Achieving a ‘common line’ — what can one learn from other fields

My recent comments about the refereeing at EURO 2010 suggested that one of the problems this time involved a distinct lack of a ‘common line’ among the referee couples, something that both the coaches and the referee supervisor clearly see as an important issue. Of course, the coaches in a sense always have a similar issue, when they want to ensure that all the players on their team are synchronized regarding the tactics to be used, both generally and in specific game situations. After all, players are likely to have a mind of their own…

So it may have some relevance to examine the experience with achieving a ‘common line’ also in a totally different field. People who know me well are aware that I am not just a ‘handball fanatic’. I have many other interests, and perhaps the main one involves classical music and opera; no, do not worry, not as performer, just as an enthusiastic listener. Therefore, it seemed like a very nice opportunity when some time ago I was able to have a chat with a well-known symphony conductor. He wants to be ‘anonymous,’ but I can reveal that he is from a handball country and he is sports-minded. Thus he was able to appreciate the significance of my questions, when I asked him about ensuring a ‘common line’ from the members of an orchestra that he is conducting.

As he noted, a ‘common line’ for an orchestra obviously does not just mean following the same music sheet but, in particular, it means following the conductor’s intentions and interpretations. And the [u]whole[/u] group has to ‘buy in’, has to be on board with the agreed approach. He wanted to mention five points, three of which are relevant to the preparations or rehearsals prior to a concert (or a game). One applies during the concert/game, and the last one is more related to the feed-back afterwards. I hope you will agree that, not surprisingly, they are very much the same kind of points that a coach or a referee supervisor need to keep in mind; nothing revolutionary, nothing that they may not know already, but still interesting.

The first point is to show that the conductor clearly knows what he/she wants to achieve. One must be prepared to listen and to accept ideas, but one cannot get respect without coming well-prepared and being able to demonstrate one’s knowledge. Being overly democratic and too ready to make compromises or to let the team decide does not work, if you want to emphasize a ‘common line’. The same goes for a group of referees.

Second, it is critical to focus on the big picture first. It is tempting to get caught up in detail after detail, but the approach to those details will not be clear, until and unless the overall goal or tactic is clear. It is especially important to avoid getting into a lot of negative feedback and criticism on minor details during a rehearsal or practice. (A referee supervisor may need to explain how he/she wants the referees to lead a game, before one gets into explaining the specific mistakes that they need to avoid).

The third pre-event point is to remember that, even as you focus on a team approach and a ‘common line’, you still need to treat the orchestra/team members as individuals. Some are more comfortable with the notion that the leader knows best, and are not so willing or capable of articulating any views of their own. Others need to have more of a dialogue, both for the purpose of understanding the message and in order to accept it fully.

During the concert/game, you need to realize that most of the opportunity for serious teaching is already over. Going too far in trying to change course or to rectify problems can easily backfire and make things worse. Certain things can be, and need to be, dealt with as the event goes on, but especially negative feedback, including body language, can often be demoralizing or confusing. (I am not so sure that all coaches will agree on this).

After the game, a team coach or a referee supervisor normally has the opportunity to offer feedback. The conductor noted, with some envy, that for him this tends to be the case only when he is conducting ‘his own’ orchestra, where he is based and where he has more ongoing and managerial responsibilities. When he is a ‘guest conductor’, there often is not an opportunity, except if one tries to do it in a rushed way directly after the event. But he warned against this; he had found that such immediate feedback, at a moment when the adrenaline is still there and when the orchestra members have not yet had time to do their own evaluation, is likely to be wasted. They are not receptive and are not likely to be able to make much use of the feedback.

I will not go back and comment (more than I did above) on how I think that each of these five points apply to a handball coach and to a referee supervisor; I will leave that to each of you, on the basis of your own experience, if you find it useful. Indeed, you may even disagree with some point. Personally, I do find it relevant and useful, and of course I can primarily comment on it from the perspective of a referee supervisor. I think there are some good analogies or comparisons, and I do believe it offers some helpful reminders. As Mozart used to say, “we are all in the same boat.”