Volunteers play an important role in the growth and success of the sport of wrestling. There are countless coaches and parents across the country going the extra mile to make the wrestling experience great. But there is one other important group that is often overlooked—and underappreciated—for the work they do: The wrestling referee.
Wrestling referees are the unsung heroes of the sport. They do the work that most don’t want to do—often for little or no pay—yet are the first to be criticized. Through it all, they keep coming back, putting in their time and pouring their heart and soul into a sport they love.
But it’s not always easy.
Fred Engh is the founder and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a leading advocate for positive and safe sports and activities for children located in West Palm Beach, Fla. Engh wrestled at the University of Maryland and had seven children, including three that wrestled while growing up in Salisbury, Md.
Years ago, Engh stepped on the mat as a volunteer official for a high school match in his hometown. And unfortunately that experience was such a bad one, Engh never wanted to do it again.
“I was there doing the school a favor, but the fans and opposing coach and team didn’t think so,” recalls Engh.
“Parents sometimes need to stop and imagine themselves out there. Perhaps then they will have better appreciation for volunteers who officiate.” – Fred Engh, founder and president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports
From the first match on, the jeers, complaints, and crowd yelling insults at him seemed to be all Engh heard that night. It escalated even further when the coach of the opposing team ran out on the mat after he made a call and accused Engh of fixing the match for the home team.
“That was the last match I refereed and from that day on I have had great admiration and appreciation for anyone who volunteers to officiate in youth sports—no matter what the sport, says Engh.”
Respect and admiration, along with support, is what officials deserve, says Engh. “Every sports official I know is honest, hard working, and dedicated to the sports they officiate,” he notes. “Parents sometimes need to stop and imagine themselves out there. Perhaps then they will have better appreciation for volunteers who officiate.”
They are folks like Toska Adams. She first became interested in wrestling when her son competed in middle school. Now, 18 years later, Adams, an elementary school teacher in Kentucky, serves as head official of Kentucky USA Wrestling, the Director of Women’s Officials for USA Wrestling’s Cadet and Junior Nationals, and is a top women’s college wrestling official. There’s Casey Brennan-Goessl of Osceola, Wisc. He’s a husband, a father, and a business owner. He tagged along with his dad, also a wrestling official, as a kid and now is an Olympic-caliber level official who has traveled the world because of the sport. And alsoTom Kuisle, a former high school teacher from Kellogg, Minn., who spent 35 years as a coach and has also become one of the most respected freestyle and Greco-Roman officials in the United States.
“Officials make mistakes, it’s going to happen,” acknowledges Kuisle. Those are often words overzealous coaches and parents don’t think officials will ever say. The truth be told, the wrestling official hates it just as much when calls are missed too.
“We are not there to make a kid lose,” Adams points out. “We are there to keep the wrestler safe and we want the wrestlers to decide the match. Officials don’t try to cheat kids out of winning. We learn from our mistakes and try to get better as much as we can.”
For the past 10 years Kuisle has worked closely with USA Wrestling to educate new and experienced officials on how to diffuse conflict and confrontation during a match.
What he tells coaches is this: He respects any coach who challenges or asks questions about a call, and if done in a polite manner, it is only going to foster a better and more productive discussion. The nature of wrestling is confrontation and conflict, says Kuisle. In an intense, physical sport, people are going to get upset if they feel a call was missed. All officials understand this.
“But parents and coaches need to remember they are role models,” says Kuisle. “When parents shout out from the crowd or a coach stomps around on a mat, kids see this and think this is the best way to solve conflict. That is not teaching kids anything positive.”
Any good official will admit they miss calls, says Brennan-Goessl. But until one steps on the mat and works as a referee, one will never know what the official is actually dealing with. “Things happen so fast in wrestling,calls are going to be missed,” he says. “We strive to do our best. When coaches or parents act up, it puts even more pressure on the kid because they see that and it can take their focus away from concentrating on the match. It does have an adverse affect.”
Adams has overcome stereotypes that women can’t become good officials or understand the sport. She’s now a willing mentor who helps other women aspire to become officials get into the sport. She never wrestled—girls weren’t allowed to when she was growing up—but she has put in the time and dedication needed to overcome any obstacles.
“I was lucky that, early on, several key people took interest in me,” says Adams. “But being a female I always felt I had to be better to be equal. That’s the way I looked at it.”It also helps to have thick skin, she says.”People are going to try and ruffle your feathers and make you mad. If you go into with determination and passion to learn and get better, you can succeed. I love it.”
In every city and every state, there are officials making a positive impact on the sport. There’s Mike Hagerty in Missouri, a teacher by day, but an official who also volunteers as a member of USA Wrestling’s Coaches Council. Chad Olson is a banker in Wisconsin, and he juggles times where he has to officiate matches coached by his brother at a local high school. John Heyman is a retired IT business analyst from Florida who has made an impact officiating high school wrestling on a state level and nationally and internationally as a freestyle and Greco-Roman official and mentor. Zach Errett, a former high school wrestling and football coach, now is an athletic director at Mooresville High School in Indiana, and one of the best freestyle and Greco-Roman officials in the world. The list goes on.
All people with regular jobs, doing the extraordinary job of volunteering their time as an official.
“I think at the end of the day it’s important for parents and coaches to remember that wrestling is a sport and sports are supposed to be fun,” says Brennan-Goessl. “We all play a role in making that happen.”
The next time you’re at a wrestling match and get frustrated, upset, or question a call, keep this thought in mind, says Engh:
“What if no one volunteered to be an official? What then?