Olsen coached his son’s baseball teams for 10 years and knows what it’s like to disagree with an umpire over a call. He’s also been an umpire for over 20 years and is fluid in how to handle a coach who is upset about a normal game situation.
Olsen, 76, who lives in Reno, Nevada, was quite busy around the Fourth of July umpiring a number of tournaments. Something really stood out to him in having to deal with so many coaches.
“There were some coaches that had an attitude kind of like the umpire is an enemy,” Olsen said. “You also see this across the board in sports officiating that the kids reflect the attitude of the coach. If the coach is complaining about how the game is called, the kids will complain.”
Olsen’s point: coaches need to be mindful that their attitude and how they present themselves on the diamond is important. Young players are very impressionable and coaches need to be aware of what they are saying and the actions they take. Coaches are a direct reflection of the program and players they work with.
Having interacted with thousands of coaches over the years, Olsen would estimate that 25 percent of the coaches he deals with in this day in age aren’t respectful of umpires and can be very combative.
“The high school coaches that have done this for a while, they each have their own reputation and they also know how to work the system a little bit better,” Olsen said. “You kind of get the pure reaction from a guy who maybe was a high-level player and they expect full combat. I would say typically at least three-quarters of (coaches) are good and maybe the top third of that are very good. Half of them are no worse than neutral, and then there’s always the pain-in-the-butt kind of guy you run into.”
Olsen emphasized a really experienced coach knows where the line is drawn in arguing a call and when they should step over it and when they shouldn’t.
A standard umpire approach to handling a coach who is questioning a call is known as verbal judo, noted Olsen.
“The verbal judo is when the coach comes out and you realize as the umpire you’ve got the biggest trump card in the deck because you can throw him out of the game if things get really crazy,” Olsen said. “But the idea is to say, what is this guy going to say? What is his point? I’m always interested when the coach comes to me with something that I’m not expecting, and I’m going to give him some latitude on that. He tells me what he saw, I tell him what I saw and usually that’s the end of it.
“The good coach will know when they’ve got a good argument and they pursue it and others will keep arguing just to argue.”
Olsen remembers officiating high school football games in the San Jose, California area over 25 years ago and working games that involved Saratoga High School and legendary coach Benny Pierce. He was a solid coach who ran a great program.
“If you missed a call, he didn’t say anything, but you’d look over and he would just be shaking his head, like, 'No, you screwed that one up,'” Olsen said. “He didn’t have to say anything. In other words, you were respecting him and he was not the kind of guy who was going to call you out.”
Calling out an umpire is never the best approach.
Before and during a baseball game, Olsen will interact with the coaches and keep the lines of communication open. He wants to be very approachable to the coaches. Olsen also wants the players to feel comfortable with the game he’s officiating.
“As a coach, you’ve got a certain expectation,” Olsen said. “Let’s say that expectation is, 'That umpire screwed me on this last game and I’m waiting for that to happen again.' In other words, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is your expectation that something bad is going to happen and you’re just ready for that and you’re going to jump all over the guy? On the other hand, the good coach will know how to ask a question and they will teach their kids.”
Olsen cites one example of a relationship every game that needs to be smooth or there can be issues.
“Typically, the interaction between the catcher and the plate umpire in baseball is probably the most important single thing,” Olsen said. “A well-coached catcher will say, ‘Was that down or was that outside?’ As opposed to, ‘Why wasn’t that a strike?’
“Knowing how to choose your words carefully is the most important thing.”