How Nate Saunders Became a World-Class Basketball Referee | A Leader’s Journey Interview

CoachOiseau Life & Leadership Coaching

An internationally-certified FIBA basketball official, Nate Saunders is one of the best and brightest young referees in Canada (but he’s probably too modest to tell you!). He’s also just a really awesome guy.

You’ve got to fail to grow. And I’m not saying you go out there and screw this up, but you grow from failure. There’s no growth without failure, I don’t think. You need to be able to develop resilience through failure.

Nate Saunders, on the value of failure

Now making regular appearances on the world stage, he’s on the verge of potentially going straight to the top of his field in the next few years (the 2020 Olympics is not that far away!). Even the NBA has noticed Nate, which you’ll read more about a little later!

For all the talent that he’s got on the court, he is equally special off of it. I sat down recently with him and picked his brain about his journey, his thoughts on leadership, and what’s made him a world-class performer just as he’s entering his 30’s.

Note: anything written in bold represents my own emphasis of the transcript. These words really struck me as I heard them, and they may strike you too!

MB: Tell me a bit about your story so far?

I’m presently in my 15th season refereeing basketball. I started in 2004 as a high school student who was playing basketball religiously. One day one of our after-school teams needed a ref for a game. I picked up a whistle – had no clue what I was doing – and did what I thought was right. I had fun doing it, and got a little paycheque at the end of it. That was the humble beginning.

I attended a meeting for the local referee’s association and stuck with it. I was pretty young then, around 15, and had a lot of good support from peers and colleagues who were older than me. There was also a good crop of young officials who helped push me – that part helped a lot, too. I just kept working up and up and kept getting opportunities…then made the push to the CEGEP ranks. I worked there, excelled, made mistakes, got better. Then I got the call to the university ranks, and shortly after that in 2012, the opportunity to earn an international certification came up. That’s when I knew it was really big.

It’s not everyone who gets the shot in the first place, and it’s not everyone who goes on to get that certification.

The international scene was quiet at the beginning. My first gig was a replacement gig in Taiwan. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I guess I was noticed there…again, it’s about being in the right place at the right time and putting in the work. I was always very professional. It sort of snowballed from there.

I did the World University Games, followed by the U-18 Americas Championship this past summer, followed by a U-17 World Championship. They’re a big, big deal. That was another launching pad. Ever since, I’ve been working tournaments in the Americas…Belize, Uruguay, Argentina…Mexico City just last week. I do my local stuff still, and when I get the call for the international gigs I’ll go and do those.

MB: Wow…where could this all lead to?

I always said to myself, “man, if I could get to a B-referee status [referees in Canada are classified A through E – above A is the international level]…I’ll just be so glad.” I didn’t even put international on the list. But now that I’m there, the sky’s the limit.

Working the World Cup in China (this year) is a big goal of mine. 2020 is the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and that again, if I put the work in, is definitely attainable.

The NBA is also on one of the back-burners. I’ve been in contact with an NBA officiating scout for a number of years who asks for my schedule…getting to that stage is whole other process, but I’m starting to say to myself, “who knows?”

MB: What’s made Nate Saunders a great official?

I’ve often asked myself the question, “why me?” I just think that it came down to work ethic. It was something that was instilled in me when I was very young. Whatever you do, give it your 100%…be very professional. Don’t leave until the job is done, and that starts on and off the court.

It starts from just getting your referee equipment….getting your shirt, your pants tailored properly, the nice shoes. Then its about how you wear it. All that stuff…shining your shoes. That little attention to detail off the court that when I get onto the court…people might not see that stuff, or the fact that I spent an hour in front of the mirror this morning working on my referee mechanics (how officials move while they call a game).

That all comes down to work ethic…coming in early, staying and watching other people’s games, getting feedback from others and giving them feedback. During my career, I’ve dissected every aspect of refereeing and have asked myself, “how could I get better at that?” If you put in the work, and you have that goal of improving every time, you will get seen by the right people.

MB: What do you think is going to take you forward as you keep going in your journey?

I attended a clinic a couple of weeks ago for FIBA Americas referees, they titled it, “with high potential.” They are now gearing our group up to be crew chiefs. And so they don’t only want us refereeing on the international stage, they want us to manage and be responsible for the crew [of three officials].

That starts before you get on the court…meeting up at the airport, making sure we have pregame meetings, getting to the venue, checking with the scorer’s table and the instant replay system. You’re responsible for your crew and your crew’s assignment, and so they’ve really been pushing leadership. I’d say that’s the next step.

It’s not to say I haven’t demonstrated leadership before, but now it’s a different type of leadership. FIBA wants to say, “Nate, this is your assignment, we trust you can take care of it.” It’s the next step of leadership that will make the difference going on.

I worked a World Cup qualifier in Uruguay – it was probably the biggest game of my career – a 10 000 person sold-out game. The winner would basically move on to the World Cup, and the loser would basically be out. I knew it was a huge game. Everyone was watching, my boss included. I learned the importance of leadership just because of the crew chief that was with us…he took care of everything. He made it so easy for me to just go out there and worry about refereeing. Not just in terms of the hotel arrangements, but also our plan for the game, and getting our mindset right. We were in the hotel, we worked out, we were together for about 36 hours before the game. I was just so impressed by his leadership qualities, and it was so settling.

MB: Aside from work ethic and professionalism, is there any other habit that’s helped you get here?

I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the help of other people. You need to develop a good peer group, you need to socialize, and pick the brain of those who have gotten to where they are. You need to learn your craft with and from the people in your immediate surroundings.

In a refereeing sense, I really had a great group of peers coming up through Quebec. Montreal is a hotbed for referees, believe it or not. Seeing each other’s games, talking about [our work], being honest with each other…”like Nate, that was a terrible call.” And they’re able to tell you why. And you sit back and think about it, go watch the tape…that’s something that’s huge…we clip stuff and send tape to each other. It’s to the point now, having gone across Canada and refereeing basketball, I’m sending it to guys in Halifax, Victoria, Calgary…

We have this email thread where we’re just sharing and learning from each other. I’ve found that group of peers that are just trying to get better. There’s no competition: we’re just trying to get better. Without those guys who are also coming through the ranks, I’m kind of a lone wolf and I wouldn’t be here, period.

MB: How do you think your peers perceive you?

I don’t think I’ve ever had an extremely negative interaction with my peers in basketball refereeing. I’ve met people who are there, they just want to get paid, and then go home. I’ve developed the image of [being a] workhorse, and trying to get better so I’m perceived by my peers as, “OK, I’m working with Nate, I’m going to step it up today.” I think people like working with me. They know what to expect when they’re working with me. I’m not going to “half-ass”…or put the whistle in my pocket and let the teams beat the crap out of each other. “Nate’s going to call what he’s going to call.”

The ones who have that same vision of moving up, I know that they appreciate working with me and want to hear from me. They want to know what I think and I appreciate that. And those that don’t [want to significantly advance in officiating], they still appreciate what I’ve been able to accomplish. They know it can be hard. I’d say that my peers appreciate my presence.

MB: What does the word “leadership” mean to you?

There are two kinds of leaders. There are vocal, big-presence, audibly influential leaders, and then there’s the quiet leader. They might not have as much flair, but they’ll lead by example.

One of my refereeing superiors emailed me the other day, and he mentioned me having been a quiet leader and I said, “me, a quiet leader?” Well I know I’m not a loud leader, and I never really thought of myself as a leader. Maybe I’m not always expressing my thoughts or opinions all the time, but I do what I think is right and how things should be done. There’s no one way of doing leadership.

Loudly or quietly, it’s about being an example for others. And that’s whether you’re in a position of authority or rank…it can be done at the lower levels too. Anybody can be a leader…at any position they can be a leader. It’s about being the right fit for what you’re doing, and doing it for the right reasons. Leadership is meaning more and more to me as I enter my 30’s!

MB: Tell me about one or two of the most challenging moments of your career so far?

One would definitely be the time commitment that it has taken away from family or my social life. There has definitely been a sacrifice on that end.

Especially when you’re working your way up, you’re in the gym every weekend…you referee games during the week after work or school, and then on weekends it’s like “I’m at this tournament, I’ve got two games there, and then I’m going to this tournament.” You’re factoring in the travel time, getting there before the game (at least an hour before the game in the CEGEP ranks), and there’s the game itself. Then you’re watching peers games, or giving feedback to someone else, or just talking about your game with your colleagues…it’s a big time devotion. It’s huge. I’ve had to make those sacrifices in the past.

I do love what I do, but I’ve had to ask myself the question, “well is this really what I want to be doing?” I’ve thought about that in the past.

The other aspect that’s constantly on my mind is what your peers think of you. Now this is a broader sense…it’s more so the image that I portray to players, coaches, to school administrators, and even just the general public. In refereeing we are so under the microscope, if I’m in a game and I say the wrong thing to a coach, they can come after me and I can get reprimanded for that type of stuff.

There are so many ways that things can unfortunately go sour or be interpreted the wrong way, that it’s constantly on my mind. A great example of that is a colleague of mine, probably my best friend coming through refereeing. He and I went and got our international certification at the same time back in 2012. He went off and did a tournament, and – long story short – something he said was taken the wrong way. And the wrong person heard. And his intention was not malicious in any way shape or form [but] he lost his international certification.

He was super deserving to be an international official, he put in the time, the energy and the work. We all know his story [in the refereeing community], and for us it’s just so sad to see. So you’re always thinking “could this be taken the wrong way?”

We’re under such a scrutiny and people are kind of just looking for any which way to pick and dissect, and it’s sad, but it’s definitely one of the most difficult parts of refereeing.

We're under such a scrutiny and people are kind of just looking for any which way to pick and dissect, and it's sad, but it's definitely one of the most difficult parts of refereeing. Click To Tweet

MB: How do you view failure?

You’ve got to fail to grow. And I’m not saying you go out there and screw this up, but you grow from failure. There’s no growth without failure, I don’t think. You need to be able to develop resilience through failure.

There’s no referee who’s ever reffed a perfect game. Never. It hasn’t happened. We have a saying actually, “when we ref our perfect game, we’ll retire. We’ll just pack it in right then and there.” Knowing that we go out there “failing,” it’s a part of growing and getting better. It’s a part of what we do.

We’re always going out there trying NOT to fail, but we’re also developing strategies on how to get through failure. I can say it firsthand, when you go out there and you make a wrong call, and after the call you’re aware that you’ve made the wrong call…that sits on you for the rest of the game.

It’s almost to the point where there’s a knot in your stomach. All you’re thinking about…you might be out there running up and down…but literally all that you’re thinking about is that missed call. “How did that happen? Where should I have been to get a better look at that?” All those things are racing through your mind, so even that aspect of failure has taken some time to learn how to put aside.

Once you blow air in the whistle, there’s no going back. We have to develop ways of working through that failure. And being honest with it too…we try and teach our younger guys that you don’t have to go out and argue calls when you know deep down it was the wrong one. Be honest with it. Players and coaches – they’re not perfect either. You can let a coach know, “hey…I missed that call.” You can tell someone, “I made a mistake, and I’m going to work harder.”

MB: What’s the one thing that you would say to someone who is just starting out as an official?

“Run hard!”

And do everything hard, because you never know who’s watching.

The first time I actually got seen by an NBA scout was in Hamilton, Ontario, at a national tournament. It was 2014, I was doing my games and just going about my business, and my buddy (who the scout had actually come to see) said to me, “after your game, would you mind coming to speak to someone? He’s an NBA scout and he’s been here all weekend watching our games, and he’d like to speak to you.”

And I thought, “WHAT!? We’re in Hamilton and there’s basketball being played out the yin-yang in the states, and he’s here watching?” I’ve been in contact with him ever since.

Long story short, don’t take any plays off. Work hard, even if there are only three people in the gym. Work hard!

MB: What’s the one thing you would say to someone who is more advanced, or is just one or two steps behind you in their own journey?

I’m actually thinking of a guy who’s moving really fast and will probably go further than me. One thing I’d tell him is, “be selfish.” And what I mean by that is, he’s at a stage now where he’s about to excel to possibly the international level and he’s got a really good chance to go work in the States. That’s something I didn’t really have [when I was at the point he is now].

He’s such a nice guy and still wants to be able to cater locally, and help his local guys, and I keep telling him, “you’ve got to be a little more selfish and do what’s right for you.” Really push for the international level and for the route to the US (the NBA or the G-league). I tell him to be selfish in that sense because in doing that he will still help the guys back home, and that’s through being a leader. Being that example, if he’s able to push through there, he’s still providing that guidance and help to his people back home. He’ll be that pinnacle that people will look up to and say, “I want to be like him.” Sometimes you’ve got to do what’s right for you, and in the end, it will come back and help others.

He’ll still be able to come back and do clinics and provide instruction and feedback for the younger ones. But until he gets there, yeah, people will appreciate what he’s got, but if he adds that much more to his own baggage by being “selfish” for the time being, he’ll help more people.

MB: Where can people find you?

The easiest way is through social media: I like the Facebook Messenger avenue. You don’t have to add me, just send me a message! Even if we’ve never met, just make it a personal message right off the bat, and we’ll go from there!

Final thoughts

Nate’s story is one of a young man who fell in love with something and put in the time to become great at it. Right from the get-go, it’s obvious that there was no shortcut – mastery of anything takes time.

I love how consciously Nate has grown himself. Whether it’s in developing the habits needed to stand out, looking inward to see where he could improve, or having the right peers to support the journey, Nate’s taken a simple (but not easy!) path to climb the ranks of his profession. He estimates that he’s officiated over 8000 games thus far, an incredible statistic given that he’s likely not even reached the mid-point of his career.

So many people stop before they reach the pinnacle of their pursuits. Nate’s story represents how persistence can pay off in spades. He’s certainly one to watch out for in the coming years: I’m excited to see him leave his mark on his sport, profession, and even his country.

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7 thoughts on “How Nate Saunders Became a World-Class Basketball Referee | A Leader’s Journey Interview

  1. I am soooo proud of what Nate has become. I was around when he first started and saw him climb the steps when he was young. So promising, he was then, with the right attitude both on and off court. I see that he has become what we expected. Thank you for this article.

  2. Mike, a tremendously valuable interview…well done! I’ve followed Nate’s development for some time now and he’s not only a world class referee, but at the same level as a leader & human being! And he’s only 30…

      1. Yes I am, Mike…a lot older 🙂 and friends with some of Nate’s mentors in QC. I have evaluated Nate’s performance at Canada Games and a camp or two. Great to see potential fulfilled!

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