March Madness: Thoughts from a Referee with 30 Years of Experience

March 25th, 2019 - By

Our brackets are already being busted, we’ve already lost the $20 in the office pool, and the one Duke fan sitting in accounting has become unbearably smug. All this means only one thing — we’ve made it to March Madness and the Sweet 16. We’ve already experienced some of the raw emotion that only comes from sports — agonizing defeats, rivalries played out, Cinderella stories — and there’s only more to come. We’ve also already eaten too much dip, but that’s beside the point.

For me, these March Madness games always feel personal. I’ve been in the referee’s shoes many times. This season, though, for the first time in 30 years, I didn’t officiate any basketball games. My body told me enough was enough, but the memories and relationships I gained from officiating have made me better, both on and off the court. I still use many of the skills gained from calling basketball games in my work with Nabholz to up my customer service, team building, and relationship game.

I started officiating in the mid-’80s because I wanted to help. Our two oldest kids played in the Rogers Recreation League during grade school, and in between games the league representatives would ask someone to referee. I had grown up playing basketball and was still active and athletic, so I thought why not volunteer, what could go wrong? (Oh young, naïve Paul.) I soon learned the other parents, who were so nice to me before I put on that striped shirt, now saw me as an adversary.

Paul Hively officiating a tough game.

Soon though, during one of those “$10 per game” nights, I was approached about refereeing other games on different levels. I said yes, and the rest is history. Over the next thirty years, I officiated at every level — from recreation leagues all the way up to Division I college play, with everything from junior high games to high school state championships in between.

In those thirty years, I developed a level of respect for players and coaches that has only grown, and I learned to translate that respect through maintaining a level of protocol and professionalism in each game. I especially admire the coaches who view their interactions with players as a chance to prepare them for the real world. Good coaches start each season with a group of individuals and transform them into a single entity void of personal ego. Along the way, those players learn skills that empower them to be better family members, employees, and community members. I’ve always thought a good coach is an invaluable community resource.

Many times, I’ve had to admit to a player or coach that a particular call wasn’t my best, or that I just flat out got it wrong. Sometimes they didn’t take it well. Most times, though, they understood I was working hard to be fair, and that bad calls killed me, too, and I’d double down for the rest of the game.

Officiating is like any other vocation or career. You need a strong desire to succeed and good work ethic, but more importantly, you need to realize that failure and criticism are part of the process. As with most areas in life, your best tool is the ability to be an active listener. Looking back, maybe it was my experience refereeing that made Nabholz and business development such a natural fit for me.

I was once told that to officiate basketball, “you have to have character and you have to be a character.” I can’t help but realize how aptly that same advice applies to business development in the construction industry. With both business development and officiating, so many of the calls, judgments, and decisions made are not only critical to the game but are made in a split-second timeframe. You know, sometimes, your calls will upset people. However, if the decision sits well with your character, you will learn to tune out the yelling, cheering, and berating that accompanies any difficult decision.

So, this year as we enjoy all that makes up March Madness, I urge you to watch all of the moving parts that contribute to the feel of the event. I’ve experienced the emotions these players, coaches, and officials are going through firsthand, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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