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Mentorship Programs Play Key Role in Retaining Contest Officials

By Tim Leighton on March 13, 2018 hst Print

In the recent national campaigns to recruit and retain high school contest officials, implementing a mentorship program has been considered a vital part of the success.

The concept is to pair a new or younger official with a veteran official in an attempt to build a relationship that will provide lasting support during the new official’s journey. How does an officiating mentorship work? Is it well received? What if the new or younger official isn’t interested in having a mentor?

In a recent interview, Jason Nickleby, the coordinator of officials for the Minnesota State High School League, provided some insights into the mentorship concept. Nickleby, who began his officiating career 23 years ago when he was just 13, is an NCAA Division I football official in the Big Ten Conference and officiates basketball at the Division II and III levels.

Question: What is the first thing you think of when you hear the term mentorship program?

Nickleby: I think of experience. Using experienced or good officials is vital in terms of growth. We have all had people help us along the way. None of us are in positions of leadership without it. To make sure there was a more formal mentorship, we felt it was important to get that going.

Question: How does a mentorship work?

Nickleby: In Minnesota, it is association-driven. We have 6,300 contest officials and judges. We can’t begin to micromanage all of those officials. The associations have a really good idea of what they can do in terms of providing education and guidance. The associations, for the most part, have been very interested and gung-ho in making this work. The aim is that we will have officials who stick around a lot longer. Ultimately, we are talking about the long-term health and growth of the associations. We need veteran officials to step forward to tell these younger or newer officials, “Hey, I’ve been in your shoes. Let me know how I can help you.”

Question: Are the mentee and mentor paired together for the whole season, and do they work games exclusively with one another?

Nickleby: Ideally, they would be paired together for the season so that the mentor can observe the mentee. That would be a best-case scenario. However, the mentor is usually an experienced official who works at a higher level. We do ask our mentors to work a sub-varsity game or two with their mentees.

Question: When you reflect on your career, did you have veteran officials take you under their wing to show you the way?

Nickleby: Without a doubt. In every sport that I have worked, and continue to work, I have had experienced mentors and guides to show me the way. I am very grateful for that. I still rely on many of them today.

Question: Is it tough to convince a veteran official to become a mentor?

Nickleby: I don’t believe so. Our mentors are here because someone helped them. We want to be that same person for some. They are happy to give back. You know, talking about officiating is fun, regardless if it is with a younger or newer official, or a bunch of veterans. It keeps your juices flowing during the season.

Question: What kind of frustrations do veteran officials share with you about being a mentor?

Nickleby: We sometimes encounter officials, both new and veterans, who are not willing to learn or get better. They come to the game, work the game and go home. Sometimes that is fine. Other times, we can avoid the consternation and struggles in our individual games if we would just converse about plays or game management with someone who will listen. I think veteran officials are frustrated when they have issues that could be avoided just by staff development.

Question: How do you stress the importance of a mentorship program to a new or young official?

Nickleby: We start by telling younger and newer officials that officiating is hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it, but it’s not. If you want to be a good official, you must practice. It’s like shooting free throws. You work at it. It is two-fold: Practice to get better and get advice or feedback. Those two go hand in hand.

Question: Is it vital for a new or younger official to participate in a mentorship program or can they advance without it?

Nickleby: I think a mentorship is paramount. None of us have gotten where we are without guidance and feedback. I am not saying it is impossible, but it is unlikely you will reach your goals without some form of mentoring.

Question: What makes a strong mentor?

Nickleby: A strong mentor is someone who is a good listener and not necessarily a good talker. The main skill is to have the ability to listen and to give feedback based on what they heard. Let the mentee share their experiences. You can say, “Hey, I’ve had that play before,” instead of talking down to the mentee. The top-down approach isn’t always received very well.

Question: What makes a mentorship relationship work?

Nickleby: It is a two-way street. The mentee must have the capacity to accept and implement constructive criticism, and to be a strong listener. If you have a mentee who is willing to share and then take feedback with a mentor, someone who is a great listener and a molder of sort, you will have a pretty good partner.

Question: Are there skeptics who believe mentorship programs are just a bunch of rhetoric?

Nickleby: I am sure there are skeptics of any program or initiative that we do out of this office. Other state associations can say the same. If you have a good relationship and great attitude about the program, it will succeed.

Question: Are associations doing a good job of developing and maintaining mentoring programs?

Nickleby: I think associations are doing better than ever before. We’ve had several of our associations thank us for making this a requirement piece. For many years, their leaderships got together and expressed the need for a mentorship program. They have been saying that for about 15 years. It was all talk and no action. Now that it is a requirement, many are thankful that it is in place.

Question: What advice or input would you give other state association administrators about the success rate – and the pitfalls – of a mentorship program?

Nickleby: All our state associations are involved with education- based activities. They understand that like a teacher-student relationship or a principal-teacher relationship, there must be a guidance program in place for people to flourish. Being strong in officiating is no different. There are studies about teacher retention. If teachers don’t have a quality experience in their first five years, they will be out of teaching. Officiating works the same way. We want our officials to grow. It is important for our associations to explore mentorships to incorporate into their programs. Retention is the key.