This post was inspired by a recent article that US Lacrosse picked up written by an Idaho lacrosse official thinking about hanging up his stripes due to consistent verbal assaults from uneducated fans during his games entitled “Officials and Sideline Behavior: Something Needs to Change“.
I really lucked out when I started officiating. I was paired with very experienced officials in the GLOA who saw potential in a fast twenty-year-old who looked rigid enough on the field to stand as a support column in the Parthenon. These officials showed me how to handle myself on the field in ways that are not spelled out in any rulebook or mechanics manual. Such as when to sell a call big. When it was appropriate to saddle up next to a coach and ask for a hand calming down a player. When it was time to be a by-the-book official, and when it was time to be a little gray. One thing ranks above everything I was taught: having confidence in every action I took on the field, AND knowing when I made a mistake so I could confidently correct it.
For new officials, and we were all new officials at one point, building on-field confidence is difficult, especially if there isn’t a natural progression from one level of the game to the next. Again, I was fortunate that my assigners moved me steadily from youth to JV, JV to Varsity, and Varsity to college. Each level gave me a chance to get seasoned, as my good friend Pat Finn likes to say. It is not difficult for me to remain confident in the face of dumb comments in youth or high school games, but the college game is still new to me. That is the level where verbal barbs retain a good amount of sting because I’m still working on my on-field confidence. It’s the difference of having well over two hundred Varsity games under my belt versus two dozen or so college games.
The problem with officiating a rapidly growing sport like lacrosse is that new officials can get put onto games that are beyond their current skill level, such as an official who has only worked youth games being assigned a mid-level Varsity game. Or they are placed onto games that precisely match their current skill level, but the intensity of the game is beyond what they have experienced, such as a Varsity official getting his first playoff assignment or rivalry matchup. Assigners try very hard to not assign an official beyond their skill level because that tends to lead to a lot of unpleasant phone calls to the assigner. What does happen is one official getting an intense game assignment, i.e. playoff or rivalry, with a partner that has already been in that environment. But in rapidly developing areas with a low number of officials it is very likely that an official will be assigned a game beyond their current skill and experience level, which is a tough spot for any official to be in.
What I find both humorous and sad is that I can ref a U11 game over the summer and do everything well, and there will still be two dads, moms, or coaches that will absolutely lose their minds over a call they don’t like. I don’t mind someone giving me grief if I make a legitimate mistake, but it is difficult to assimilate: “That’s bulls#!+” after I flag a Red player for nearly taking a White player’s head off with a one-handed stick check in a U11 game (which is illegal). I made the correct call, but this particular individual wants me to understand that I have personally wronged him, his child, his family name, his ancestors, and that my decision directly contributes to the “wussification” of the American male. That’s a lot to take in for a slash call. Yet, if his child is nudged ever so slightly against his shoulder I hear from this wise person that I don’t care about player safety, must have some personal connection with the opposing team that is unfair, am blind, am too stupid to recognize a clear foul in front of me, and is encouraging his player to go on a vendetta by not making a call. That’s even more to take in for a no-call on a bump.
Am I the overly officious referee who cares too much about safety to let the kids play, or the referee that can’t find his flags when a clear-as-day penalty is committed? The answer is neither. I’m an official, and BS flows in our general direction no matter what we do because every player, every coach, every parent, and every fan is 100% biased and they view the game through that bias. So when an official makes a bad call or no-call it must be because the official is biased and not the other way around.
I’ve heard a lot of negative remarks in the past six years on the quality of my officiating by those who have little knowledge about officiating. Comments that messed with me in my second year barely register as insulting now, but it isn’t because I developed a thick skin. Officials in every sport hear about having a thick skin, and I was strongly encouraged to develop one after my second year by well-meaning experienced officials in the GLOA. Trouble was that idea did not fit into my idea of how I wanted to officiate. I didn’t want to develop a thicker skin that would eventually break after regular abuse game after game. So I started incorporating the many lessons I learned through martial arts in particular jiu-jitsu (one translation is “to give way”), and Judo (the literal translation is “gentle way). Both martial arts teach participants how to redirect a physically harmful attack into an advantageous position or submission.
Learning how to redirect aggressive force with my body was a matter of constant repetition. Translating the concept of power through gentle movement into a mindset took a lot of study, and I found the following quotes to be good lessons to keep in my mind as I practiced redirecting verbal attacks:
“Whatever the Way, the master of strategy does not appear fast….Of course, slowness is bad. Really skillful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy.” – Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings
– I love that quote because when I watch the top officials in televised games they almost always appear where they need to be without looking rushed. I try to practice this whenever I feel myself about to react to a comment by taking a single breath. It’s amazing how grounded you feel even in an intense game after taking a breath, and it has the added benefit of showing everyone at the game that you aren’t rushing into a decision.
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” – Bruce Lee
– This goes back to my main point that even the thickest and strongest skin will eventually break and probably in a very bad way. I prefer to think of myself as a bit transparent when I’m on the field. Allowing most comments to pass through me without much effect, and when I do hear something that is beyond my threshold for appropriate conduct then I deal with it.
“Does the conduct foul make the game better?” – Mike Collver
– Not a martial arts quote, but an appropriate one for any game. Mike is one of my mentors, and he gave me this nugget of advice after I reflexively threw my flag after a coach made a rather benign comment in a playoff game. Mike wanted me to ask myself if assessing a conduct or unsportsmanlike conduct foul made the game better. If yes, throw and assess. If no, forget the comment and move on.
So to any newer official in any sport reading this I wish I could tell you that it gets better. I want to tell you that everyone gets more civil as the players get older or when games graduate from side fields to stadiums. It doesn’t. The vast majority of players, coaches, and fans behave very well, but they are regularly drowned out by the louder minority who will inform you at every opportunity that you are personally responsible for everything that is wrong in the world. What does change is you. With practice and a little seasoning you’ll be able to hear the BS and not let it effect you until it rises to a level that effects the game, and by then everyone will appreciate it when you level judgment against the loud fool.
Except the loud fool, of course!