On a hot summer afternoon in Antalya, Turkey, I had the chance to have a half an hour privately with undoubtedly one of the best referees in the world. Steve Seibel blew the whistle on FIBA Americas Championships, World Championships, Olympic Games. He was the crew chief of the final of the 2014 FIBA World Championship.
Basketball is in his veins. He is a passionate referee with an impressive career, meanwhile a busy lawyer, loving husband and father of two. He had his ups and downs, but he made it to the top. I met a really nice guy so I want to introduce to you… Stephen Seibel!
Photo credits: Toronto Raptors Officials Seminar
Peter: Tell us about yourself. How did you start officiating? How did you get involved?
Steve: I grew up playing basketball and ice hockey, and I always had an interest in officiating because of the impact it has on the game. When I finished law school there was an international rugby referee, he was a partner in the law firm where I was working at and he was talking to me about refereeing. He suggested that maybe I should do something besides being a lawyer and so I thought maybe I would try officiating.
How old were you?
I was 28 years old when I started refereeing.
Why basketball? Why not ice hockey?
Well, ice hockey is in my blood. Basketball is my passion but in terms of the time I could give and concerning the opportunities to referee in the city of Vancouver, I decided to choose basketball. And I’m not a very good skater either!
How can we imagine your life? How many games do you have in a season? How much time do you spend with your family?
I have been married for 20 years. My wife is very active in sports, she coaches swimming. My son is 16 and my daughter is 13, they are both active in high level sports as well. So my life is balanced between being a busy lawyer, being a busy husband, being a busy father and also officiating. Sometimes I have to make sacrifices and not spend as much time with my family, with my job or officiating but I always make sure that whatever I am doing I am there and I am focused on the task I have.
I referee approximately 50 games per season, that involves 10- 20 Canadian University games and the rest are international games. Those involve officiating in the FIBA Americas League and then in the summer time, games with national teams. In the last few years it has been Olympics and World Championship.
How did you feel when you received the nomination for last year’s World Cup final?
I remember I received the call late at night, the night before the game. The first thing I thought about was my family and also the friends and mentors who have helped me a lot along the way because I could not get to this point without them. I received a lot of assistance and teaching from many great basketball referees and my family have always supported me so it was important not just for me but also for those people.
If you want to credit the most important mentors, feel free to name a few of them.
In Canada, a gentleman named Bill Crowley. He refereed at the World Championship and Olympics. He was a supervisor in Canada and he gave me the first opportunity at a young age when I did not have a lot of experience but he took a chance and allowed me to referee at the university level even though I did not necessarily have the experience that some supervisors thought that was required. He is still a very good friend and mentor to this day. He has always encouraged me and believed in me so I am very fortunate to have him in my life.
Outside of Canada, in the NCAA there was a supervisor named Bob Olsen. He did the same thing, he took a chance even though I was a younger referee from a different country and he decided he was going to hire me and gave me a chance at the NCAA division 2 level.
Beyond that, I was fortunate to work with referees like Romas Brazauskas, Carl Jungebrand and I was also taught a lot by Costas Rigas and Lubomir Kotleba.
What was your most memorable game?
Truthfully, it was the final of FIBA World Cup 2014. I had two great partners, it was very enjoyable to work with them because they are good people and they appreciated the moment. All three of us went out together for the same reason and that was to do a good job on the game for the players and the countries that were involved.
In terms of the game that probably changed my career the most, that was the U19 World Championship in Serbia in 2007. I officiated the gold medal game, again with two referees who worked really hard to do a good job. The atmosphere was amazing, there were thousands of people, and it was Serbia vs USA. It was a difficult game and an incredible experience.
Who were your co-officials?
Benito from Brasil and Mitjana from Spain.
You said it was a life changer game. How did it change your life?
It was more of a change as a referee. I realized the scope of FIBA basketball. Watching it on television and being there live is very different. I also got a sense about how the cultures come together from all over the world. That’s not just basketball, it’s a cultural clash of basketball. There were a lot of emotions in the finals and I understood that I had to manage them.
Tell us more about this game please! What was the biggest challenge, and how did you manage? What’s the key in managing these emotions on a crucial game like this?
The biggest challenge was that the emotion between the players involved. The key was to remain calm and aware. In those instances, you have to remind yourself to see everything so you are in a position to control the game.
How do you prepare for such a game mentally?
I imagine the venue and I visualize specific game situations like block-charge, unsportsmanlike fouls, goaltending and other plays that typically are outside of the flow of the game, and you have to be ready for even though you do not have them often at all.
Are you inside of your own body or you see yourself from an outside position when you visualise?
I would say both. Firstly, I see myself from an outside position then I go inside. I usually do it when I am travelling to the game and then when I arrive at the arena I am prepared for the game.
What else do you consider important in mental preparation? Is there any other aspect of mental preparation that is useful for you?
The other thing I do is to think about the communication that I am going to have to use with the players and the coaches. Especially if I am going into a game and I know that the emotions may be high, so I visualize that and try to focus on keeping my emotions under control as well so I can communicate effectively.
What makes an excellent referee in your opinion?
I think there are a number of qualities. In my experience, the referees that I have looked up to and learned from are calm, decisive, confident and accurate. Those for me are very important qualities to be an excellent referee.
What do you consider the most important among them?
Well I think all of those lead to one thing that you must have, which is an understanding of the game of basketball. If you do not understand the actual game of basketball, then all of those qualities are great but you are not able to make a decision that is needed for the game. You have to understand what is happening in the game.
What should young referee do to have a better understanding of the game?
You have to stay current and modern. You need to understand what the coaches are coaching, what the players are working on and what they are trying to do on the court. The best way to do that is to watch games – you need to watch basketball continuously. I watch basketball as a fan and as a referee, too. I do it regularly because I love it and also to keep learning. When I have the opportunity I speak to younger players about what they are learning, what they are being taught, and I speak to coaches at the university and professional level to see what they are teaching and where the game is going.
What do you consider the most important factor of conflict management?
I think you have to understand what a player or a coach is trying to accomplish and why the conflict exists. If you understand why the conflict exists, then perhaps you can provide a solution. The other very important thing is to understand you cannot always resolve the conflict and you might not be able to manage the conflict. What you can control is staying calm, and attempt to provide a solution.
How do you keep your focus during a game? How do you get back to focus when you realize you are out of it?
The last few years, I have been working a lot on being in the moment, being present, understanding and observing what is happening around me and not only listening to the analytical side of my mind, but also focused on what is going around me. I continuously observe what I am thinking. I am aware of my surroundings and I try to stay focused on them. When I feel myself slipping then I have triggers, I have certain words that I use to bring me back where I need to be.
What triggers do you have?
Well I have different ones for different things. They are as simple words as “shot clock” or “defensive rebound” that I tell myself.
What is the biggest challenge for you at the moment?
Truthfully, it is my fitness. I try to stay on the top of that and I work on keeping my weight where it should be but I am getting a little bit older, I am 44 years old now so it is a constant battle for me. But I enjoy and embrace the challenge.
What is your goal right now?
I have a lot of goals. I want to continue to officiate for the right reasons, to officiate because I love it and what the passion for officiating does, is it encourages me to attain other goals. I would like to officiate at the highest level as long as I can.
What do you think is more difficult? To reach the highest level or to stay there?
There is a cliché that it is harder to stay at the highest level than to get there. I think they are both difficult but I think they both require passion in terms of continuing to try to get better. I do not think that I have reached my highest point, there is a lot that I can improve and I am just going to focus on that.
You have met a lot of top basketball referees. What do you think are they rather good guys or tough guys?
I would say both. When I say they are good guys, what I mean is their character, their reputation and the reason they officiate are for good reasons. They are tough guys in the sense that they are mentally tough. They appreciate that there are going to be ups and downs and that they have to go through some storms but at the end of the day if they stick to their process then everything will be ok.
Is it necessary to go through mental storms in order to get stronger mentally?
I think so. I think if you talk to anyone in officiating, they all face diversity, they all experience failure and again there is also a cliché how you get back from failure.
Do you have any fear?
My biggest fear is losing the passion for officiating. It has been a fantastic 16 years since I started refereeing and there has always been something magical about it. Every time I step on the court for a game I feel that passion for basketball and officiating and I could not imagine losing it.
What are your thoughts about failure and mistakes?
I think failure can drive you but it can also ruin you so I do not really think about failure. We all get feelings or fear of making a mistake but once I have this feeling I try to think about what I need to do in order to prevent or avoid that situation.
Looking back on the road you have had, what was the most important realization you had? Was there an “aha” moment in your life?
I would not say I have had a realization or an “aha” moment. I think what has been the most helpful for me is realizing that the more humble you are, the more confident you get perceived. I am not suggesting that I am the most humble person in the world but I work on it!
My last question, what would you tell a young and ambitious referee if you could give only one advice?
I would say go after everything you want to achieve. I would say take advice from those who are supporting you and believing in you, and be motivated by those who are making comments about you that you feel show disbelief in you or are not supportive. Learn from it and understand that maybe you need to change something.
Is there anything else you think is important to say?
I am just very thankful for everything that I have been able to experience over the years. Sometimes I look back how that happened and then I realize I still have to keep trying to accomplish and attain the goals that I have set.