The Referee/Starter Team

By Paul Memont // New England Swimming


I use the term “Team” because the Starter is the backup for the Referee and the Referee is the backup for the Starter.


We all should have read the documents concerning the Referee and Starter on the USA Swimming website, including the Checklists and The Professional Series. And we have heard these points many times!

  • The Starter picks his/her position on the deck and the Referee finds a place close enough to make contact if the noise level is high.
  • The Referee controls the pace of the meet by deciding when to hand the heat over to the Starter.

What many of us may not know, or think about enough, is how these two officials --  the Referee and Starter -- interact with each other before and during a meet. My opinions follow.


Before a meet, the Referee and Starter should talk about any procedures and protocol that may be meet or Meet Referee specific. Each meet -- at any level -- is unique, and may have differences because of these preferences. When National Evaluators mentor, they should mention that details will change from meet to meet and from Meet Referee to Meet Referee. We all find procedures that work best for us and Meet Referees usually have minor differences in the way they like the deck to run. Remember, the Meet Referee sets the protocol and we all follow it! There is not one way to do anything!  We should not hear, “this is the National way” or “this is the way it’s done at Nationals and the only way it should be done!” There are many paths we take that lead to the same destination and great results. None of us are or should be puppets! Be flexible, adaptable and prepared to follow instructions handed down by the Meet Referee.


There is a chain of command. The Meet Referee is the leader, decider of policy, sets the atmosphere and attitude of the meet. On deck there is also a chain of command. The Referees all receive their marching orders from the Meet Referee. The Starters receive the protocol that may vary meet to meet from the Head Starter (if there is one) who usually meets with the Referees and Meet Referee before the meet. If the Meet Referee has no direct input for the Starters, the Head Starter decides who will take order of finish and other protocol and procedures.


Back to the “team”!

During the meet, the Referee and Starter should communicate before every heat. Sometimes the Referee will mention there will be an empty lane, a DFS, or another issue with a heat. The Starter should communicate with the Referee before every heat, mentioning empty lanes or a lane that you think should be empty but has an Athlete.  The Starter is the failsafe for the Referee, his or her other set of eyes. Without taking your eyes off your jobs, small talk between heats serves to relax the two of you and shows everyone watching that you both are having a good time. This communication should become a positive routine, reduce mistakes and lighten the mood on deck.


What I believe is not proper:

As New England Officials Chair, I’ve received a few complaints from Starters concerning overzealous Referees and more experienced Starters. The complaint is usually that another Referee or Starter keeps telling them how to start, where to stand, how to say take your mark. When I talk to the Officials doing this, they don’t understand why it’s improper to over-mentor, or they don’t understand why I try hard not to give much input. They typically say “with your experience don’t you think you should mentor everyone every chance you have?”


I think this falls into the same category as a National Evaluator not giving an evaluation unless asked for. At the LSC level, when we have a qualified Starter working in the position, unless they are hurting the Athletes, we should let them work. If one little suggestion may help greatly then feel free, but be very frugal with advice unless asked.  When we get to the higher levels, it’s even more important to let the Starter work without critiquing; remember we are a team. If the Athletes are not getting good starts then a little mentoring may be reasonable, but it’s very important not to overdo it. 


Lead and mentor by example. We should never be telling Starters where to stand, to hurry it up because we have a timeline, talk louder (it’s alright to pass on to the Starter that there may be an issue being heard). We should never tell Starters how to hold the microphone, for instance, “you must hold the microphone with one hand” or “you must hold the microphone with two hands,” especially when an Omega system is being used. The important thing is that all Athletes get a fair and patient start, the cord is protected so that Athletes and Officials don’t trip on it, and we have a plan to execute hand signals for deaf swimmers if needed. For any standard microphone like the Colorado or Daktronics, I personally feel we should be using one hand so our free hand can give hearing-impaired signals if needed.


Remember that the key for the Starter/Referee team is to communicate with each other! This cuts tension and lets everyone on and off the deck see how much fun you are having. They may want to take part next meet!


  • For the same reason, smile as often as you can!
  • Don’t mentor unless asked or the Athlete is not getting a fair start!
  • Don’t assume your teammate sees everything -- let them know!
  • Have a lot of patience with not only the Athletes but also everyone else!
  • Mentor by example!
  • Enjoy or stay home!
  • Be a TEAM!
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