‘The girl ref is here!’
As one of only three of women who regularly officiate games on behalf of the Niagara District Referees Association, Natalie Thomson has obtained a certain degree of celebrity status.
“When I walk in the gym and I am doing U10 or U11 girls, they get so ecstatic when they see a girl ref walk into the gym. They go crazy,” the 29-year-old Niagara Falls native said. “Some of the elementary kids run up to me if I have done their game two or three times in a year and say, ‘The girl ref is here. The girl ref is here.’
“You can make those extra connections that are special and I enjoy it a lot.”
She strives to set a good example on and off the court and she often has people come up to her in restaurants when they recognize her as a referee.
“Being one of the few female refs in the areas I feel I am easily recognized. It’s important to maintain that positive public figure.”
The secretary-treasurer for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s committee of adjustment encourages all females to join Niagara’s reffing brotherhood and sisterhood.
“I would tell them to have the confidence to do it. I feel a lot of females lack the confidence to step out on the court and be their own person,” she said.
If they do become involved in officiating, Thomson urges them to give themselves time to develop as a ref.
“I look back on my first few years and they were bumpy and it’s just a matter of having the confidence to stick it out,” she said. “It is like anything in life, like a new job. It takes a while to become comfortable and I would plead with girls refs to get more into the game.”
Thomson doesn’t feel she gets traded any differently by coaches and players because she’s female.
“I’d like to think it is fairly gender blind but there are probably a few situations where an angry coach may come down on me more than my male coworker or ref but I don’t run into that very often. If I do, I am very blind to it.”
Her goal as a ref is to make the local refs association proud.
“The No. 1 thing that I do try and stick with, and it does sort of apply to club ball, is that I want to keep a good rep for the area,” she said. “I know from a coaching perspective that when I go to Hamilton, Toronto or Oakville, you have a few games and you leave with an impression of what the referees are like for that whole association. I want the teams from Ancaster, Brantford and Cambridge coming down here and leaving saying ‘That ref was great and we had a great time this weekend.’ ”
Thomson has a great time when she is on the court.
“I love the sport in general from being involved in every aspect: coaching, playing and reffing. I like that it gives me a physical aspect and keeps me in shape with the running,” she said. “I also enjoy the relationships I have made through refereeing whether it be with coaches or with fellow referees. For the most part, it is also always a positive environment, although, you get those few games that aren’t great.”
She followed her father, Mark, into the reffing profession.
“He has been reffing for more than 30 years since before I was born. I was always in the gym with him as a young kid following him around that what’s ultimately got me into it.
She take a lot of her father’s attributes as a ref but she is no Mini Mark.
“I like I think I am my own ref and I don’t get too many comments saying that I’m like him. A lot of times people say that’s a good thing, jokingly of course,” she said, with a laugh. “The one thing that I do take from him is my demeanour and how I speak to people. He’s very easygoing and approachable and even in our personal lives I do embody that aspect of him. We are both social and have no problem talking to coaches, parents and kids.”
She officiates about 75-100 games a year and does games at the elementary school, high school and Basketball Ontario travel level.
Thomson attended Saint Paul High School in Niagara where she played soccer, volleyball and basketball. She won an Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations’ bronze medal in basketball but gave up playing after high school.
“I was met with a tough decision on which way to go but I ultimately went with coaching and reffing. I couldn’t do it all so it was what am I going to stick with. I went the other route.”
She has coached with the Niagara Falls Red Raiders program since graduating from high school and has coached all the way to under-18 from under-12.