It took me three years to understand the importance of perception for a lacrosse official. I started officiating for the GLOA in 2008 at twenty years old. For most of my first season I was primarily assigned JV games. Towards the end of that season my assignor threw me a few low-tier Varsity games with experienced officials to help guide me along. In my second season I reffed a 50/50 mix of JV and Varsity games, but I wanted more competitive and more challenging games. In order to do that I had to get better and I had to take officiating more seriously.
After my second season I attended two lacrosse training clinics in the attempt to learn my weak areas. As it turned out I only had weak areas! In my first clinic I got ripped for poor positioning, poor signaling, and poor judgment. I spent the next month preparing for my second clinic by becoming as mechanically sound as I could. In my second clinic I was praised for solid positioning and clear signals, but still poor judgment for calling technical fouls that had no bearing on the play. That experience always reminds me of this short story:
A young businessman asks an older and successful businessman the key to success. The older businessman replies – “Good judgment!”
The young businessman asks how he can develop good judgment. The older businessman replies – “Bad judgment!”
I knew that I would gain better judgment with more game experience and officiating tougher contests, but I was never going to get assigned those tougher games if I didn’t work on the basics. In my third season I was the most mechanically proficient official I could be. I was rarely out of position and I sold every call. I was able to do this because I practiced my mechanics and studied the rulebook regularly, but a weird perception started creeping up. My fellow officials told me I looked robotic and stiff out on the field.
I watched a few recorded games that I did and I indeed appeared very uncomfortable. It took a while to reconcile that while I felt comfortable on the field I looked like I had a stick up my rear. I spent that whole offseason relaxing how I signaled and ran. If you compared a tape of me from my third season and my fourth season you would think I was two different officials as my movements and signals changed pretty dramatically.
I moved from poor across the board to robotic referee to a more relaxed official, but I still had one major perception obstacle to overcome.
After my fourth season officiating I was told quite matter-of-factly that I didn’t look like I was having any fun on the field by three officials I respect immensely. I didn’t know how to accept that information. I knew I was having fun and enjoying my time reffing, but I was the only person who knew that. This official gave me a very simple thing to practice: smile more.
Sounds easy right? That was very tough for me to do on the field because I took every game very seriously, which led to a stern facial expression somewhere between Mr. Feeny and Wolverine.
I had to practice relaxing my appearance to players, coaches, and fans because people, whether they admit it or not, want an official who looks like he/she wants to be out on the field. Since I started working on smiling more on the field I’ve actually found myself enjoying officiating even more than I had. My interactions with coaches got smoother as I looked at ease and confident while on the field, which gave them the impression that I was going to handle anything that happened appropriately.
If nothing I’ve written makes sense to you don’t worry, it didn’t make sense to me while I was practicing! Thing is, I was a pretty good official just having solid mechanics and working hard to get into position. But I wasn’t going to get put on a state semi-final looking stiff, uncomfortable, and unhappy. Half of my journey to earn more challenging games was to seriously practice every aspect of officiating. The other half was seriously practicing not to appear so serious.
It boils down to this philosophy that works for me, but if it applies to you go ahead and use it: I take my preparation for every game very seriously so I can go out and have fun.
Before the first whistle of every game I say my quick mantra, “Focus, focus, focus, have fun.” After I say that every distraction is gone from my head and I zero in on the game, but I always remind myself to enjoy my time on the field. Oh, I’m also smiling when I say it!