Football Zebras
MechanicsGetting back on the horse: officials must focus on recovering from a bad game

Getting back on the horse: officials must focus on recovering from a bad game

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Every official in every sport from the peanut league to the pros has had that moment. They come off the field to boos from the fans, glares from coaches, and dour faces from their supervisors. The official or crew has had a bad game. Whether it was one bad call in a big moment or the official or their crew didn’t have it that night, it is an awful feeling.

Officials are used to having fans, coaches and talking heads say they had a terrible game and made terrible calls — that happens every week and game film almost always exonerates them. But when an official looks in the mirror and says, “I made a terrible call. I had a terrible game and I hurt my crew,” it is the worst feeling in the world.

Officials have to move on

The first thing officials have to do is evaluate the game, no matter how painful it is. They have to see what went wrong. Why did they miss one big call? Why did all seven have a bad game? Was is positioning? Communication? Rules preparation? Concentration? Even veteran officials at the top levels see things for the first time ever. Self reflection and adaptability are keys to improving as an official.

The officials will have to be honest with each other. It falls on the referee to pinpoint what went wrong and develop a plan of action for individual and crew improvement. Each official must take constructive criticism and be open to changing their mechanics or communication. The referee and each official must acknowledge that they had a poor game and resolve to get better.

This is not the time for officials to turn on each other, hurl accusations or belittle others’ efforts. If one official had a particularly poor game and needs a more stern lecture, the referee must take that official aside and criticize in private. It is critical for the referee to get his crewmate to improve and humiliating them in front of the rest of the crew could do more harm than good.

Once the crew has addressed the poor calls or effort, it is up to them to move quickly on to preparing for the next game. For football officials, that game is an agonizing six days away. But, the officials begin preparing for the next game on the plane ride home. Yes, they look at game film from last week and receive their grades, but it is vital to keep looking forward.

Back to basics

By the time the crew arrives to the next game city at least a day prior to kickoff, each official should be ready for the next game. If they are still obsessing over the last game they will be in no condition to officiate in the present.

The officiating crew needs to go back to the basics. Each official needs to do their job and concentrate on every play. They need to do their presnap checklist: count to 11, watch substitutions, concentrate on the clock status, and be ready to correct any timing errors. Once the ball is snapped, they need to find their key, stay with that key, don’t ball watch, and make every play a game all its own.

An official can’t go into the game thinking, “I must be perfect on every call. Excellent isn’t enough. I must call a perfect game.” If they think that, they will get themselves so twisted up mentally, they will end up making mistakes, and get themselves into such a mental funk, they’ll have another poor performance.

Officials need to trust their crew mates. A line judge who thinks, “My field judge had a bad game last week. I need to keep an eye on him and bail him out if he gets in a jam,” will miss calls that are his or her responsibility. Officials need to stay with their keys and each do their own job to the best of their ability. If they do that, there is a strong chance that all seven zebras will officiate the play correctly.

Put the bad game to bed

Once the game is over, officials need to be quick to compliment each other on the calls they made, go over what went right and what continues to need improvement. The referee needs to build up the crew and praise them for the improved performance. The crew chief will then exhort the crew to remember the good game they just had and build on that performance for the next week.

Just like football teams, emotion and mental approach are just as important for officials. The sooner they can move past a bad game and do the job they are capable of, the better their crew, and ultimately, the game will be.

Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"
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