You may be surprised that some of the strongest influencers of my development as a lacrosse player were officials. It’s been a while since I played my last game, and three knee surgeries have prevented me from taking the field as a "masters" player, but I vividly remember the qualities of a few officials whose effort and style contributed greatly to my lacrosse experience. Unfortunately, officials have become convenient targets for coaches, players and parents because the concept of personal responsibility has been all but lost in our sports culture. It’s just too easy for everyone to blame an official for any number of outcomes within a game, including the final score. I think most people, when pressed, would admit they understand that the accumulation of hundreds of decisions by coaches and players throughout a game – both well and poorly executed – are the true determinate of a game’s outcome. And most appreciate that officials – like coaches and players – are bound to make mistakes from time to time. Unfortunately, the reaction to an official’s mistake (real or imagined) is too often one of blame. The irony of this reaction, particularly regarding parents and fans, is that it’s often based on ignorance of the letter and spirit of the rules.
The best advice I can offer to developing officials is to build an appropriate on-field relationship with players, coaches and fans throughout a game. Officials have a significant responsibility to objectively enforce the rules of play to assure a fair competition and maximize player safety. But youth and high school officials, particularly, have the opportunity to help teach the game and temper emotions that could lead to unsafe play. In doing so, they have the opportunity to build greater respect from players. In my experience, no one did this better than Scott Boyle, who died tragically at age 55 from a heart attack while officiating a men’s game between Navy and Georgetown in 2005.
Although Scott had become one of the best men’s lacrosse officials in the country, he was always focused on improving his craft…whether he was officiating a world championship, NCAA championship, high school game or youth tournament. He was the absolute best at talking to players during the heat of competition, reminding them that the rules prohibited certain behavior, and telling them to take it easy when intensity flared. "Take it easy number 36…let the man move inside…keep your checks down…" This wasn’t meddling with the outcome of a game, it was effective game management that allowed action to flow, reduced the number of whistles, and made a better game experience for players and fans alike. When I saw Scott officiate youth games, he made every call a teaching moment for players. He also took the time and had the courtesy to appropriately engage parents with updates on simple things like time remaining, game score and, from time to time, quick-witted game commentary that always broke the tension of the often-too-serious focus of parents. It’s true that Scott had a personality and sense of confidence that helped him become a good official, but it’s also true that he worked hard to become a great official. He believed that officiating was much more than knowing the rules and blowing a whistle. He engaged and connected with players, parents and coaches while he worked and, in the process, reminded us all that officials were human after all.