This weekend, I was a guest speaker at the National Association of Women's Gymnastics Judges Symposium in Grand Rapids, MI. It was eye opening and fun. I dare say, it was a pivotal moment in my life and I'm not sure my life will ever be the same again.
NAWGJ is the National Association for Women's Gymnastics Judges. They are the certifying and support body for all of the Women's Gymnastics judges in the US aside from HS. They assign Judges and oversee National and Olympic competitions all the way down to your local gymnastic competitions in your city.
You may be wondering how I ended up here. They were looking for a speaker who could address abuse of officials, both in person and online. The President of NAWGJ reached out to me online and I happily accepted the invite. My daughter and wife were competitive gymnasts and my wife is currently a High School Gymnastic Judge. additionally, I LOVE public speaking and spreading the Refs Need Love Too message to a whole other ecosystem of officials sounded like fun.
This past year, Women's gymnastics really blew up due to the popularity of a few particular women's gymnasts on TikTok. None more so than Olivia Dunne from LSU. She 7.6M followers. Her videos have 391M likes on TikTok alone. To give you some idea of how high her star has risen, she has recently become a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model.
Women's collegiate gymnastics has grown dramatically with many events now being televised live. With changes in NCAA regulations on compensation for college athletes, more money is coming into the sport. These talented young women can show off their amazing skills and get paid for it. They have big personalities, and they are leveraging Social Media as far as they can.
This is bringing new fans to the sport, but also trolls and haters as well. Crowds are getting more rowdy. Spectators are getting more verbal towards judges. And the judges have had numerous incidents where where judges have been tracked down on the internet and are receiving nasty messages.
Coaches have always been a problem, but with more exposure and prestige, comes more ego. There is no "Red Card" in Gymnastics. Yes, teams can receive a deduction for amassing 2 "Yellow Cards" in a competition, but it is extremely rare. There is little in the way of protocol and procedure for dealing with these situations.
Beyond the challenges these judges face from outsiders, there is friction between the gymnastic Judges themselves. In Soccer, there seems to be an endless abundance of matches to ref. In gymnastics, the competitions are fewer, farther apart and there is no limit to how long a judge can continue working.
In Soccer, due to the physical demands of keeping pace with play, there are always younger refs coming through to step in for the highest level matches. in Gymnastics, Judges in their 60's and 70's may still be in place making it hard for younger Judges in their 20' and 30's to move up and advance. The generational divide can also make it hard to communicate and establish mutual respect leading to high turnover for younger, yet promising judges.
I'll address the contents of my speech at the conference in a Podcast (https://www.buzzsprout.com/2031221/13231801), but can I just say how wonderful it was being here. This organization only exists to create standards for officiating and then developing and supporting their officials. They are not beholden to USA Gymnastics. They are partners. In England, The RA is a partner organization to the Premier League.
Here in America, US Soccer dictates and controls how referee develop and treatment is conducted. From what I understand, US Soccer really could not be bothered with the plight of Grassroots officials in the US. There is an entirely separate organization called US Youth Soccer that is supposed to be responsible for Grassroots, but again, the people who focus on refs is maybe 1 or 2 people for our entire country!
Additionally, the actually work of developing the 99.99% of soccer refs in our country is left up to state soccer associations and their State Referee Administrators. Some of these organizations are fantastic. Florida, Minnesota and Southern California to name a few. Most leave much to be desired. PRO, our Professional Referee Union, exists only for the betterment of Professional Refs. What about the rest of us?
At this convention, they had session on scoring and some technical factors of being a judge, but they also had sessions on leadership, financial and tax advice for independent contractors. They had numerous networking events and awards to recognize the best of the best and major contributors for lifetime achievement. The love and support in the room was palpable.
As I know as a soccer ref, the people who choose to become sports officials, judges, umpire and referees are some of the most wonderful people you will find in society. They are successful lawyers, doctors, executives and other upstanding members of society. These are the kind of people you want in your life. They are giving, strong and resilient. I'm thrilled to be able to now call them my friends.
I know that our best soccer referees, the ones who go to Regionals an Presidents Cup events get a taste of that, but it is literally the top 1% of refs. Who represents us? Who exists to make sure we all progress, grow and feel included? Let me just say that today was pivotal moment in my life and I think I may have found my calling. I want all future soccer referees in America to have an organization all their own. A tribe. Refs and judges, need love too!