It is not difficult to pay attention in a tight 10-9 game between two rivalry teams with the stands packed and the stadium filled with electric excitement. In those games it is not hard to hustle to every position, signal with authority, and get a good feel for the temperament of the players and coaches. Those games demand that the officials pay attention, and the environment presses the officials to focus. Blowout games are an entirely different exercise.
Officials around the country know the feeling of setting up for the 14th face off of the first quarter and only one team has found the back of the net. In blowout games there is a significant competitive imbalance usually due to athleticism, skill, lacrosse IQ, or, more frequently, a greater combination of those for the leading team. In blowout games the crowd is usually subdued, the environment is as exciting as a dentist’s waiting room, and none of our calls will have a measurable impact on the score. Intense and competitive games externally press a great degree of focus upon the officials, but blowout games require an internal increase in focus from within the official.
There are a few strategies that officials can employ at every level of play when encountering a blowout game. These strategies keep you focused on the safety of the players and your improvement as an official. Remember, no one will remember a blown offside call on the winning team in a 18-2 game, but everyone will remember a late hit on the one shot the losing team makes and the shooter leaves the game with a concussion. Protect the players.
Strategies For Increasing Focus:
- Good Intel – I want to know the teams I’m officiating. I want to know their impact players, their defensive enforcer, and the effectiveness of their face off players. If I don’t know this information before a game I watch warm ups and identify the players with the best shots and the defenders who press out regularly. I create a mental map of the teams I’m officiating, not out of bias, but to know who will likely be around the ball the most. I also want to know if one team is brand new or graduated 2/3rds of their starting line. With this information I can prepare for a potential blowout. I don’t assume that there will be a blowout the same way I don’t assume a player will commit a foul. I anticipate how the game may go, but I let the play dictate my reaction to it. If I anticipate a blowout and it turns into a reasonably competitive game then I haven’t lost anything, but if it winds up being a blowout then I’m prepared to officiate it.
- A Quality Pre-Game – Every game I do has some pre-game discussion. I don’t care if it is two minutes with a youth official before a summer tournament game, or an hour-long pre-game for a club college game. The pre-game happens. It gets the crew on the same page, and it lets the entire crew go over situations they may encounter based on their intel on both teams. If we anticipate a potential blowout we can adjust as a crew if the score gets considerably lopsided during the game.
- Always Be Counting (ABC) – There are numerous ways to count to keep yourself focused on the blowout game in front of you. I tend to count obsessively in competitive games, but in blowout games I count even more frequently because it keeps my mind focused on the players and not what I’m picking up for dinner or who is going to die on the Walking Dead.
- Counting Players – count six offensive players and seven defensive players (6 + the goalkeeper) whenever you are off ball and before settled slow restarts. I count in groups of three (3 green, 3 green = good on offense; 3 white, 3 white, + a goalie = good on defense). Anytime I feel like I’m zoning out I count players. It is hard to zone out as the on official, but if the ball stays on the other side of the field for a while it’s tempting to wonder what your choice of weapon will be in the zombie apocalypse.
- Counting Sticks – I count short sticks when I’m searching for long sticks on defense. Teams are permitted a maximum of four long sticks on the field. It takes less time to find the two shorties than the four longs. If I only count one short stick, my radar goes off and I start double-checking. Usually I find the other short stick buried on the crease and I missed him on my initial count because an offensive player was blocking him from my vision.
- Memorizing two d-pole numbers – This is a new one for me from Mike Hyland, COC & International official, and I plan on using it in my next blowout game. I almost always mark one defender on each team who may be a bit out of control so I keep an eye on them off ball. In a blowout game you really want to focus on off ball player movement, so a marked player doesn’t matter as much, but as a mental check you can tell yourself, “find 12 and 54.” Once you find your chosen defenseman you’ve probably checked back into the game and are watching what you need to watch.
- Deciphering Defense and Offense – I learned to do this a few years ago and it is a huge asset in any game. You don’t need to know an entire team’s playbook, but it is helpful to know their basic offensive and defensive packages. Are they lining up in a 1-3-2, a 2-2-2, or a 1-4-1? Does the offense start their plays from top center or behind the goal? Is the defense zone or man-to-man? Does the defense slide adjacent or from the crease? Try to identify one play or defensive set. Recognize that “Laser” is the offensive sweep play from top right, and that “Black” calls for the defense to lock off on the next restart. By doing this you engage your ears as much as your eyes.
- Recognize when the Time Out is coming – Here is where you want to think like a coach. The winning team is leading 16-1, and picks up a loose ball in a tough scrum with less then 2 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter. Know that the head coach may call timeout as soon as he recognizes his player has possession in order to tell his players to hold the ball on the next possession after getting locked in the box. On the flip side, recognize that if the losing team gets the ball into their offensive end and is getting pressured heavily by the 3rd string defense that the head coach may call time out to preserve one of his few offensive possessions. Practice thinking like a coach in your off time and you’ll find yourself anticipating these time out calls with greater accuracy.
- Check the score clock – If you’ve got a visible score clock then know the time. Especially in the last few minutes of the 4th quarter. If you’re in a running clock due to a score differential you can pause a bit longer between restarts, or take longer reporting a penalty. This speeds up the inevitable finish, which also decreases the amount of live game play where an unnecessary check could cause injury.
- NOTE – Do not check the game clock when you are the on official or as the off official and players are screwing around well away from the ball. Check the clock during dead balls, or when you are the off official and there is nothing happening off ball during a settled possession.
- Mark in your head when a penalty will release – This is something I am working on every game I ref this season. If I report a 1-minute slash at 9:53 in the 3rd quarter I should look at the score clock, subtract a minute, and know that the player in the box releases at 8:53. If I put a player in the box for a 1-minute illegal body check with 30 seconds remaining in the 2nd quarter I know I need to watch for possession and that the penalty should release at 11:30 remaining in the 3rd quarter. If I put a player in the box for 30 seconds with 32 seconds remaining in the 1st quarter I know that I don’t have to watch for possession as the teams will be all even with two seconds remaining in the quarter.
- NOTE – This is a good thing for the crew to communicate to one another before the restart. “John, releases at 8:53!” Now the crew is on the same page.
I can’t say that I really enjoy blowout games because I don’t believe anyone really enjoys blowout games. However, officials do not get to check out in the 2nd quarter when the score is already 19-1. We are there for player safety until we are away from the immediate playing facility after the game is over. The winning team may get to let their starters rest after a comfortable lead, but we don’t get to tag out for a different official to come in for us. A game is a game, and the players deserve our focused attention for the entire game. We’ve all checked out of a game and we’ve all missed something bad because we checked out. It is an awful feeling and the way to avoid that in future blowout games is to treat them as a challenge. How focused can you be? How quickly can you regain focus if you start slipping? Use blowout games as an opportunity to improve on something that you’ll need during that 10-9 rivalry game.