On recruiting roller derby officials

All photos in this post come from the ace Paul Jones Photography Cardiff. Used with permission. Go check out his work from the most recent world cups, Welsh derby and more!

People of roller derby – we need officials. It’s a fact – if you want to play the game, you need a crew of skilled skating and non-skating officials so it can run safely, smoothly and fairly. And while they won’t necessarily all come from your league, they’ve got to come from somewhere. Arguably every league playing games has a responsibility to help raise officials that become a part of that local, and perhaps global, pool. This means recruiting them, and providing them with an environment in which to hone their skills.

But some leagues struggle to recruit officials into membership, or to retain them. As officials are naturally a smaller group within the league, just gaining (or losing) one or two can make a huge difference to the learning opportunities within the crew, the ability to practice their skills and ultimately the quality of practice of the league as a whole. So, similarly to the population of competing skaters, there’s a desire to keep those numbers sufficiently topped up. Maybe it’s the cause and effect of them being a smaller group: officials’ recruitment sometimes feels like an afterthought. Not everyone is going to feel the passion that makes them dedicate a part of themselves to officiating, but we need to make sure we capture the attention of those that do.

There are so many ways in to the officiating community, so many groups to target and so many “types” of people to consider. Some of us got into derby as skaters and have ceased to play after injury, because we retired from competition, or because we fancied participating in a different way. Some of us have partners or family members that skate, and ended up tagging along to their league. Some of us are biding our time, with an intention to play, but building game knowledge through officiating until we pass skills requirements to play ourselves. Some of us heard there were stats and spreadsheets and had to get involved. Some of us divide our time between officiating and playing, or another derby discipline. We are all equally important and valid. If you fancy reading about some of the ways officials have gotten started and to get inspiration for where you could find your next officials, check out this thread on the Skewblogs Facebook page and perhaps contribute your story, too.

Here are just a few ideas that put your league in a strong position to recruit officials, enabling them to make that all-important start. Some are small, low-effort adjustments, some you can influence by your actions as an individual. Some are bigger projects. One size doesn’t fit all in roller derby, so discuss what YOU and your league can make work, and be open to new possibilities.

There’ll be a separate post on retention of officials at a later date because once you get officials, you really want to hold on to them, and there’s tons of positive stuff you can try to do just that.

1) Ensure your officials have a web presence

While roller derby, for better or for worse, runs a lot of its organisation and communication through Facebook, the way a person not already involved in roller derby tries to find further information is often through your website, not your Facebook page. These people could be potential recruits, and officiating can and should be promoted as a viable option from the outset. (Plus, this is a nudge to check your out of date webpages generally, and refresh the nuggets of info for your prospective players, too!). Some potential officials fall in love by watching the game, too, so make sure you mention officiating in your recruitment ad in your event programmes!

DO include officials headshots or micro-profiles if you would for rostered skaters – if you list your “teams” one by one, have a similar page for the officials

DO have a clear headered section about officials’ recruitment on your “join us” page along with a brief explanation of how officials participate in roller derby – what do they do? Remember some of your audience won’t yet be involved in derby so take care re: derby jargon.

DON’T describe officiating solely in terms of what an official doesn’t do. If the only reference to officiating is “if you don’t want to skate” and “if you don’t like being hit” this frames officiating in terms of the negative. Write about what they DO to get involved during training and games.

DO refer to opportunities for both skating and non-skating officials in recruitment materials. Never forget the NSOs.

THINK about inclusivity. Avoid phrases similar to “men are welcome to train as referees” if you’re a league that adopts WFTDA gender policy. Let’s not associate officiating with gender, as this can be discouraging to prospective female and non-binary officials. Let people know all are welcome in the huddle.

DON’T use wording that paints officiating as the consolation prize – the “if you can’t skate – officiate!” view isn’t helpful – doing officiating really well is challenging. Involving folks in officiating who need a bit more time to develop their skating is great – it’s how I got into officiating and it can develop some seriously game-smart skaters – but if that’s your only mention of officiating on your public pages…you may want to have a rethink.

DO let the world know when your league’s officials do something cool. Officiating in another country? Officiating a high level tournament? Doing something worthy of attention? Get those social media postings out there! Here’s a little post from Leeds Roller Derby that made me beam with joy.

Some examples of league “join us” pages to give you ideas (check out their team profiles, as well!):
Rainy City Roller Derby / Nottingham Roller Derby / London Rockin’ Rollers / Dublin Roller Derby

2) Recruit specifically for officials

Rather than just a throwaway sentence at the end of each skater-recruitment Facebook event saying “we also train skating and non-skating officials”* consider running a separate event and campaign for those interested in officiating.

Yes, it may yield fewer people than your typical skater recruitment, but one or two dedicated officials who stick with you are a valuable addition to your league. It’s also a great opportunity to get existing league members interested in officiating. Run a collaborative effort between your recruitment and officiating teams/committees, and see what you get.

*If you’re not already doing this, please do because just mentioning officiating is a start! If you’ve got it, it’s worth keeping. This may be where you snag a prospective officials’ attention – perhaps even consider rephrasing to encourage interested parties to ask you about officiating!

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3) Have a rough plan in place for your new officials – it doesn’t have to be perfect!

What makes your league an attractive place to learn to officiate? What should a new official expect as they get started? What can new officials expect their progression to look like beyond the basic skating skills as part of your new skater programme (if that’s relevant)? What do they need to do before they can officiate drills/scrimmages in whatever capacity? How does this fit into how your league operates? Could the timings/space be adapted so existing players could moonlight and learn new skills?

Have these discussions and a structure in place so newly recruited officials know what to expect. I guarantee your league has one of these structures for those who plan to play the game – a structured skill programme, progression through different training sessions, passing minimum skills, do X, Y and Z to get rostered. As with skaters, you don’t have to publish every little detail and bombard new recruits with information at the outset, but answers need to be available and consistent if they ask.

The plan doesn’t have to be rigid or comprehensive, either, but it can be clearly thought about, transparent, and put together with collaboration with your existing officials from the very start.

4) Don’t discourage those who came in as potential skaters from switching lanes

Sometimes an individual will come in with every intention of skating but for whatever reason, the officiating bug bites. Sometimes it’s through injury. Sometimes it’s through “I think I might actually prefer this”. Sometimes it’s through hitting a wall and it being the difference between losing them completely from the league and giving their derbying a new lease of life. Sometimes they’re multitasking marvels who want to officiate and compete. If any of this happens, support them. I sometimes hear about leagues who don’t want to push specific recruitment or support those considering officiating because they “need the numbers on the team” and this is disappointing.

Co-ordinating the training of those new-to-skating who want to both play and be an official at the same league can be a little more challenging. It requires focus on different skills, different mindsets and extra time. Some people thrive doing this, and for some it’s a recipe for burnout. You can try to ensure a properly timetabled opportunity for those to learn officiating skills that doesn’t conflict with their skating obligations or opportunities to develop as a player. If this is difficult due to financial/space/league size constraints, work out how they can proceed constructively – find out what would an ideal arrangement look like for them and could this be implemented?

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5) Create an identity for the officiating crew

Being part of a team and feeling a sense of belonging is a really nice thing, and while officials may be part of your league, they’re their own little team within it, just like your travel team or each home team.

The Agents of Stripe of Newcastle, UK, are ridiculously cool and have their own merchandise (as well as co-opted “field agents”, one of whom I’d love to be someday, if only Newcastle wasn’t flippin’ miles away). I also love following the Facebook page for Parks and REFreation at Angel City.

My friends at Oxford Roller Derby do #SpottedLinz that follows their fab NSO on her many officiating adventures.

When I was at Central City Roller Derby (before I moved house) we all got matching varsity jackets. I still wear mine, and still look back fondly on memories of being part of that crew.

6) Ensure every league member is an ambassador for officiating

You never know when you’ll meet someone interested in derby but not sure about playing that you can ask “have you considered officiating?”. If every league member is in a position where they can confidently and enthusiastically describe the basic concepts of officiating to a person not yet in derby, you’re onto a winner.

This also means thinking about how you talk about officials in public. Do they come up in a positive context, or only in the negative? Nobody has to pretend officials are flawless – just keep it balanced, and don’t make us out to be the villain. Not all the time, anyway!

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7) Make officiating part of compulsory training – you never know who might discover they love it!

This helps with number 6. If everyone tries a little bit of officiating, non-skating or skating, they can genuinely talk about what’s involved to those who might be interested. You also develop a solid base of those who can teach others the basics and it helps people to ask rules questions they may have never thought of otherwise.

Depending on what role/s you try, it can also makes you far less likely to earn unnecessary insubordination and illegal re-entry penalties, miss when you’re lead jammer, miss when you’re called on a penalty, miss when the wrong number of skaters are lined up on track, etc. Everyone can benefit from being an official at training every once in a while.

Some leagues make learning/performing a few NSO roles compulsory before skaters are bout eligible. Others make sure those who NSO earn contribution credit. Others require everyone to shadow a skating official, or try being one themselves for a scrimmage or two. Having your travel team skaters getting involved on occasion during off-season, or when they’re off contact, also serves to reinforce an officiating culture within the league.

8) Run an accessible “ref school” or “NSO school”

If you’re serious about developing the officiating community in your area, it’s important to acknowledge that you’re going to frequently draw on local officials that aren’t “your” officials, particularly if you’re a smaller league. If you’re fortunate to have the space, and particularly the holy grail of a safe outside lane and/or a scoreboard laptop, you could provide that resource to nurture burgeoning local officials and create a great relationship with them.

Some UK leagues have followed the lead of Sleaze’s ref school – now a little out of date but a great structure *if* you have officiating coaches with knowledge of the older and newer rulesets. They have run a regular program, aimed at building officiating fundamentals. Experienced (sometimes external) referees coach each session, and this ensures to mix of voices, perspectives, the burden doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of one person. Another structured programme laid out and ready to go is the recently (2018) updated Zen of Reffing.

But we don’t have any officials and we don’t know how to teach them…

I’m glad you asked. Your best starting point is to ask an experienced official you know and trust – perhaps someone who has officiated an event of your in the past. There are tons of officials discussion groups, online resources and nearby officials willing to signpost, mentor and answer questions from enthusiastic new people. There are different established crews who’ve found approaches that work at all sizes of league and level of play. I guarantee your league knows or could be put in touch with an official who can point you in the right direction and get you started. And if not, there’s always my blog series New Year’s Ref-olution which can give you some ideas for self-directed training.

Remember roller derby recruitment principles between skaters and officials can sometimes be quite similar. The ideas in these articles could be used for players and officials alike!

What does your league do to recruit officials? Want to share your awesome recruitment pages, posters, officials’ pages and more? Come and add a link on our Facebook page or interact on Twitter @skewblogs

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