The International Racquetball Tour designates one person to be the Official referee for the Tour. This person has almost always been a professional player and is allowed to participate in the pro draw. Once he loses, he must referee the remaining professional matches. In recent years, the official referee is given a hotel room, a paycheck that reflects how many matches he officiated, and entry into the tournament.
How I acquired the job
In my college years I would officiate early round matches at local professional tournaments to make some extra money. The commissioner of the IRT at the time would ask me to referee, and since I felt confident in my ability and enjoyed watching the matches, I would accept almost every time, gaining experience along the way. A couple years down the road I heard news of the IRT referee retiring. I applied for the job and was hired a few months later at the beginning of the 2009 season.
Interview with Jason Thoerner
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jason Thoerner, the former IRT referee before me. Jason was the IRT Official for seven years, and a full-time professional player for almost a decade.
What it takes to be a referee in the pros
1) Fast Calls
Your calls must be fast and straight to the point. Use as little words as possible to make your call clear. Things like “Stop! Avoidable!”, or “Two bounces!” are the best way to make calls. A fast and simple call tells the players that you are not wasting time deciding what call to make. If you hesitate, the players will pounce on the opportunity. They will question your ability to make calls. Make the calls fast, and even if it is the wrong call, they player will respect it.
Jason Thoerner: “Making fast calls ensures that the players are not wasting extra energy. If you make slow calls, it basically leads to arguing. You don’t want the players thinking that you’re second-guessing yourself.”
2) Little Explanation
If someone asks why you made that call, you can either choose to explain it or dismiss it. By explaining it, you are offering closure to the players. By dismissing it, you are keeping the game moving. Every situation is different and it is up to you to decide what is best for the match. The important thing is that the least amount of time is wasted in the process of making or explaining a call. There is no right or wrong, do what you have to do to keep the match moving along. Do not continue the discussion once you have explained your call. End your explanation with “Point”, or “side-out” to close the matter. Like a judge hitting his or her gavel when they have made a ruling. It is not only up to the referee to make the right calls, but he or she must be assertive as well.
Jason Thoerner: “You want to keep it as concise as possible because a) it doesn’t give them a play on words, and b) you don’t want to add to the length of the match. Plus, if a player is on a role, you can’t let the other player take eccessive time to cool off and regroup. I mean, half the time that’s what the arguing it all about.”
As a referee it is important not to become enemies with the players. At times, the referee can seem like your arch nemesis instead of your opponent. In this case, attitude plays a large role. If you as a referee act out negatively in response to a player arguing a call, you are increasing the tension of the match, which is the opposite of what a referee should do. A referee should always do their best to defuse the situation. The best way to do this is to make your call but be respectful if the player states his or her case. I find myself explaining a lot of hinders, whether it is an avoidable or not. I have found that the easiest way to keep the match moving is saying something like “Your feet were not set in time for it to be an avoidable, but it was close.” This explains your call but also acknowledges the players argument. You can go both ways when you are questioned as a referee. As a player, what attitude would you like from your referee?
Jason Thoerner: “It shows the players that you’re not biased or on anyone’s side and its just your job. It calms the situation down. If you are disrespectful, and you know this very well, the players will be disrespectful back.
Perhaps the most important thing for a referee is to be in a good mental state. I have been told that the reason I am a good referee is because I am naturally a laid-back person. This is probably true, but it is not the case for everyone. Some people handle adversity as someone challenging their character. In this case, the tension of the match is bound to be high. Even if you are not as laid-back as I am, which is probably a good thing at times, try to understand that as the referee it is your job to take some heat every once in a while. Do not take it personally. Just be aware of where you stand. You are in the hot-seat, so be cool.
Jason Thoerner: “You’re in the heat of the moment just as much as the players are. The calmer you stay, the calmer the players will be. Now there were times where I had to draw the line and say enough is enough, but that’s all part of keeping the match running smoothly.
5) Well Rested
If there is one thing that determines if I have a good day of refereeing or a bad day, it is sleep. Just like anything in life, you always perform better when you are well rested. When I am lacking sleep, my eyes are slower, I am more irritable, more impatient, and do an overall worse job. When I am well rested, I can see the ball better, my thoughts are more clear, I am more comfortable, and my job becomes easier. I always make an effort to get a good night of sleep on Friday and Saturday night, which isn’t always easy with friends who want to stay out late. It is especially important because Friday is when I compete and usually referee 2-5 matches, depending on if I win or lose. Fridays are almost always a tiring day, so catching up on sleep is a must in order to perform at my best in the hot-seat.
Jason Thoerner: “The only time it was tough was when we didn’t have anyone else around to do any matches, and I had to play the round of sixteens early on friday, then ref four matches that night. Like the US Open, there’s a lot on the line and you’ve got to concentrate for 8-12 hours, and with everything going on around you, it was just… insane. No one else will know what that is like.”
6) Avoidable Hinders vs Regular Hinders
Hinders are created for the safety of the players. An avoidable hinder, or penalty hinder, in it’s simplest form, is a hinder which takes away a clear offensive opportunity. As a good referee, it is important to know the difference between a regular hinder and an avoidable. When you call an avoidable, it is mostly to protect the safety of the players. For example, if a player is ready to smash a forehand and the opponent is dangerously close, the avoidable is called to protect the player, but also to send a message to the both players that they will not get away with being that close. If there is one thing that I notice in other referees, it is that they do not call enough avoidable hinders. Most people think that being consistent is the key, but really you are asking for trouble. The less avoidables you call, the more the players will swing away, or crowd, because they know you will not call it.
Important things to look for when calling hinders:
-How much space did the person have to swing?
-Was there a clear shot to the front wall, both down-the-line and cross-court?
-Did the player have their feet set?
Remember, avoidable hinders are about safety, we must call them. Here is what I do:
I analize the three points above. Once I have done so, I make my decision based on numbers. Most of the time, it is 90/10 in favor of one or the other. Those are easy to make. But on occassion the call will be a close one. The decision should be based on 50/50. Whatever side you are leaning toward should be the call you make. If it is 51/49 in favor of the avoidable, call avoidable. Do not be afraid, and like I said before, be respectful, tell them it was close, and that it was for their own safety. If the call is 51/49 in favor of a hinder, call the hinder. Majority rules in the case of hinders.
7) Make-up calls
The dreaded make-up call can be seen and heard a mile away. A make-up call, for those who are unaware, is the act of making a call in favor of a player based on a questionable call earlier in the match. For example, if a make a questionable call against player A, a few rallies later I might feel inclined to make it up to him by calling a questionable call against his opponent. We have all been guilty of making them and recieving them. The important thing is that you are aware that make-up calls exist. Do your best to start each rallie with a clean slate. Forget everything that has already happened and take it one point at a time.
8 ) Screens
The rule of the screen is that the ball must pass the server at least 18 inches from his or her body or else it is a screen. However, at least in the pros, sometimes a player does not want a screen. Sometimes the serve turns out to be a set-up, and they choose to take the shot. In this case, you must watch for the recievers reaction. If the ball travels by the server and the reciever makes no signal (hand in the air or hesitation) and proceeds to shoot the ball, then play on. If a signal emerges, make the call. It is imprtant to recognize when a player is truly screened or when they want to take the set-up. If they clearly take the shot and miss, often they will question is it is a screen. Tell them that you as the referee did not see any signs from him or her and that you didn’t want to take away an offensive opportunity. It would be a shame to call a screen that the player didn’t want, especially if they roll it out. If the ball is outside the allowed 18 inches, then there is no call to make. Often times players will tell me that it is my call to make, but I say neh, it is a mutual call and you have to pay close attention and judge the situation.
There are a few instances where technicals are automatic. The two that I can think of are swearing and hitting the ball out of the court. Other than that, most things deserve a warning, and if the player makes the mistake of repeating his or her actions, a technical is given. Technicals are not good for the game. Necessary, but not beneficial. I try to avoid giving technicals, but sometimes I have to. I learned early that a good eraser is always important when refereeing a pro match.
Every once in a while, there are crowd members who take the role of hecklers. I can handle most heckling, but sometimes it can be negative and frustrating. Not once in my career have I acted out on a crowd member, it would be unprofessional. But sometimes if the crowd member is too bothersome, I have asked them to tone it down, and only once have I kicked someone out. For the most part, the crowd understands that bad calls happen. But every once in a while you find someone who thinks they should be refereeing. I wish I could hand them the card sometimes, but instead, I try to shake it off.
Note to all crowd members: If there is one thing I can ask of you, it is to refrain from talking to me while I am officiating. This goes out to the people who ask me “why did you make that call?”, you will never get a response from me. If you find yourself being ignored by me while I am refereeing, don’t take too much offense. It is my job and I take it seriously, just like any other job.
Jason Thoerner: “People don’t understand that you’re not just calling x’s and o’s. You’re dealing with coaches, the crowd, take the US Open for example. You’re refereeing in front of a thousand people, and if you let them see that you’re cracking then it just goes overboard.”
11) What needs to improve
People often tell me that the IRT needs line judges. It is believed that professional racquetball is simply too dificult to referee alone. It is not the referees fault, racquetball is a fast paced game where it is impossible to see everything by yourself. At the US Open, the IRT provides two line judges for the pro matches on the show court. The line judges have the responsibility of calling anything they see that I don’t. This is not the traditional way of line judging. Normally, it is up to the referee to make the calls and the players have a chance to appeal to the line judges. But at the US Open, the three officials call anything they see right away. I am glad we are able to have line judges in such an important event. It looks professional, hardly any calls are missed, and it takes a lot of pressure off of me. Unfortunately, the IRT does not have the budget to hire line judges for other pro tournaments. We wish we did, but we make do just fine without them. The best possible solution near flawless officiating is technology.
Take tennis for example. About a decade ago, professional tennis introduced a technology called “Shot Spot”. Shot Spot is a computer system that tracks the exact location of the tennis ball. In most major tennis matches, it is not uncommon to see a handful of appeals to the Shot Spot. Sure enough, about half the time the calls are wrong. But the technology saves the fairness of the game. This would be the ultimate system to ensure that most calls are no longer questionable. Imagine being able to see exactly where a drive serve landed, or seeing if the ball bounced twice, or if it skipped. It is possible, but expensive. Soon enough, I hope.
On that note:
My next blog subject will be “The Future of Racquetball: Where Are We Headed?”
I encourage everyone to leave a comment, question, opinion, etc. about “The Future of Racquetball” and I will do my best to let your voices be heard. Thanks!
Special thanks to Jason Thoerner for taking the time to reach the fans! It was a pleasure to learn from the one person in the world who knows more about my job than I do.
Jason Thoerner: “Anytime! Thanks for taking over so I could get the heck out of there!”