Referees are a part of every sport, and an important part of every sport. Referees are the ones that enforce the rules of the game. They ensure that the players all play by the same set of rules. This is, at times, particularly important because sometimes the referees are the only ones that even know all of the rules of the game, unlike some players on the court or the field. This is also important in close matches, as referees, when competent, instill a sense of confidence in the players and the fans that the right player or team at the end of the game was victorious and that there was no foul play. Referees also are an important element in communicating the score or status of the game to fans and generally exemplify compassion for the sport at hand. Referees are typically great ambassadors for the sport they serve.
This is also true of the sport of pickleball. Although most pickleball play consists of recreational play, and no referees are present, referees are important and impactful for competitive tournament play, where winning and losing has a bit more at stake, especially for the pro divisions, where money is on the line. Frankly, I did not realize just quite how important referees until I experienced for myself, a match without a referee and then a match with a referee, against the same team just a few hours apart.
During a tournament in 2019, my mixed partner, John Davison, and I started the day on a strong note by winning the first game of our best 2 out of 3 match-up. However, after having a lead in the second game, things quickly started to turn. Shots that we were successful with up until the beginning of the second game, were now being taken out of the air and smacked down to our feet or otherwise aggressively hit for winners. Point after point, our opponents decidedly took game 2 and were on their way for game 3. About halfway through game 3, I turned to John and exclaimed, “I have no idea how they are getting to those shots. I thought I had hit it clearly in the Kitchen!” With a match point on the line, John and I call our last time-out in a final attempt to hold off our opponents. During the time-out, a friend from the sidelines runs over and whispers to me and John, “One of your opponents is in the Kitchen every shot.”
Well, the mystery was now solved. The reason that our shots were suddenly ineffective is because one of our opponents was violating one of the cardinal rules of pickleball—there are no volleys permitted in the Non-Volley Zone (also known as the Kitchen). Every inch counts when you are reaching over the Kitchen Line! However, at match point in game 3 and with no referee to enforce the rules, we were unable to change the course of the match, eventually losing.
John and I took to the consolation bracket, determined to fight back to the medal rounds. After winning multiple matches in the back draw, we finally made it to the final four teams. We were now playing a match that, if we won, would send us to the bronze medal match. Since the tournament was a “Medal Match Plus” tournament, this would now be the first match that would have a referee, as “Medal Match Plus” tournaments require referees for all medal matches, plus the match that would send the winner to the medals—meaning the match that we would then be playing.
As we stepped on to the pickleball court, we faced the same team that we lost to the first match of the day. John and I had our chance at redemption, but, this time, with a referee.
The match started the same as the first match. John and I had an early lead, but it was close. As we started to pull away, the same trend happened. A shot that we were successful with was now taken out of the air and smacked down to our feet. However, after the winner hit the pickleball court, the referee shouted, “FOOT FAULT!” and then awarded a point to John and me. We served the pickleball for the next point and, again, a shot that we were successful with was hit for a winner. “FOOT FAULT!,” yelled the referee. This happened two more times, for a total of four foot faults in a game to 15 points.
John and I casually smirked at each other at the end of the match, as we went on to win. Our theory of our opponents’ Kitchen violations proved true. Our opponents did not intentionally violate the rules of the Non-Volley Zone. Rather, as they began to see the game slip away, they felt the pressure and were doing what they could to win. This was likely the same feeling they had in the first match when John and I were ahead. However, the result in the match later in the day was completely different solely because we had a referee to enforce the rules of pickleball. Our opponents likely would have won if they could have violated the Kitchen rules without repercussions the entire second match. Nevertheless, thanks to the referee and the double elimination format, John and I made the most of our shot at redemption, and we also learned how much we value referees.
Pickleball referees are impactful. They uphold the integrity of the game. They enforce the rules of the sport of pickleball, without inserting their presence into the game. Referees are also important, and we need more, in order to continue to grow the sport of pickleball, particularly at a competitive level.
Thank you to all of the pickleball referees out there for everything you do! You are appreciated for every early start, late night, and “FOOT FAULT!” call!
If you want more information on pickleball referees, including how to become a pickleball referee, visit USA Pickleball’s website here.
Read past blogs from the "Lessons from the Pickleball Court" series:
What lesson have you learned from the sport of pickleball? Share with us in the comments below, or reach out to me personally via email at email@example.com.
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