This is a tough job, we get it. You need to know the rules, understand the game, be in good enough shape to keep up with a bunch of high school athletes, as well as manage your partners, the players, the coaches, and the fans. Rules, Game, Positioning, and Communication; these are the four pillars of being a successful official in any sport. It is fairly straightforward as to how we can get better at the first three of these. We can study the rules more until we master them. We can watch game film and work contests until we get a better sense of how the game is played and how it should flow. We can get in better shape so that we can keep up with play and we can put ourselves in the best position to make the call. But even if we do all three of those things well, we can still have a dumpster fire on our hands if we don’t do the fourth one and communicate effectively. Poor communication is by far single biggest issue that is brought up to assignors and the board. Poor communication tends to have a snowball effect and when things go south, they go south fast and in big way. This is the real challenge! If you want to take that next step in your officiating career, you need to develop your communication skills.
The Five C’s of Communication
For communication to be effective, it must be clear, correct, complete, concise, and compassionate.
For us to do our job effectively we need to be clear. This means when we do communicate, we need to make sure that everyone understands what we are trying to communicate. Too often officials inability to communicate effectively leads to confusion which degenerates into conflict. Cleaning up your signals is the easiest way to communicate effectively. Are you using the correct signals? Are they big and sharp? Are you rushed? Are your feet planted when you signal? Are you too rigid or enthusiastic? The best advice I can give referees is to watch yourself on film and make a concerted effort to improve. Channel you inner Ed Hochuli with crisp, clean, big signals. Take your time and be deliberate. If you slow down when you signal, you give everyone a second to find you and see what you are doing!
You must be sure to provide the correct information! You can’t communicate effectively if you don’t know what you are talking about. You need to know the rules and how they apply to the particular situation that you are dealing with. It simply not acceptable to not know a rule. We are getting paid to know the rules. So get in the book and study, take quizzes, look up situations you see in games, that you hear about, and that you see on film. Don’t just ask somebody or say that is what you heard, actually open the book and look it up. Getting a rule wrong fundamentally undermines your credibility and it has a cascading effect as future crew needs to clear up the confusion you have created.
The other factor that you need to make sure you get right is explaining what actually happened. Sometimes you are the person who made the call and might have missed something, other times you are reporting foul that your partner called. Be sure to get all the relevant details sorted out before you go and report. Did you have the right number and team color of the player who committed the foul? Do you have the sequence right; is a live ball or dead ball foul? Look we get it we all make mistakes, but it is imperative that we try to limit them and learn from the ones we do make so that don’t repeat them.
Similarly, officials there is certain pieces of information that officials MUST have at ALL TIMES: the score, the time left in the period, who has AP, and the number of timeouts each team has. But let’s not forget the importance of telling the a coach where the ball will restart on the ensuing play or when the penalty releases, or in the pregame, telling the visiting team’s coach when the anthem will be played and the teams introduced or that it’s Senior Night and halftime will be 20 minutes instead of ten. You need to focus throughout the game on being very conscious of these critical pieces of information.
Another key factor in effective communication is making sure you convey ALL of the information you need to convey. For example, when you are reporting a foul to the table, make sure you let the table, players, and coaches know what the foul is, how long the penalty is, when the foul will release, and where the ball will restart. Ninety percent of the time we do a solid job of this, but when things get weird, for example when you have a simultaneous fouls, an inadvertent flag or whistle, or stacked penalties, things can get a little harder to sort out. You need to make sure you think through everything. Having to stop the game to re-explain what happened or what needs to happen diminishes your credibility.
“Keep it simple” and “What you don’t say can’t be quoted.” You hear these little cliches all the time, but more often than not, officials blabber on and on. Let me be clear, we are not trying to win an argument with a coach, we are simply conveying information. Usually, what we are trying to do is to describe the reason we made our choice. But it is important that we actually listen to what the coach wants to know. Don’t tell the coach what you think they want to hear, actually find out what they want to know. And then do not say more than you need to say.
If a coach has a concern or a comment or a question, be respectful and listen to them. Active listening is the best way to earn the trust and respect of a coach. You do not have to agree with what a coach is saying, but it is important that you see the game from their perspective. Coaches and players work their tails off throughout the year to be successful in these games. They are going to be passionate and focused. Can they get a little over enthusiastic, yes, but they are playing to win; it is how they define success. We by definition are not supposed to be concerned with who wins and loses. We are opposite sides of the equation, but we owe each other the courtesy of open and honest communication.
A Few More Thoughts on The Subject
There are a number of tips, suggestions, and mantras I would also like to share as these are situations that can really bolster your credibility and make your job of communicating effectively much easier.
Positioning Sells Calls
You can make the right call and be in the wrong place and no one will believe you. You can make the wrong call and be in the right place and no one will argue with you. If you are not in the proper position to make the call you don’t have a leg to stand on and no amount of talking is going to fix that lack of trust a coach has in your call. You need to work hard to put yourself in the best position to make the right call. Doing this consistently will earn you credibility.
Know the Rules, COLD
If you are going to officiate lacrosse you need to know the rules. If you want to bring up the rules to a coach you better know the rules COLD. Don’t guess and don’t assume. We are the paid experts. Get it right. So if you want to take a big step in your officiating career, put the time into understanding the rules and how to apply them, by reading the rule book regularly, taking quizzes, talking to mentors and partners about situations, and watching game film and You Make the Call videos. Rules Knowledge is a muscle that needs regular exercise to stay in shape.
Admit You Screwed Up (and then know how to fix it)
We all screw up, admit it when you do. There is no advantage to pretending you didn’t screw something up or miss something. Don’t be defensive and don’t give excuses. Just admit it. It just proves we are human. That being said, once you admit a mistake, you better know what you can do, by rule, to fix it (see Mistakes by Officials, Inadvertent Whistles and Flags, and Alternate Possession). And most importantly, don’t do it again. You can’t play the “sorry coach, my bad” card too often.
When it gets crazy SLOW DOWN
If and when you do screw up or when things are strange and weird, your inclination will be to speed up and get things moving again, but that will only create even more confusion. This is one of the few times we want to stop all the action and become the center of attention so that we can clarify what happened and what we want to happen moving forward. Let coaches process and get the right personal on the field, and make sure your partners know what is happening and are in the right position before restarting play. This often happens when we point in the wrong direction, have an inadvertent whistle or flag, and during dead balls when no one is looking at us and we assess a conduct penalty or a penalty for an illegal stick. Get everyone’s eyes on you and explain.
Don’t Go Into to the Lion’s Den
Communication is critically important, but there are times you should not be engaging with coaches. During live ball play you can answer a quick question, but it is NOT the time to have a long drawn out conversation. You NEED to be focused on the play. So don’t hang out by substitution area unless you are prepared to talk to a coach. And NEVER EVER go into a huddle to talk to a coach! They are coaching their team; they don’t need you to come in an explain why you made a call or remind them how many timeouts they have remaining! Relay information like that to an assistant coach. The assistant will appreciate that you are engaging with them and they can pass it along. No need to make a huge deal out it, but do not underestimate the significance of that small act. It builds trust and respect between you and the coaches.
Finally here is a great webinar Gordon Corsetti hosted two years ago on what not to say on a lacrosse field.