Family of Fouls: Using Scaffolding to Teach Penalties to New Officials

lostThere is an old joke among refs about the three stages a young official goes through during the course of his career.   In the first stage, the rookie is nervous, not sure of where they are supposed to be on the field, unaccustomed to the speed of the game and terrified of making a mistake.  So, they call nothing.  A player could be decapitated in front of them and they would be loath to throw a flag.  After a year of working games and time spent diligently reading the rule book, the young official thinks he or she has “figured it out,” Comfortable recognizing fouls, they call everything! Hey that’s illegal: flag!  Oooh, another penalty: flag! Can’t do that: flag! Finally, after a few seasons and numerous discussions with trainers and mentors, the official “gets it” and begins to understand how level of play, type of game, time and place factor in the decision making process on whether or not to call a foul and what to call. They develop what we call game management.

For the most part, we assume that this is the natural progression that all officials must go through.  These things take time; rookies simply need game experience.   In areas where lacrosse is well established, rookies work youth games for the first few years.  But in developing areas, a first year official might well find himself on a high school game immediately.  We as trainers and mentors need to do a better job of preparing rookies to be successful on the field and to absorb more quickly the lessons they do learn in game situations.

Trouble with Training

Foul SlideMost new officials training involve a complete focus on the rules and lacks a broader understanding of what to call and why.  Their training is organized around the rules, the test is a rules test and they are told over and over again to read the book. How many classes have we attended that begin with the words, “Please open your rule books to Rule 6.” Each foul is discussed individually in the order it appears in the rule book. Rarely, if at all, is the concept of game management introduced to new officials. The concept itself is classified by US Lacrosse as a Level II skill and is not addressed in the Training Manual until page 40. And yet the skill of managing a game, to understand what to call and what to pass on, is THE critical skill that an official is, in the end, judged by.

donMore often than not, these discussions about the nuances of what to call happen, not in a classroom, but during a game as a veteran official overrules a rookie official’s call.  Instead of being in a setting where a rookie feels has time to safely ask questions and work through issues, he finds himself is in a game setting where the R tersely overrules the rookie’s call and they quickly move on. The veteran understands the myriad of factors that play into the decision of what to call.  The rookie has worked hard to memorize what a foul is and identify it. When they do throw the flag they are told, “Yes, he was technically tripped but we are going to call that a push, 30 second technical.  Go relay the penalty.”  There is very little time to explain the veteran’s rationale and this leaves the rookie feeling as if he has been shown up, big timed, and this can undermining his authority and confidence. And its important to remember, not all veteran officials are involved in rookie training and not all of them embrace the role of being a mentor. The larger issue is that we have not provided the rookie with a framework to understand how and why his partner chose to make the call, to manage the game.


scaffoldinSo how can we build a framework so that new officials can wrap their heads around the concepts that underlie game management?  We need to develop a new way of teaching fouls using what we call in the education biz, scaffolding.  Scaffolding involves breaking up complex concepts and ideas into smaller chunks and providing a structure or scaffold around which the students can remember and organize those concepts. You can read Rebecca Alber’s post on Scaffolding on the Edutopia blog. 

I use these three concepts to scaffold penalties: the Safety Meter, Family of Fouls, and finally Level of Play. By constantly referencing and reinforcing these concepts as we introduce and discuss fouls we can give rookie officials the tools to learn from what their more experienced partners are doing in game situations and more quickly develop game management skills.

The Safety Meter

foul meterWhether or not a fouls is personal or technical is the fundamental distinction that an official needs to be able to make and not to find an action that meets the literal definition of a foul. When we introduce fouls, it is often personal fouls and then technical. Rule 5 and then Rule 6.  We rattle off the fouls, discuss definitions, and show videos.  New officials see these calls as black and white issues. This is a slash, crosscheck, trip etc.  If this happens, it is that. There is no sense of nuance or context. During my training sessions, I repeat over and over again, the most important determination you need to make as an official, is whether or not you are making a safety call or a fairness call.   The scaffolding tool I use is what I call the safety meter.

So, instead of beginning with either personal or technical fouls, I focus on the relationship between the two types of fouls. Here is how I introduce the topic:

Rule 5.1 Personal fouls are those of a serious nature! They pertain to player safety and conduct: play that is unnecessarily  rough, dangerous or unsportsmanlike. They carry a 1 to 3 minute suspension from the game, usually at the discretion of the official.

Rule 6.1 Technical fouls are those of a less serious nature and deal with fairness and not player safety. They carry a 30 second suspension from the game or possession of the ball.

Now, when a rookie official’s  trip call is overruled by the R in favor of a push, the veteran can explain that the issue was fairness not safety.  On the other hand when a rookie official describes a play in which a player is “crushed from behind” and asking what whether he should call a push or an IBC, I can refer him back to his training: was it safety or was it fairness call.

Family of Fouls

Once you have introduced the  safety meter concept, you can introduce the family of fouls scaffold.  The aim here is to give the new official an idea of all of the options that he has when making a call, all the while keeping in mind the the essential issue is safety or fairness.  

I suggest handing the students a sheet with a list of fouls (to view the sheet, click here)  Note that I leave out faceoff violations as I discuss that in another session. I have them group fouls into five categories:

  • Body Checking
  • Stick Checking
  • Interference
  • Equipment
  • Conduct
  • Procedure
  • Line Calls

In addition, I ask the trainees to rank the fouls in regards to safety and fairness. Safety violations are listed at the top of each box and fairness calls towards the bottom.

Once everyone has completed their sheet, you can lead a larger discussion as you go through each category. It is imperative that you ask the question is this a safety call (e.g. IBC, slash or crosscheck) or is it a fairness call (e.g push, no call or hold).

Students will offer a wide variety of groupings and this activity is a great opportunity to have discussions about how each trainee grouped the fouls. You can also begin to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each foul (e.g. releasable v non-releasable options, automatic ejection after two USCs). Here is my final sheet that I show to the class.Family of Fouls


Level of Play

youth adultThe final concept that new officials need to understand is level of play.  Not all lacrosse games are created equal.  Players differ in age, size, physical ability, stick skills and lacrosse IQ. Games vary wildly as well: youth league, rec league, high school, summer league, regular season, blowouts, rivalry games, tournament play, playoffs, and championships, each require that officials to have a plan for how will call the game.  US Lacrosse and the NFHS have established clear guidelines for handling youth play (U9-U15), placing an emphasis on skill development and setting a low threshold for physical play (i.e no one handed checks and no take out checks).  At the youth level safety trumps fairness. Similarly, during summer league and rec play, the officials tend to lean towards safety.

As the players develop physically and mentally and the games become more “important,” officials need to reassess how they will make safety and fairness calls. A perfect example of this is the no-call on a push with possession.  One would never make this call in a U9 game, but it happens all the time at higher levels of play.  (See my post When is a Push with Possession Not a Push.) Similarly, what might be an IBC in a U9 game might well be a push in a regular season high school contest. The conversations on how to handle these calls usually occur during the pre-game conference (See Gordon Corsetti’s I am a Sheet Guy post), but by scaffolding the concept, we can better prepare first year officials to have the discussion and absorb the lesson.

An Art Not a Science

Officiating is an art, not a science.  With scaffolding, new officials will begin to see that fouls are not always black and white calls; that there is a great deal of judgement and subjectivity involved in calling a game.  Providing rookies with a clear understanding of their options through with the family of fouls concept and with a solid understanding of how the concepts of safety and fairness and level of play guide the decision making process, we can speed up the time it takes an official to develop game management skills. In addition to being more prepared to officiate, they will be more attuned to the pre-game and in-game discussions with a more experienced partners.  And, just maybe we can help rookies develop into savvy veterans a bit sooner.

Play on!

Greg Hite











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