Spotlight on Officiating: Q and A with Jason Nickleby
Posted: Tuesday, October 4, 2022 - 8:58 AM
Editor’s Note: Each month during the 2022-23 school year, the Minnesota State High School League will present a series of articles on officiating. The series is designed to showcase officials, encourage others to pursue the avocation and to illustrate the need at the high school level. This month, Connect, the League’s monthly online news magazine, catches up with Jason Nickleby, the League’s Coordinator of Officiating Services, for a candid conversation about the state of officiating.
Q: With the start of a new school year, we’ve noticed a new campaign about officials: “The Game is Calling: Become an Official.” Can you share more about that?
Nickleby: The League and its member schools feel that it is time to tell our story before someone chooses to tell it for us. Officiating high school sports is so rewarding and fun. It is really important to share messaging about the kind of impact you can have on your community and high school students by choosing to become an official. This campaign will stress the key reasons that officials cite for getting into, and staying, in officiating, such as making new friends, seeing new places, fitness, making a little money and giving back to the game, to name a few. The games that have given us so much are calling you to come back and make a difference!
Q: If you were to provide a “State of the State” address as it relates to officiating, what would be your main message?
Nickleby: I have been reluctant to say terms such as “shortage” or “crisis” because I prefer to focus on the positives. I don’t want to dwell on something that is not going as well as we would like or wish we had. With that said, we are not in a place that we want to be relative to numbers of officials and the experience level of the current officials. This leads to games getting cancelled, moved or burnout of the remaining officials because of the incredible demands placed upon the officials that we do have. Sportsmanship at League events is very positive in most cases. However, sportsmanship of spectators and coaches is a major factor in officials choosing to leave the avocation in Minnesota and across the country. If we want to reverse the trend of declining numbers, we must do everything we can to support the officials we have through positive game experiences and support for their efforts throughout the season while maintaining robust recruitment opportunities.
Q: Are you concerned about the state of officiating, not only in Minnesota, but across the country?
Nickleby: Unfortunately, yes. We don’t have enough officials and we are losing incredibly-talented officials every minute. We have to look inward as a League, and as a country, to determine what we can do to place ourselves in a better situation than we are now. Why are experienced officials leaving? Why are new officials less willing to join our ranks? I have never advocated for zero-tolerance policies relative to behavior at contests. However, we have seen a substantial increase in concerning behavior at events across the country and that does not assist us in our efforts to recruit and retain high-quality individuals to officiate at all levels of sport. We need to do better and I am confident that we will, as a League of member schools supported by administrators that understand and live the education-based philosophy every day.
Q: When we hear the words “recruit” and “retain,” what does that mean?
Nickleby: Recruit means intentional connections and outreach to a wide variety of interested and capable individuals. Retain is focused efforts on training, development and support of currently participating individuals. Recruitment is important, but retention is critical to maintaining, at a minimum, the excellent officials that are currently involved. We devote significant time and resources to training of current officials, development of their skills and support of these individuals throughout the season. Studies have demonstrated that many individuals will stay if we can keep them through Year Three. This support structure is crucial in these efforts.
Q: What individuals or groups do you identify in recruiting officials?
Nickleby: The League’s Officiating DEI Council has been instrumental in increasing and improving our connections with candidates of color and women in officiating. We will continue to lean on that group for support and resources as we move ahead. Additionally, the biggest group of new officials over the last 10 years has been parents of former athletes. We have shared with schools that it is important to establish connections with these parents that just spent many years in a sport as a spectator so they can stay involved with the sport through officiating. Of course, former participants are a great source of potential new officials as well. If every school recruited one parent or former athlete into officiating, we would have 500 new officials every year. That would make an incredible difference in our recruitment efforts.
Q: What are some of the reasons that an individual chooses to officiate?
Nickleby: The reasons that someone chooses to officiate are endless and specific to the individual. Some of the most common answers are meeting new people, fitness, giving back to the game, making a little money, traveling to new places, and building life skills. I will also mention that fun is the No. 1 answer!
Q: Is there an age requirement to be an official?
Nickleby: An individual needs to be 18 years old or a high school graduate to be eligible to officiate varsity levels contests. Anyone can work contests below the varsity level. We have a student official’s registration where individuals who are younger than 18 can receive rules books, access to training and supplemental insurance.
Q: Do you have to have had high school experience as an athlete or performing arts participant to qualify as an official or judge?
Nickleby: While experience may be helpful, it is certainly not required. If you love sports or activities, this is your opportunity to get involved. The League will provide training and staff development opportunities in most sports. Additionally, local associations will assist with uniforms, getting assignments, mentorship and support throughout the season.
Q: In recruitment, you can direct individuals to websites for information, but isn’t making 1-on-1 connections equally, or perhaps, more important?
Nickleby: Yes, without question. Whether we are recruiting someone to join a club, join a church or become an official, personal connections are the main factor in a successful outcome. The League works hard on recruitment of new officials, however, the educators in our schools have the best chance to get former athletes or parents involved as a result of the personal connections they have with those individuals. Officiating and judging are challenging for new candidates. Feeling supported through 1-on-1 connections will give the new official a sense of connection and safety which increases our recruitment efforts significantly.
Q: What is the Minnesota State High School League doing about inclusion when it comes to recruiting officials?
Nickleby: The League’s Officiating DEI Council has provided invaluable service and support for recruitment efforts as we seek women and candidates of color in officiating. We know that it is important for participants to see officials that serve as role models and supportive figures during their high school careers. Obviously, we welcome and seek out all interested individuals that might see officiating as an avenue to stay involved in the activities they love. Additionally, we encourage individuals to consider opportunities in adapted athletics as well. There are a multitude of ways for everyone to get involved. Contact us today and we will get you started!
Q: What are the challenges of retaining officials?
Nickleby: Factors that cause officials to leave the avocation include family or work obligations as well as sportsmanship at events. We cannot control family or work dynamics that make it difficult to officiate as much or at all. Just like players during competition, we need to focus on what we can control and that is how we behave at contests. Officials need to feel supported and valued. They will go where they are wanted and stay where they are respected. We need to continue to work as a League on how we can control our emotions and behaviors at events. These behaviors detract from the experience for all participants, not just the officials. In all forms of work, it is significantly better to develop and support the gifted individuals already on staff than it is to recruit new people over and over. Recruitment will never stop, but the chances of having a quality event that enriches the experience for all involved increases tenfold when experienced individuals are involved in those contests. Improving our behavior will keep these individuals around longer which will improve the experience for the student participants and that leads to fewer issues for administrators to address. Let’s all do our part to control what we can control. I believe that retention will improve dramatically if we do.
Q: We see that the League has service awards to recognize its longtime officials. What are some of the keys that keep officials returning for continued years of service?
Nickleby: Officials that feel supported and valued will come back year after year. We have been fortunate to have officials that have officiated for as long as 60 years! This is not typical, of course, but those outstanding contributors made it that long because they had a support structure at home and at work as well as during the events themselves. There were times when they questioned whether they should continue to officiate, but the positive attributes of officiating kept them coming back. As we move ahead, it will be critical to support and value the incredible officials that work League events so we can continue to see growth in opportunities for young people to play. The Game is Calling: Become (and stay) an Official!