, and found it much more comfortable and successful. And once I stopped trying to memorize numbers, it actually became easier to remember them, at least for the rotations that were unfamiliar to me.

One more thing that will help you out a lot as an R2. Make very good friends with your scorekeeper (you should be doing that anyway!), but make part of your pre-match conversation that if you lean back and ask "Who are my next 3?", you mean you want to know the next 3 servers on the receiving team (your front row, in order). This way you can quickly determine the proper order, and keep those numbers in your head as they rotate to the back.

I hope this is helpful for officials still struggling with rotation tracking. It's a very challenging aspect of volleyball officiating, and one that I continue to work on. My best advice is: keep trying different approaches, ask your peers what approaches they find the most successful, and keep practicing until you find one that works for you.

If you have comments or suggestions about what you've found helpful, please leave a comment here for others!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What were your officiating goals this past season?

Every year at the start of the high school season, when I get my nice new NFHS rulebook, I open it up to the first page and write down 3 goals I have for myself for that season. These are goals of skills I want to develop or get better at for that season, and I'm going to actively work on them and ask for feedback from my partners and crew after each match.

I picked up this habit years ago as a suggestion at a volleyball officials' clinic, and I've done it ever since. I find it helps me focus on a couple of key things:
  1. I recognize that there is always room for improvement. No official knows it all or does a perfect job.
  2. It allows me to focus on each match as well as my officiating career and the steps I need to take.
  3. I can see progress year over year.

Many times, the list is obvious: back row attacks/setters, rotation, etc. But each year it's changed just slightly and it's allowed me to feel much more confident about my officiating technique and abilities.

For example, this past year was the first year I felt comfortable with tracking rotation (more on how I did that in a later post). For every year for 8 years I always listed rotation as a weak area of mine I wanted to improve at. This is the first year I've felt comfortable with that area of my officiating, allowing me to focus on other areas, such as ball handling consistency throughout the season and bench control, that are my next areas to tackle.

I always share my list with my partner and tell them I'll ask for feedback after the match. What has surprised me is that when I ask the same of my partner, I often get a confused look. With newer officials I understand (their answer is often "Everything!"), although I find having a list helps even newer officials accept that they won't get everything right away, and it's most important to get the fundamentals right.

But with more veteran officials I wish we would emphasize this more, for the same reasons I listed above. If you're not improving your skills as an official, you're going backwards, and the game and your peers will soon pass you by.

What are your thoughts? What areas do you try to focus on, and how do you track your progress over the seasons?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Signals, Signals, Signals

With the end of another fall season, I mentally prepare myself to switch from high school and college to USAV volleyball. That means different rules, formats, but... most importantly.... different signals.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I HATE the USAV signaling system of Result, Reason. It's completely backwards to how I think.

During the fall season, as I watch a rally, I process a ton of decisions on a continuous basis, looking for a fault or dead ball. Once I see something, I whistle quickly to kill the play, then I can signal the fault that occurred (such as double, back row block, out, whatever). As I'm making this signal, it gives me just the 2-3 seconds I need to figure out who the heck gets the ball, then I get to signal the result.

With USAV scoring, I have to do all that thinking up front, resulting in sometimes having to process the entire play in my head, figure out what went wrong, then figure out who gets the ball, then signal that. I find that a lot more cumbersome.

Another reason why I don't like USAV signaling is it doesn't answer people's question. Usually the first question people have is "What did he just call?" With Reason, Result signaling, it's very clear. But with Result, Reason signaling, it's backwards.

I understand that FIVB sets Result, Reason signaling, but that doesn't mean they're right. I also know I may be tilting at windmills a bit on this topic, but it's something that irks me to the core. Even worse is the NCAA considering switching their signaling to USAV/FIVB methods (and high school would follow a few years later). Please, please don't do it!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

End of the season reminiscing

We've come to the end of another high school and women's college season. As usual, the season presented itself with the usual range of high points and low points for each of us, and for the sport in general. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, I watched UW get shocked out of the NCAA tournament in the 2nd round against BYU, while enjoying a very competitive and fun high school season.

Now that I'm able to take a step back during the holidays before the start of the USAV season, I've been thinking some more about some proposed changes to the college rules for the 2008 season. The biggest proposal that I saw was a proposal to eliminate double contacts on 2nd (and possibly 3rd) team contacts.

A survey went out to all NCAA coaches and officials asking for feedback on these proposed changes. My feedback was No, do not change to allow these. I couldn't comprehend the idea behind allowing this, but then I received a forwarded argument from Mark Massey, coach at University of Puget Sound, entitled Why the Double Hit Must Die. You can read it for yourself, but the main points seem to be:
  • We need to make volleyball more "dynamic", "exciting", "athletic", and other action-oriented verbs
  • Fans do not understand ball handling nor do they see most of the calls made
  • Ball handling calls are inconsistent amongst referees, creating more confusion
  • This is the "last" change needed to propel volleyball into the 1st tier of sports in the US

With the exception of the 2nd point, which I'll wholeheartedly agree with and I'm sure will discuss at length in the future, I think the rest of these points are bogus. There's a great rebuttal at The College Volleyball Coach blog. But I'll add my own 2 cents here:

  1. We need to make the game more athletic: Ask any official who knows what's involved in making a great, clean set from a bad pass, and you see the very definition of athleticism. That one set represented thousands of reps of practice sets, over months of practices and dedication, all to get that one ball in the air. Now, that will be the same as the setter who stumbles over and bumbles the ball up. Doesn't pass my sniff test of "fair play".
  2. Fans don't understand ball handling: How I can prove this is bogus: Attend any Pac-10 home volleyball match, where the conference is notorious for loose ball handling but still presents some of the best volleyball in the country (there's a reason why 6 out of the 10 conference teams were in the NCAA tourney this year), and then wait for the first "deep dish" set from the visitors. You'll hear a collective groan from the entire stadium. The fans know ball handling, and they'll call it as they see it. I think the real problem here comes from the next problem....
  3. Inconsistent application of ball handling from officials: I will whole-heartedly agree with this, for no other reason then I know I struggle with consistency myself, and I know just talking and watching my fellow officials in my area that we don't apply things consistently. How do I know this? a.) Officials get reputations for a reason. Ref A is squeaky tight, Ref B lets ^#(! fly. Why? That's a whole other post, but hopefully we're consistent within the match. b.) I've had numerous debates with my fellow officials about what is and is not a double. Even we can't agree, because c.) every year at the OTP clinic, where do we spend most of our time and discussion? Ball handling. Finally, d.) It's HARD! So much of it is angles and line of sight, and at the top college level the game moves incredibly fast. I may watch a set and have absolutely no view into a double that happened. All I know is the ball came out spinning like an ice skater doing a triple axel. Did the setter double it? Probably. Did every other person in the gym see it? Definitely. Will I call it? Not if I didn't actually see the double happen. But who else understands that? Probably my partner, and any other official watching, and that's about it. We definitely need to be more consistent with ball handling so folks can know what to expect, but part of that is actually allowing officials to enforce ball handling to a reasonable level. More on that at a later time.
  4. This change will propel volleyball back into a top tier sport: I love volleyball. I love playing it, I actually love officiating it. But to think that volleyball will ever be on the same level as football, basketball, or baseball in this country is crazy, and we need to stop pretending like we're always just one step away. Major League Soccer has been "one step away" from really becoming "Major" since they started. They had the benefit of thousands of kids playing soccer at all levels from pre-school through high school. What's happened? MLS still hasn't had a profitable season and hopes that by signing Beckham, who is more brand than athlete these days, will raise awareness, attendance, and TV contracts. Good luck to them on that one, but let's not change volleyball into something unrecognizable as we attempt to "save" it.

Some of the best analogies I've seen are along the lines of: This is like getting rid of the strike zone because umpires can't call it consistently, fans hate it, and scoring would be higher, making the game more "interesting". May be true, but it would definitely no longer be baseball as we know it.

What will happen? I don't know. The change to rally scoring occurred just as I was starting out officiating, so I didn't have much insight into that time, but from what I understand the rule change occurred despite the protests of coaches and conferences because those at the national committee levels felt they needed to act in the best interest of the sport. I hope those folks think about what's in your best interest may be accepting that you can't change a sport to save it.