Not an Act, but a Habit: 9 Things You MUST Do Every Time You Officiate

To be honest, it’s hard for me to just watch a lacrosse game. I now watch the officials. I focus on the positioning of the crew, where the brim of the official’s hat is pointing, whether or not the Play-on mechanic was used properly, or if the official used CNOTE. This is not necessarily unusual; I spend a great deal of my time watching other people officiate. As a member of the Georgia Lacrosse Officials Association’s observation committee I do numerous observations during the spring season and in the off-season, I have the privileged of serving as a US Lacrosse Clinician at LAREDO Clinics around the country. More often than not, the officials I am watching have worked hard to improve and are hoping to advance to the next level, be that from JV to varsity high school games, regular season to playoffs or from high school to college. They want constructive criticism to help them identify what they need to work on to improve. The officials know they are being observed and realize that these evaluations are important opportunities to get reviewed by senior clinicians. Make a good impression, work hard, listen intently and possibly get a good evaluation. If all goes well, doors will open for them.

When I conduct an observation I jot down pages of notes on all of the things the official does or does not do, what they do well and what they need to improve upon. I compile my comments into these categories:

  • faceoffs
  • crease play
  • positioning
  • counts
  • dead ball officiating
  • signals
  • foul recognition

None of these should surprise anyone. Now let me be clear, I do not expect any official to be perfect. This is a really difficult job to master and even the most experienced official makes mistakes. When I make a recommendation about an official, I am not basing my assessment on any one action, rather it is on the overall pattern of behavior. In a word, is the official consistently doing the right thing?

In would guess that the word consistency is used in almost every training you have attended since you began officiating. In order to be a great official and make it to the next level, you not only need to be consistent, but consistently good. What makes great officials great is not that they are smarter or faster than everyone else, it is that they are disciplined. They are consistent. They do it the same way every time and as a result very few things surprise them during a game. So why aren’t officials consistent? Why don’t they do the right thing every time? I have given his a great deal of thought in the last few years and I think the answer is that, to a great extent, we can easily get away with not doing our job every time.

Hey Ref, You Suck

Fans, players and coaches are often more than willing to share their thoughts on how you are doing. I often joke with rookies during training that the best possible outcome for an official is that 50% of those watching your game think you and your crew have done a mediocre job and 50% of the crowd thinks you are all terrible. Few spectators, coaches or players are familiar with the basics of officiating positioning, mechanics, or even the rules of the game. Which means that when officials make a mistake, they are likely able to get away without anyone noticing. Yes, folks will get angry about what they view as a blown or missed call, but not that the official did not crash the crease or move to the endline. Many of us are quick to shrug off these outbursts, since we need to develop a thick skin if we want to last in this business. So it’s understandable that we not read anything into an angry coach, parent or player’s comments.

Film Doesn’t Lie

For most of the games you work there is no one observing you and unless something goes terribly wrong, no one will ever see the film. This means that the only feedback officials get are from their partners. And the reality is that many officials simply do not feel comfortable critiquing the performance of a partner or figure its not worth their time. It’s a 10U game, who cares? This was a blowout, the visitors were in it until the national anthem. So what if the guy was lazy with his signals or didn’t hustle, nothing we did as a crew had an impact on the game. So after almost every game, an official can easily assure themselves that they did a solid job and are ready to move up to the next level.

Well, the reality is that things do go wrong; often horribly wrong. And that is when the emails start. As a board member for my association, I review all of the incident reports that are submitted by our officials, complaints by coaches, ADs and concerned parents. Almost all of these reports are accompanied with game film. We review each incident, watch and annotate the film, and talk to the officials and coaches. Calls that are missed or blown are most often the result of:

  • poor positioning
  • weak mechanics
  • lack of hustle

An official might have been having a solid game, but the one time they took their eye of the shooter or failed to follow the play to the crease or midline, is when things went south quickly. When asked about these incidents, officials usually say they were in the right spot and focused on their keys, but film doesn’t lie. I see time and time again, officials who are inconsistent in how they perform their responsibilities throughout the game and get away with it . . . until they don’t.

Small Errors Lead to Big Problems

Sociologist Diane Vaughan in her seminal study of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster noted that when complex systems fail, usually no one single factor is to blame. Instead, there are often a series of small mistakes that, over time, become acceptable, even a part of the routine. She called this process the Normalization of Deviance. In the case of the Challenger explosion, highly qualified well-intentioned people at NASA were operating under stressful conditions, under a deadline, amidst rapidly changing conditions on the ground, and all of that was coupled with a great sense of urgency. These factors left the administrators and engineers inclined to take shortcuts. For a while, they were able to get away with it; there were no immediate and adverse consequences as a result of the lapses because nothing went wrong and as a result the team developed a false sense of security. So what if we don’t follow procedure; it will be fine.

However, when it did go wrong, it went horribly wrong. Vaughn’s theory has used to explain airline and cruise ship disasters, as well as major art heists. While only a few of us can actually say we are rocket scientists, we are a group of highly qualified, well-intentioned people, operating under stressful conditions, at the end of games we are sometimes in a time crunch, who face rapidly changing conditions, and those factors, coupled with the heightened emotions of coaches, players and fans, can lead us to take shortcuts as well.

Some examples:

  • Letting your timer go off while conducting a faceoff.
  • Not having a Timer On and having a team scramble to get ready for a faceoff.
  • Not getting to the crease on scoring plays.
  • Not getting to the sideline, midline, endline or GLE.
  • Dropping a count.
  • Missing an offsides.
  • Not watching mixed colors during a dead ball.
  • Weak signals.

Now, a screw up in a lacrosse game does not in any way compare to the disasters that Vaughn studied. Regardless, we want to avoid the issues, and the reality is that by being consistent we can minimize the number of bench clearing brawls, DQs, angry coaches and players, conduct and unsportsmanlike fouls and general chaos and confusion that can often be traced back to those little insignificant shortcuts. Small errors can lead to very big problems.

The Little Things

Some officials when actually given a formal evaluation for the first time are shocked to see the number of comments about what the did wrong or could have done better. US Lacrosse Clinician Jeff Thibodeau likes to say that the evaluation comments can be construed as “picking fly shit out of pepper.” But this has never been an issue before, they say. Why are these little nitpicky little things being held against me? No one has ever told me these things before? It’s never been an issue in my games! Vaughn’s theory posits that if we do the little things right, all the time, we can minimize both the likelihood and scope of a disaster. So how do we become consistent?

We are What We Repeatedly Do

The American philosopher Will Durant once summarized Aristotle’s philosophy this way: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Develop these habits and you will be a much more effective official and improve your opportunities to advance in your career. Here is my list of nine little things every official should be aim to do every time they step on the field.

Pregame: Take Pregame seriously:

  • Arrive in time to do a full pregame conference.
  • Certify both coaches
  • Ensure that timekeeper, scorekeeper, shot clock operator (NCAA) understand their responsibilities.
    • What will they do if the scoreboard fails?
      If timekeeper is in the press box, do you have a way to communicate communication?
  • Grab the FOGOs for a conference.
  • Be available for stick checks.
  • Check the field markings, goals and nets.
  • Get your head in the right space to officiate and make sure everything is in place for your game to go well.
  • Don’t be surprised or derailed by anything simply because you didn’t  ask or inspect.

Signals:

  • Stand still and use CNOTE when reporting penalties.
  • ALWAYS do the full out of bounds sequence:
    • Hand up/whistle.
    • Point/announce color.
    • Hand back up until restart.
  • ALWAYS use the Timer On mechanic.
    • Between quarters.
    • After goal with faceoff pending.
    • During time outs.
  • Be decisive on crease and goal calls or contested out of bounds plays.
  • Meet the moment: big calls need more energy. Do this every time and it won’t be an issue. Good signals and mechanics let everyone know you are paying attention, what your calls on the field are, and keep the game moving smoothly.

Communicate:

  • Be vocal; talk to players, coaches, and your partners.
  • Answer questions. Pass along information.
  • When exchanging information with a coach, keep your eyes on the field.
  • If ready for play, point in the direction of play or if wing official on faceoff towards the goal you are covering, if not, hand up. Your partner might not even look at you, but when you watch the film, it is obvious that you are mentally in the game.

Hustle: Move with a purpose.

  • Run as Lead; you must beat ball to GLE.
  • Jog as Trail; don’t rush, you have everything behind the play.
  • Keep your eyes on the play; run with your shoulder open or backpedal.
  • NEVER WALK: There is nothing worse on film than watching an official meander up or down the field.

Get to your Spot: You can have the wrong call and be in the right spot and few people will argue, but be in the wrong spot and few will believe you got it right even if you did.

  • Getting to and straddle the midline, endline or sideline.
  • Slipping under the play and crashing the crease.
  • As new Lead be sure to hold the cone until you are sure ball will be cleared (or as the Single wait until ball passes you). No one else can officiate that midline in transition.

Counts:

  • Make sure you get the 4, 20 and 10 second counts right.
  • Use the proper mechanic for each.
    • Every faceoff ends with a count!
    • Twirl to indicate change of possession.
    • If doing a visual count, give a good measured signal.
    • Signal that a player is in the box EVERY TIME.
    • If he has not gained the box be sure to let your partner know (e.g. put your hands behind you back).
    • Over and back is now possible, the entire crew MUST know this, every time.

Offsides: Offside is hard enough; make sure you are always counting

  • Count players all the time, offense first, defense second. Count again.
  • Count forward, a team may have to few on one side, but never too many.
  • Count again.

Focus on your Keys: Focus on your area of responsibility!

  • Trail watches the shooter.
  • Do you have feet and goal or the push?
  • Are you on ball or off ball?
  • The brim of the hat always points where you are looking. Film doesn’t lie. You cannot ball watch.

Eyes on the Inmates:When the ball is dead, we come alive! 

  • Focus on mixed colors during dead ball situations.
  • NEVER write on your card or turn your back after a goal or timeout. Wait until players are in their huddle.
  • At timeouts and end of period, bench-side official must get to the intersection of the wing line and midfield.
  • Signal goal in the crease so that you can manage the situation.

Play on!

Greg Hite
————-
GLOA Lead Trainer
US Lacrosse Trainer and Clinician

Special thanks to Mike Hyland, Al Bau, Harold Buck, Stewart Smith and Gordon Corsetti for reviewing earlier drafts of this post.