How to Listen Like
How to listen like Sarah Thomas
October 29, 2021
October 29, 2021
Were you listening for that sound on February 7, 2021? It wasn’t the cheering fans. Or The Weeknd’s half time performance. It was the sound of glass shattering as Sarah Thomas broke through the glass ceiling. She made history as the first woman to ever officiate in a Super Bowl.
This wasn’t Sarah’s first time breaking through barriers. She began her officiating in 1996 and has been rising through the male-dominated world of sports ever since. Sarah was the first woman to officiate in her native Mississippi’s high school division, at a major college football game, and at a bowl game. “Being the first isn’t the reason I did this, but if my story can impact anyone in a positive manner, that’s what matters to me,” Sarah reflected.
Sarah is one of just 121 NFL officials on the 2020 roster. Only the best of the best makes it to this level. Officials are carefully selected, rigorously evaluated, and extensively prepared. The NFL chooses its highest-rated officials of the season for the Super Bowl and they must have five years of calling games in the NFL plus postseason experience.
One of the most common jeers made by fans to refs at sports games is the taunt that they “have eyes in the back of your head.” But refs need more than eyes to observe what is happening on the field. A typical NFL game averages 154 plays, and officials must be completely focused on all of them to make split-second decisions both correctly and consistently.
When you listen with confidence it means that you are applying all your knowledge and experience to a conversation. You know what to pay attention to and what is important. And you have a strong belief in your own abilities to truly listen to the situation.
Sarah learned about officiating from her brother who attending a seminar about becoming an official at high school games. She went to the meeting and walked into a room full of men. She confidently shares, "There was a gentleman that was talking at the front of the room. He completely stopped talking and just watched me. I looked at him and said, 'Is this where you become a football official?' He said a few choice words to me. I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?' But I'm so competitive, so I just said, 'I'm going to try my hand at this.'"
With her confidence in her knowledge of the rules, Sarah can listen to what is happening on the field. Because she had never played, she recalled, "I had to learn from scratch, and that was a huge challenge. I had never counted the number of players on the field. I didn't know that the numbers on the players' jerseys stood for something. I had to learn from the bottom level, and it took me quite some time to learn all of those very basics, whereas if I had played it, I would have already known them."
The story goes that Sarah started working at the college level after she received a call from Gerry Austin, then the supervisor of Conference USA's officials. Austin had heard of Thomas from retired official, Joe Haynes. "What's his name?" Austin asked. "His name is Sarah," Haynes said. "I thought, 'OK, this is another door that's going to open,'" Austin said.
Austin hired her and immediately saw that Sarah had the communication skills needed to be an effective official at major college and bowl games. He said, “And she has great communication skills. She has the ability to calm the coach down and to explain whatever the coach is questioning. More times than not, a coach just wants to vent. We try to give him his 15-20 seconds to vent and then ask, 'What's your question?' That's a good skill, and Sarah has that skill.”
NFL officials must not only be able to effectively communicate with coaches, but also with the players, the other officials, and NFL Headquarters. This communication is two-way and requires both speaking and listening. These interactions are done with headsets, microphones, tablets, and even whistles (which can be as loud as 115 decibels -- loud enough for the entire stadium to hear without amplification for over a mile away!).
Sarah has a busy life beyond the football field. She is married and has two sons and a daughter. Until a few years ago, she simultaneously had a job in pharmaceutical sales and used her vacation time on her football career.
But she sets her personal life aside when it’s game time. She is fully present and listening to all that is happening on the field. She says she tables her emotions and is "… not a dramatic or emotional person" and that helps her when she’s under pressure in the game. She also realizes the importance of positioning on the field and being in the right place, at the right time. In 2016, Thomas was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and broke her wrist during a game. "You need to have the mind-set of a quarterback," Sarah said. "You have to know what the offense is going to run before the ball is snapped. The really good officials do that."
Before the Super Bowl, former Panthers and Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., now an NFL Network analyst, said of Thomas, “She has been outstanding. She knew exactly what she was doing — if guys tried to challenge her, she didn’t back down. She was like, ‘This is my job. This is what you did wrong,’ or, ‘Good catch’ or, ‘You didn’t drag your feet,’ and she moved on and did her job.”
The one thing that Sarah Thomas doesn’t listen to? Her inner-critic. She says, “Women don't have to listen to their inner-critic and hold themselves back; they can unleash themselves and reach their best potential if they put their effort into it.”
And Sarah isn’t the only trailblazing female official out there not listening to her inner-critic. This year, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder made NBA history as the first two women assigned to work a regular-season game together. There’s also Kathryn Nesbitt, who last December became the first woman to referee an MLS championship match.
Sara recalled an incident from when she was officiating college football games. She heard a screaming fan yell, “Hey, you suck. Bring the girl back.” “That girl” was Sarah Thomas who had officiated a game on the same field the week before her male counterpart.
So maybe one day we’ll be listening less for glass ceilings being broken, and more for fans yelling for the girl refs.
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