We have all heard it before; communication is an essential skill that a referee must develop in order to be successful: be a people person! Listen! Match energy levels! Take charge! But what exactly does all that mean? How does one learn how to do it? As a referee you must realize that your goal is not to control a game but to manage it and that means, managing people. That is managing player, coaches, table personnel, fans, parents, and even fellow officials. Often, I hear officials say that they clearly and concisely communicated what they wanted, but the coach or player just would not listen. And so began a chain of events that lead to rising tension, an outburst, a penalty, a fight and an ejection.
Officials often equate communication skills as coming into play once a conflict or crisis has started. They regale us with stories of how they swooped in and took charge or expound on how they defused the situation with their charm and calm demeanor.
I would argue that at that point, the situation is already out of hand; it’s already too late. There are essential strategies and techniques that can help get you through these critical situations. Those skills are important, but effectively managing a game means, doing everything in your power to identify problems and correct them before they become an issue, to avoid crisis and conflict in the first place. Truly effective communication begins well before you before blow the first whistle. Follow these tips and procedures; they will enable you to set expectations and develop relations that will have a lasting impact on how you are able to effectively manage your games.
Being out of shape doesn’t do you any favors. Be honest, how do you look? Could you stand to lose a few pounds? More than a few? A lot? This is a fast paced game. You need to be able to move and put yourself in the best position to make the call. We all lose a step as we get older and we can overcome some of that anticipating the play. But it is very difficult to overcome the impression that we can’t get there. Similarly how do you look in uniform? Clean, polished and put together. Take an inventory of your equipment. Do you need a new hat or shirt? Are your shoes looking rough? An old and yellowed shirt, hat with stains or ratty flags reduce your credibility. Make sure your patches are sewn on professionally. Polish your shoes. Invest in yourself and your equipment it will pay huge dividends.
Coaches and Crew Email
You should be in communication with the coaches well in advance of you game. You want to make sure the game is still on, confirm the time and the location. I send out an email to the home and visiting coach and bcc my crew letting everyone know when we plan to arrive at the facility and that we look forward to working with them. I have my association logo in my signature as well as my cell phone number. It takes about two minutes to send, but it sets the tone for the game. I send a lot of these, so in order to make it easy, I use Gmail’s canned responses. It set the tone early. Coaches and my partners know that I am taking my responsibilities seriously.
Once I get confirmation from the coach, I pass the details along to my crew, let everyone know where to meet and what to wear. I know that the umpire and field judge are supposed to contact the Referee. Hogwash. What’s more important: reaffirming the crew hierarchy or making sure everyone is on the same page?
Always Act Like a Professional
We all know that is is imperative that we act professionally when we are working a game. But, when do you go into professional mode? In the car driving to the game, in the parking lot or the locker room? You need to be in official mode well before you hit the field: in the gas station next to the high school grabbing a water before the game, in your car as your drive up to the field and in the parking lot while you are getting ready. You never know who is watching; but be assured, somebody is watching: a parent, fan, coach, player, or administrator is taking notes as to how you are acting. What you say and what you do all factor in to how you are perceived. Set expectations early, because you never know who is watching you.
I always do a pregame conference to review mechanics and new rules, discuss what type of game this could be and go over how we plan to manage the game. Every time.
A pre-game should be a well-organized, serious discussion and the entire crew should participate. To keep everyone on track, I use laminated pre-games for youth, high school (2-man and 3-man) and NCAA games. The number of contests the officials have worked together should have little bearing on whether or not you hold the pre-game, nor should it be dismissed as the season progresses. On the contrary, the pre-game needs to be longer and more focused as the games become more meaningful. Whether its five minutes or an hour, it is essential that you get you and your crew’s head are focused on the task at hand.
Coaches Certification and Coin Toss
This is your first official face to face interaction with the coach. If you have already sent an email to him, you have already gone a long way towards setting the tone of the interaction. I like to take care of this meeting as quickly as possible once I am on the field. Walk up and wait for the coach to see you. Don’t barge into his huddle or line drill like you own the place. He is focused on preparing his team for the game. Introduce yourself and your partner and give a good firm handshake.
Make sure you have a card that looks neat and clean, not sloppily done in your car. In addition to certifying his players, getting captains and the in-home, ask if there are any issues you need to be aware of with the field, will the national anthem be played, is it senior night? Confirm when the game will start and let the coach know when you will ask for captains. I like to grab captains immediately after I certify the coaches because I like to get out of both teams way so they can prepare for the game.
How many times have you held a pre-game conference with the faceoff men? How many times have you had violations on a team because their guy didn’t understand the rules, had no idea what the neutral zone was or did not have tape on his crosse? For me, this was something we were mandated to do in college that I carried over into high school. As soon as the coin toss is over, ask all of the the fogos to meet you at midfield . Spend a few minutes demonstrating with a crosse what you want. I have heard the counter-argument, it’s not our job to explain the rules to them. I recognize that, but I would rather have communication than violations. When a coach comes to me and asks “what’s happening on the faceoff? Why is my guy getting called for illegal procedure?” I can not only explain what he is doing, but that we covered it in our pre-game meeting. Coaches who may not understand the rules appreciate the help, coaches who do appreciate the clarification.
Here is a great example from the 2014 Penn Princeton game that was filmed by Lacrosse Television.
Certify the Table
The timer and scorekeeper are provided by the home team, but they are an essential part of your crew. Introduce yourselves and get their names. Thank them. They must remain neutral; they are a part of the officiating crew. Hit the big points of what they need to do:
- Let us know if you have problems keeping the box clear.
- Clock starts and stops on the whistle.
- When we are reporting penalties we are not going anywhere until you are comfortable with what is happening.
- Loudly count down penalty time 5…4…3…2…1 release!
- Player cannot release on a faceoff until possession is called.
- If a player leaves early from his penalty note who has possession at the time and blow the horn twice at the next dead ball. Do the same if a head coach requests an official’s conference.
- Let the nearest official know when a player has 3 or more minutes of personal fouls. Any player with five is disqualified.
Even if I have worked with them before and am comfortable with how they will do, I still run through my little spiel. Every time.
Inspect the Field and the Nets
Inspecting the field can seem like a tedious task? You have been to this facility a hundred times; everything is fine. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing will discredit you more than standing around for twenty minutes before the game starts only to realize that there are no balls on the endline or a ball in the net or that the nets are in the women’s crease. Check the lines, crease, cones, and balls. I tend to wait until the teams are off the field before I check the nets. I don’t like interrupting a team running shooting drills or warming up the keeper, I don’t like getting hit with a shot, and I prefer to wait until there is a minimal chance that another ball or hole in the net will occur prior to the start of the game. Even if it just after the national anthem and before the lineup. While you are waiting you can scan the teams and make sure there are no uniform or equipment violations that might need to be addressed. You can also make yourself available for stick checks.
Follow these tips every time, without exception, and you will build credibility and trust with coaches, players, table personnel and fellow officials, set expectations and avoid confusion. And all before you blow the first whistle. Now all that’s left for you to do is grab a new ball and conduct the lineup and get the game started!