Leadership lessons from a Swim Referee

swim referee leadership

This past weekend I had the privilege of being  “on deck” as a Referee as I spent a day at the Olympic Pool in London, an architectural marvel and a centrepiece of London 2012. My first time in the building and the first time as a swim Referee in the UK. Many thanks to the swimming community here for welcoming me.

After the day, with my focus on writing and sharing, I reflected on what leadership lessons can be gleaned.

I do feel that leadership is part innate, but it can be taught. A third layer is that we all have leadership within us, so with self-knowledge, we can be open to learning. So, let me talk through leadership in swimming as a Referee, the “CEO” of a swim meet, and let’s see what lessons pop out as I write.

In the world of swim officiating, in order to reach the level of Referee, it takes quite a number of years and multiple levels to pass through, rules to learn, experience to gain, assessments to pass, exams to take. A little like career progression in many cases.

From that point on, to advance further as a Referee at more and more senior levels, the secret is to BE more and DO less.

To start with a summary of the official roles of a Referee (per the FINA rule book!) :

  • At a swim meet the Referee arrives at least an hour or more early to check the pool and equipment to make sure it is set up correctly.
  • Over the next hour or so, everybody will arrive and gather, the Referee will brief the officials, then soon after the meet will start.
  • The races are run and are officiated to ensure fairness to all the swimmers, with the swimmers disqualified if there are any rules infractions, then the results recorded
  • It then starts all over again for the next session, the next day until the meet is over.

A simple job really, just make sure the rules are applied. The job of a competent manager.

Now, let’s look from a MANAGEMENT angle a little more at some of the elements the Referee is responsible for, noting that under the rules the Referee is basically responsible for EVERYTHING as soon once the meet session is underway :

  • Facilities management.
    • Is the pool set up according to the rules?
    • Is the equipment set up correctly to start and time the races?
    • Are the meet rules in compliance with swimming rules?
    • Are health and safety rules being complied with?
      • NOTE: A typical meet has several hundred swimmers representing in excess of 10 clubs/ countries, plus spectators.
  •  Officials
    • Ensure officials are assigned to fill the roles required.
      • NOTE: a full roster of roles on deck takes between 40-50 people. Most sports require 5 or fewer (eg Football, Rugby, Basketball).
    •  Make sure the officials do their job and follow the rules consistently
  • Meet management
    • Ensure the meet is run according to both local and world governing body rules
    • Make sure the meet runs to schedule.
    • Ensure all results are accurately recorded

Again a job for a competent manager and all most valuable, but, where are the leadership lessons then, Tom? Huh?

Aah…now let me take it up a level from MANAGEMENT to LEADERSHIP.

The best Referees in any sport are invisible. If at the end of the event everyone feels it went really smoothly and nobody can really put their finger on why it seemed so smooth, then a lot of that will be down to the LEADERSHIP of the Referee. When the Referee is noticed and a point of conversation, then rarely is that a good thing!

Where MANAGEMENT is about the DOING then, LEADERSHIP is about the BEING.

It is not the role of the Referee to DO much, it is their role to see, sense and manage the energy of everyone at the meet, starting with the officials, then the coaches, then the swimmers and even the spectators.

(for any swim officials reading, as a Referee I try not to look at any of the swimmers during a race AT ALL. Look at FINA SW2.1.6 and the words SHALL and MAY contained therein, then consider the context of “fair to all swimmers” and consider why I prefer not to look at any swimmers!)

Where a Referee exudes calm and relaxed confidence, backed up by what has to be a given, ie encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules and experience of what to do in any given scenario, then this creates an environment that somehow seems to create a magical flow where everyone leaves at the end of the day with the clear sense that the meet flowed.

So, a few tips for swim Referees as a leader. :

  • Is always prepared for anything
    • Do your research as far as possible before you arrive.
    • Know the rules, know the setup at the pool
    • Know the key players and personalities, any issues that may pop up.
  • Is constantly looking for opportunities to proactively address any issues
    • You know I mentioned the referee arrived early? Be super calm and warm with everyone. Take time to check in with them before the heat of the meet gets started. Let them feel heard.
    • During the meet, DO less, BE more. You are not responsible for watching the pool for any infractions, you have lots and lots of officials that you lead who will do this very well for you. When you stop DOing, you take on the role of actively watching, listening, feeling for any issues.
    • Feel the energy. As you look around, do the officials seem calm, or is that judge in Lane 5 a little nervous? Does THAT coach, you know, the one that always seems disruptive, seem upset and about to blow a fuse? At times during a meet you will have periods of calm (eg long races), and you can walk around the deck and quietly chat to people, and/or delegate that to others you trust to match and sooth energies.
    • Walk the floor. Linked to the last point, you are not DOing, so move around. Get different perspectives
  • Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge
    • One of the most powerful leadership tools is simply to acknowledge others. Do it. You can’t do it often enough. As Referee you are looked up to as a leading figure at the meet. Take time to notice what is happening in detail, and acknowledge people.
    • To that end, kudos to Nick Hallam, who does an amazing job in the control room and is a calm head under any circumstances. his LI profile says he is a Software Asset Management specialist. I have no idea what that is all about, but if you need someone in that space, “how you do anything is how you do everything”, so I give Nick a glowing recommendation!

In Shirlaws I learned to distil leadership down to three key focal points, so let me now wrap up this post by linking this to Leadership and being a swimming Referee :

  • Hold the Context
    • Be clear on the Vision – on deck it is ALL about creating an environment for swimmers to excel.. and everywhere you look, everything you see, always make decisions and lead from that Vision.
  • Manage the Energy
    • Start with your own. Be present, calm, self-aware, response-able
    • From that foundation, BE, don’t DO. When you are not DOing, focus on BEing and tune into the energy of all those around you.
  • Coach, Don’t Play
    • Getting the point yet? BE, don’t DO.
    • Lead, guide, mentor, and create an environment for everyone to do their job, from officials to coaches to swimmers.

I hope here I have shared a few nuggets of wisdom around Leadership applicable in and beyond swimming.

In closing, my friend and mentor Kel  Thompson described being a commercial pilot as “endless hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror“.

Remember above when I said that a top Referee: “exudes calm and relaxed confidence, backed up by what has to be a given, ie encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules and experience of what to do in any given scenario”?

Well, I haven’t actually talked about what happens when that moves out of the theoretical to real-life scenarios, but future articles will talk about this and tell stories from both aviation and swimming!