Mental Prep Work

I think officiating boils down to one major attribute: the ability to stay focused for an extended period of time. The youth officials I’ve trained laugh when I tell them that they are getting paid to pay attention, but that is an accurate observation about what officiating is. I’ve been in games where I mentally blinked, or started daydreaming and suddenly I’ve got a player moaning on the ground with no clue how he got there. I felt bad knowing that I probably missed a major safety violation because I was not paying attention to the game in front of me. After evaluating how I lost my focus I concluded that my game preparation contributed to my hazy mental state in the game, and I resolved to find a way to get focused as an official.

Part of my focus problem was that I had a lot to focus on before the game. What uniform did my R want me to bring? When did I have to leave work? What were the names of the head coaches? Did I have all of my required equipment? My mind was never as focused on the game as it could be because I never standardized how to approach all of these questions. Then I found a terrific book by author and surgeon Atul Gawande titled, “The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right,” which focused on how checklists could decrease surgical complications. Gawande discussed checklists with construction managers and pilots and discovered that the simple checklist, “established a higher standard of baseline performance” when they were used. He went further and stated, “faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes; whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.” That passage stuck with me. No one really cares about a missed offside call during a game that has no bearing on the play, but everyone remembers the high and late hit that everyone at the game saw except the one person who can make the call.

I figured if checklists can work for construction managers, pilots, and surgeons then I could apply them to officiating. Here is how I approached each of my pre-game focuses:

  • What uniform did my R want me to bring? – I started packing all of my uniform options in my car (this saved me from thinking about what to bring).
  • When did I have to leave work? – As soon as I got my game assignment I checked how long it would take me to get to the game site. Doing this right away kept the time in the back on my head so I wasn’t trying to figure it out at the last minute.
  • What were the names of the head coaches? – Easy with ArbiterSports. I just clicked on the schools on the assignment and noted the Head Coaches names if I did not know them. This became more important as I got more assignments as the Referee, and the crew looked more professional without having to ask a player or stat keeper who the head coach was.

Just by packing my gear in my car and taking care of travel arraignments well in advance took a huge amount stress out of my pre-game prep. My first checklist came in making certain I was wearing all the required equipment that I needed before locking my car and stepping onto the field with my partner. Here is the checklist I created three years ago and still use today:


Once I put on all my gear I physically touched all the equipment as I went down the list. Now I’ve done this check so many times that I should be able to do this entirely in my head and be perfectly okay. Well I fell victim to the “faulty memory” that Gawande wrote about last season. My partner and I were engaged in a really good pre-game while I put on my equipment. I did a self-check without using my list and walked onto the field. Well right before the anthem my partner asked how I kept my flags so well hidden. I looked down and didn’t have either of my flags. My partner loaned me his back up and I got my flags at half time. Since then the last thing I do before locking my car is go down the checklist, which gives me a great deal of peace of mind going into a game.

Now checklists, pre-game sheets, and pre-game discussions are great for individual and crew preparation but we have to step onto the field with our crew without step-by-step guides. No coach will have much confidence in an official if that official brings the mechanics manual and rulebook into the certification. I did a game early in my officiating career with Wade Lnenicka, one of the GLOA’s founding officials, and he gave me a wonderful nugget of advice: before stepping onto the field recognize that you’re assuming authority of the game. Before Wade told me that I tended to stroll onto the field without much thought as to what that first step really meant. Nowadays, once I step on the field I’m as focused as I can be from that moment forward.

I’m not going to go over all the pre-game steps that a crew is supposed to go through as those are listed in detail in the mechanics manual each year, but I am going to identify another concept I learned from Gawande’s book: pause points. Pause points are natural breaks before and during any activity that encourage communication between a crew. There are three pause points I work through after stepping onto the field to right before the first whistle:

  1. Stick checks – This is a great time to talk on the far wing while you’re waiting for players to come up for a check. I like to ask my partner, “Got any last minute things?” If he doesn’t I tend to go over what to do if we double flag a penalty if I am the Referee, or I ask a specific question if I am the U or FJ.
  2. Before the anthem – “Let’s check nets right after the anthem and I’ll meet you at center X for the lineup.” During the anthem have the crew look professional. Hat over heart, free arm at side or behind back, and feet together or shoulder width (I prefer together as I stood at attention at a couple hundred kickboxing classes as a kid).
  3. Right before or right after the teams meet at the lineup – Bring the crew together for a fist bump or a hand shake. Remind the crew to give 100% for the players and to enjoy the game.

These little moments of communication go a long way. Sure you and your crew talked in the parking lot, but it’s all for naught if you can’t communicate while on the field. These pause points create a natural transition between an in-depth pre-game and actually officiating the game where you and your partners are communicating non-verbally during play.

The very last thing I do to set myself mentally before the game is repeat my favorite mantra: “Focus, Focus, Focus, and Have Fun.” I say that silently to myself before the first whistle of the game, and I usually repeat it regularly during dead balls especially if I am unusually tired or recognize that I am thinking back on a past play. That mantra snaps me back to the play in front of me immediately and keeps me focused even if my mind wants to wander.

I’ve been using, adding and refining these mental preparations for the last three years, and if any refs out there have other ways of mentally preparing please share them in the comments section below. Next post will build on strategies for individuals and crew focus during a game in a few key situations and using the existing pause points in a game to encourage greater crew communication.

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