From the introduction of electronic whistles to arriving onsite dressed in officiating gear to wearing masks, the avocation of officiating has experienced a myriad of changes in the past year, due, in part, to a global pandemic. As education models in our schools have adapted to changes and leaders have been challenged to think creatively, so to have those associated with administering and training contest officials.
The use of virtual platforms for training has been one of those changes that has morphed into something that could be a permanent fixture for years to come.
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) was one of the first state high school associations in the country to recognize the virtual means as an avenue to keep officials engaged and striving to improve during a challenging time for high school activity programs.
Jason Nickleby, coordinator of officials for the MSHSL, has been the leader in making this new technology work. He is a veteran football official in the Big Ten Conference, and he also works NCAA Divisions II and III men’s basketball.
Nickleby was a national presenter on the virtual training of officials during the 2020 NFHS Summer Meeting and the 2020 National Association of Sports Officials Summit. During his presentations, he engaged officials and administrators from across the country in an array of visuals ranging from you-make-the-call videos to casting your vote to test your knowledge.
HST: Even before the pandemic, was the Minnesota State High School League already engaged in exploring or using virtual platforms to train officials?
Nickleby: Yes, we were. Minnesota is a large state from a land-area perspective, and we had several officials in a variety of sports that had requested alternative clinic attendance options in lieu of an in-person attendance requirement. In addition, we were looking for ways to engage officials throughout the season versus the traditional model of preseason requirements only.
HST: Did the arrival of the pandemic push the need for virtual training into high gear?
Nickleby: Definitely. Limits on large gatherings forced the League to look at our training and develop offerings as they currently stood and how they could be adjusted to provide maximum benefit in a virtual environment. Those limits have remained in place for the duration of the 2020-21 school year. All training clinics and purposeful connections with officials have been conducted in a virtual format.
HST: When you begin formulating a plan for virtual training for officials, what are the big items on the checklist that need to be covered?
Nickleby: Our plans for clinics begin with a detailed review of our traditional in-person training opportunities. What topics or learning models have been successful in the past? Which of those areas of focus can be successful virtually? Once we examined best practices for in-person learning, we made decisions about providing those same concepts virtually. We were able to incorporate many of those concepts in virtual training, including video review, expert panels, live-voting on quizzes and play situations and rules review.
HST: Prior to your first virtual training sessions, what were some of your concerns?
Nickleby: The main concern was how do you engage the participants throughout the presentation. Officials can easily log on to Zoom, turn off the camera and then go mow the lawn. We needed to get over that concern quickly. Similar to an in-person training clinic, officials will get out of the training what they want to get out of it. Forcing engagement does not lead to long-term growth for that official, in particular, or the officiating advocation in general. Offering a variety of concepts and presenters provided a change of pace that was well-received. Live-voting and the chat function provided an outstanding opportunity to engage participants in the content being discussed. Technology concerns are always at the forefront when you deliver educational content in this format. We had at least one presenter with expertise in virtual content delivery for each sport so that our virtual clinic offerings would proceed with as few hiccups as possible.
HST: What was the feedback of officials going into this new form of training?
Nickleby: Officials were ecstatic to have an opportunity to engage with other officials. Officiating is about camaraderie and relationships. The pandemic has robbed us of that opportunity to meet our social needs in all aspects of our lives. As we indicated before, officials were very pleased that they had a training clinic option that didn’t require windshield time. Many officials outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have had to drive several hours to attend the in-person clinic when it is in their area every three years.
HST: As you journeyed on the path of virtual training, what were some of the lessons learned along the way?
Nickleby: Technology is still a challenge for several officials. We still need to explore options for staff development during and after the season that meets the diverse needs of our officiating stakeholders. We have produced training tapes and provided rules quizzes that required minimal technology capabilities to engage in these learning opportunities. As an educator, I realize that our officials are just like students in that they have a variety of learning styles that cannot be entirely met in a virtual format option. However, we tried to provide opportunities for visual and participatory learning modules so that those officials who learn by seeing, or by doing, can see a benefit in their participation at our clinics just like we would with in-person clinics.
HST: Is virtual training for officials here to stay for a while?
Nickleby: Absolutely. In Minnesota, typically, officials are required to attend an in-person clinic once every three years if they wish to be considered for the postseason. In-person clinic sites are rotated around the state to make sure that officials have an opportunity to attend one near their home. Next year, we will incorporate both options and officials will need to attend a clinic once every two years because of the increased accessibility of training and the evolving nature of rules and mechanics.
HST: What advice do you have for other state and local associations that are considering this platform for the training of officials?
Nickleby: If you have the tools to provide alternatives to what you have been doing, go for it. Officials have diverse educational needs, and virtual options are another tool in the toolbox as we attempt to achieve consistent application of rules and mechanics across our states. Connecting virtually allows us the opportunity to engage officials directly and address their unique questions and concerns. We all crave the emotional and social connections of in-person clinics. That is what makes officiating so great. Connecting virtually is an opportunity for us to meet that need in a year where patience and flexibility are the keys to making it through in one piece
Tim Leighton is communications coordinator for the Minnesota State High School League, and he is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.