“Don’t Talk To My Kids!” Ever heard that shouted from the sideline? Coaches don’t want officials coaching their players. They do want officials to help their players avoid dumb penalties. How do you walk that line and make sure the game is played the way it’s supposed to be played?
Here’s my situation: The high school team I was helping coach in Alabama was playing its archrival. On the other team’s first play from scrimmage, their split end came out wide in front of our bench and may have put one foot in the neutral zone before getting his bearings and lining up properly. The linesman called him for encroachment. I glanced at him and smiled.
Two hours, 40 points and approximately three inches of rain later, we had this game in the bag (for a change) whereupon the same player did the same thing in almost the same place – and got flagged again. Fourth time he was called in the game. I still have the game film where you can see me kneeling beside the linesman, begging him to let us go home. I was promised the first chance at the hot water if I didn’t get up pronto.
OK, cast your ballots on how that was handled:
- Leave the linesman alone. The kid should know better.
- The linesman was wrong but that was no reason for you to show him up.
- Good for you; we need to have a better feel for the game.
- Did the center have his hands on the ball yet?
Here we have the crux of successful game management by officials: Can you massage the rulebook to help the game without mangling your credibility? Will people even understand that you’ve helped?
I have long believed that anyone who has ever been a coach – not just a player – has an edge in becoming a better official. That’s because such a person has learned to feel the coaches’ pain and is better equipped to give the game what the teams – both teams – need. You’ve read it in Referee magazine many times: Successful game management separates great officials from merely good ones. You may be fully attuned to what the teams need, but successful game management doesn’t mean you get to play coach out there on the field or court.
The official’s best weapon in managing a game is maintaining a welcome dialogue with the participants. A welcome dialogue isn’t a steady stream of chatter without focus from official to player. It’s well-timed and meaningful directions, observations and warnings that help the teams when saying nothing would lead to confusion or frustration. To best deliver that dialogue, you need to get a feel for the game and interact in a way that both augments and respects the preparation of the teams.
Preparation is often the key difference between two otherwise similar squads. It’s a function of the teaching ability of the coaches, effective organization and time management in practices and the ability of the players mentally to learn and physically to master what they’re taught. Well-prepared teams have gotten through the basic stuff and are now perfecting the little things that they think their opponents can’t match. When you go out to referee or umpire them, their coaches don’t want you disrupting what they’ve successfully instilled, and they certainly don’t want you reducing their edge by officiating down to the other team’s standard.
All that boils down to a couple of questions: At what point does your “help” on the field or court go from preventive officiating and game management to something a coach might construe as coaching the players or upsetting the competitive balance? As an official, how do you recognize where that line is and how does that line move depending on the teams and level of competition?
Let’s look at some cases to see how this works. Remember, we’re trying to see how to massage the rules to manage the game and the suggestions given shouldn’t be interpreted as rulings.
Case 1: How Much of an Advantage is Gained?
In the example of the itinerant wide receiver we talked about at the outset, what should the official do to manage that situation?
It’s smart to set a standard right from the start, but consider giving the players a chance to settle down first. Nobody but the linesman and someone looking straight down the neutral zone will know for sure whether the receiver encroaches in marginal situations. With 11:52 on the clock in the first quarter, most coaches aren’t interested in playing trivia yet either. If you do have to flag the first foul, it doesn’t mean you need to call three more. Use your voice and warn the player about the dangers of wandering into the neutral zone. That approach works no matter what sport: When it comes to something that is very correctable and offers almost no competitive advantage, either warn them of the impending penalty or tell them why they received the penalty.
A big fear of many officials is of doing a team a favor and then having them drive a truck through your generosity. Consider this example:
Case 2: No Leeway or a Little Leeway?
You’re working a Pony League baseball game and you notice early on that, by strict interpretation, the pitcher is doing something that is a balk. Maybe his hands don’t come completely to a stop or his heel is hanging off the end of the rubber an inch. Nobody seems to notice but you. What action do you take?
Hopefully, you weren’t wasting your time gabbing before the game instead of watching the teams and their preparations. You can usually get a good idea of their skill level and their attitude. If you feel like they’re serious about things, use your “free warning” at the first opportunity and be prepared to stick with it. Otherwise, a quiet word to the pitcher, a word of explanation to the manager or no action at all might be better. On the off chance that his transgression escalates later, don’t be ashamed to tighten your standard but tell everyone why you did. Most coaches will accept your application of common sense over your run for that Supreme Court nomination. Don’t enforce a standard the game can’t support unless it’s prudent to do so.
Case 3: Higher Competitive Levels
So far we’ve talked mostly about high school and lower games. Would we handle any of the above situations differently if they occurred at the college level?
Maybe. At that level, you need to consider the incident’s ability to influence the game. The pitcher not stopping or standing off the edge of the rubber (where his slider will work better) can have a definitive tactical advantage; with his level of experience it would be reasonable to assume he was doing it on purpose. The football incidents might still be handled by preventive officiating. What tactical advantage to his team does the receiver gain if he has neither intent nor effect in what he’s doing?
Fair enough, but what about at the other end of the spectrum? Sometimes you may need to cross the line fully and play coach if nobody else is doing it.
Case 4: Youth League Games
Saturday morning, 8 a.m. at an under-12 soccer league game. Every goalkick taken by the red team’s goalie is straight up the middle and barely makes it to the 18 yardline while his teammates pose for a still-life portrait. The blue team is kicking every one back into the goal. The red team’s coach is offering (a) no advice, or (b) poor advice, and the parents are starting to get restless. Do you say anything to the goalie?
There is absolutely nothing in the rules or your training that warrants “coaching” the goalie. But for the good of the game, do something. Without turning the episode into a kicking clinic, offer him a quiet pointer or two if you think it will help. What you want to avoid doing is coaching before it is needed, because now you’ll be seen as offering one team an edge. It’s probably best to keep your coaching to situations in which you can improve the experience without altering the outcome. That implies that you probably want to lay off coaching completely by the time the participants have hit high school.
To this point we’ve talked about incidents that may or may not be intentional and the advice has been to consider cutting a little slack if that slack won’t later be tied around your neck. What about the following situation, where things are more sinister?
Case 5: Blatant Cheating
Prior to a college game, one team’s warmup includes its receivers running a pass skeleton against the secondary. Every time a receiver gets past his coverage and is getting ready to catch the ball, the defender briefly reaches out and tugs at his hips. Later, the same defenders are seen covering crossing patterns by reaching for the ball with one hand and hooking the receiver’s back with the other just enough to make him twist a bit. (That is an actual scenario from a game I worked.) How should that be handled?
Clearly, the team is being coached to gain an advantage on the gamble that the officials won’t call a marginal foul. It’s necessary in those cases to take action, but waiting for it to happen in the game and flagging it then may not be the best course. Casually mention to one of the coaches what you’re seeing and let it register. Now, if what’s going on is intentional, the team has had fair warning (but they’ll still be waiting to see if you call it) and it’ll be up to them how to respond. If it’s just a bad habit or a missed coaching point, you’ve given them a chance to correct it (and you’re not even doing anything that could be interpreted as coaching on the field!). In that kind of situation, your response transcends the age group you’re working with. Cheating is cheating. Stop it if you can.
Case 6: What if It Doesn’t Impact Play?
You’re working a high school basketball game in a two-person system and observe the centers jostling weak side to the ball. One is warding off with his forearm while the other is using his knee, but neither is currently gaining an advantage due to the position of the ball. Do you call anything?
If you’re going to call a foul, think about making it a double. Then understand that you’ve cost both coaches’ centers one of their five lives on a play that didn’t affect the score. Once you set a standard like that you must be prepared to maintain it every other time it happens. Fair enough, but if it’s early in the game, often telling them to knock it off while the game goes on will help and they’ll lay off. If they don’t heed your advice, then the difference now is that everybody within earshot knows they’ve had their chance. Getting called for it later then becomes their choice, not yours.
Most coaches don’t know the rules as well as officials, but that doesn’t stop them from sensing when they feel like they’re getting hosed. In any of the earlier cases, word might well reach you that the coach wants to know what’s going on. All the usual motives apply: uncertainty, suspicion, buying the next call. If you’re really using good game management skills, you should be prepared to offer a defensible explanation when the coach comes calling.
If a player wants to know what he or she has done, bear in mind that the older and more experienced the player is, the less likely it is that whatever was done was an accident. The player will also be more concerned about sitting down if he or she starts to be too much of a liability to the team. Chances are, then, that the player either knows exactly what he or she did and wants to know if you do, too, or the player really wants to learn something: Either way, a fact-based explanation suffices.
Successful game management begins with two key realizations: The rules don’t cover absolutely every situation adequately, and even though you may know the rules and how to play the game better than anyone out there, it’s not your job to offer the benefit of your wisdom. If you can deal with those two cold truths, you can find a way to improvise without corrupting the contest.
Be aware that when you’re out on the field, coaches will see you talking to their players and will want to know what was said. Be prepared to offer a defensible explanation.
Players are fairly sophisticated at most of the college levels and need no instruction from officials.
How much instruction officials can or should offer players depends on the competition level. You’ll likely “coach” more in youth games than any other.
A quiet word at an unobtrusive time can help maintain a smooth-running game as long as your message doesn’t upset the competitive balance.