I vividly remember one particular clear during the 2012 Vail Shootout while I was officiating at the LAREDO 3 clinic. I had reached the far cone as the single side official after starting my timer when the new trail official signaled reset once the goalie made a save. My feet were ready to take me down the other half of the field at a moment’s notice and I was focused on the clear coming towards midfield. All of a sudden the goalkeeper noticed his attackman on the far side was wide open and he launched the ball towards his teammate. I tracked the ball as it flew through the air and before it reached it’s apex I heard:
I instantly snapped my head down to the players near where the ball would fall, and mentally kicked myself for ball watching right in front of the clinician (who tended to set up six yards back from the far midline cone). I was reminded for the dozenth time that the ball has never committed a penalty, which is one of the most repeated officiating maxims. Avoiding ball-watching was high on my list of things to practice after coming back from that LAREDO. A few tricks helped me keep my focus on the players, who are much more likely to commit a foul than the ball.
Trick #1: Notice when you ball-watch. This is the hardest trick to learn, but it is the most critical. You cannot break the habit of ball-watching if you don’t notice when you do it. None of us are observed frequently enough by an experienced official who can point out to us the times we ball-watched during a game, so it is up to us to do most of the noticing. I accomplished this by making it one of my pre-game focuses. When I went into a game after telling myself that I didn’t want to ball-watch it was much easier for me to notice when my attention was only focused on that white piece of rubber.
Trick #2: “Eyes on bodies.” I’m a fan of mantras and I repeated that phrase anytime I noticed myself ball-watching. That quick mental note set my eyes back on the players’ bodies instead of on the ball, whether it was in flight or loose on the ground.
Trick #3: Where is it going? This trick is the most helpful on getting a bead on where the ball will most likely go on a clear. Whenever I am he new lead official after the goalie saves the ball I do two things: First, I immediately start backing up while keeping the play in front of me. Usually there is time before the goalie outlets the ball while the midfielders are breaking out. Second, I quickly scan the field towards the opposite restraining line and then snap my head right back to the goalie. This lets me make sure I’m not about to run into any player as I’m cutting upfield, and I can identify the player most likely to get the ball. Be on the lookout for any attackman or midfielder cutting free while a defender standing still. In my experience the goalie surveying the field will outlet the ball to that player, and you’ll already know where to center your vision because you anticipated the pass before the goalkeeper saw the open man.
Trick #4: The ball isn’t important. To players, coaches, and fans the ball is a very important part of the game. It decides where their focus must be, but it is the biggest red herring to a lacrosse official. You always want to know where the ball is without actually focusing on the ball. For new officials, especially recent players, focusing on the area around the ball without zeroing in on the ball is incredibly tough. An easy way to practice this type of focus is to watch a lacrosse game in person or on TV. Wherever the ball goes let your eyes move to where you expect the ball should be based off where you last noticed it. You can expand this practice by pretending to be one of the on field officials. As the ball comes towards you focus on the immediate players near the ball. As the ball moves away from you let your eyes linger on where it was and then direct your focus to the majority of players off ball.
Knowing where the ball is on the field is a lot like knowing where to look when fighting or sparring. It took a lot of painful lessons before I learned to look at the solar plexus of whoever I was sparring at the gym. Watching the head, shoulders, fists, hips, or legs meant I was focusing on one part of my opponent at the expense of the rest. I could be easily fooled by a switch kick coming from an unexpected direction looking at the right hip, or run into a right cross if I was too focused on the left hand. As a lacrosse referee I must be focused on the players. If I allow myself to focus too much on the ball, the assistant coach, the fans, or the small divot in the ground I won’t be focused on the players at the critical moment. Keeping my primary focus on the players (solar plexus) and noticing the ball, coaches, and fans in the periphery (head, fists, legs) my attention stays right where it needs to be.