The Umpire Needs a Coach

I’m not an expert on the rules and regulations of tennis but from what I saw of the US Open Women’s Final, and then heard and subsequently read, I feel certain that the umpire, Carlos Ramos, could benefit from a coach.

I appreciate that Mr. Ramos is highly knowledgeable about the ITF Rules of Tennis, but he seemed more concerned about rigidly enforcing the rule book than in delicately conducting the match so that the outcome could be decided based on the players’ skills. What could he have done differently? He could have warned both sides about no coaching prior to issuing Serena Williams a code violation. Later, he could have communicated clearly to Ms. Williams that if she continued to argue with him that he would be forced to issue a third penalty that would cost her a game. His conduct — which escalated rather than diffused the situation — lacked emotional intelligence. Perhaps it was a case of unconscious — or conscious — bias, we’ll never know. I believe that coaching could assist Mr. Ramos to better navigate escalating conflicts in the future.

At its core, coaching is about helping your client to develop greater awareness so that he or she can introduce new behaviors that will lead to greater success. Emotional intelligence is a prominent coaching theme, and research by experts such as Daniel Goleman and Dr. Travis Bradberry indicates that the best-performing leaders are those with the highest EQs. I like Goleman’s definition of EQ: “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, to motivate ourselves, and to manage emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”

Then there is the issue of bias. Lots of organizations are working hard to reduce unconscious bias. Check out Facebook’s efforts and Google’s resources. A simple way to learn about your own unconscious biases is to take one (or several) of these implicit association quizzes. Highly enlightening. As we know, awareness is an important first step in mitigating unconscious bias and giving our first thoughts a second look. That is where I would start with Mr. Ramos.

I’m sure the umpire was well-intentioned. Yet, the costs of his behavior for others and himself were very high: a new champion was denied the opportunity to bask in her amazing win; Ms. Williams was yet again subject to biases that may have cost her a key match; the fans were denied the opportunity to watch the match they had eagerly anticipated; and Mr. Ramos, noticeably absent from the closing ceremony, has been broadly discredited because of his behavior.

We love sports because they offer so many life lessons. Saturday’s lessons were painful reminders that to build stronger, more diverse and inclusive sports, institutions and organizations, we need to prioritize emotional intelligence in our interactions, and do a lot more coaching and training to understand and manage our unconscious biases.