Officials like to joke that “the rules are overrated.” This doesn’t mean that the rules are unimportant, just that the rules in and of themselves don’t do anything. As a high school and collegiate official, I am expected to know the rules (and I ace the rules tests every year), but knowing the rules is the easiest part of officiating. Applying them correctly is much harder.

The rules test is open book and has no time limit, so there is no real pressure involved. Pressure is during a one-goal game where you sprint toward the crease following an attackman weaving between defenders and then determining, in an instant, whether he dove or got pushed during his shot while simultaneously keeping the goal, goalie, ball, crease, attackman, defenseman and action sequence in your head. That is hard even for experienced officials, but it is incredibly hard for beginner officials. One of my favorite scenes from the movie "Moneyball" illustrates this (jump to 1:15):

 

I’ve trained a lot of new youth and adult officials, and after their first scrimmage, they’ve all told me that officiating was much harder than it looks. I’ve heard it from the high school player who’s been playing since he was 9, the coach with a decade of experience trying out officiating for the first time, and the parent who wanted to officiate to learn the game from a different angle. Every time they finish their first game, I hear, “That was so much harder than I thought it would be.” This is common feedback that I’ve heard from trainers in other sports as well. Officiating just looks a lot easier than it actually is.

New officials find their first games difficult for two main reasons:

  1. They are not used to the speed of the game, and
  2. They have to pay attention for an extended period of time with no break.

The game looks fast from the stands, but it is SO much faster on the field, even in youth games. Players generally have an easier time getting into the flow of a game because they’re actively playing and are used to the speed. Coaches and parents have a steeper learning curve because they haven’t needed to sprint to keep up with a fast break while paying attention to potential safety and fairness calls. Officials only get used to game speed by getting repetitions on the field, and each time an official moves up a level, the game gets faster and it takes time to adjust.

The other area that trips up new officials is attention. I tell new officials that they earn their game fee by paying attention at all times. Players usually have more difficulty with staying focused on their areas of responsibility because they are used to the narrow focus of being a player: where the ball is and where the immediate defender is. Goalkeepers, unsurprisingly, tend to focus on the correct areas of the field faster because they are used to seeing the entire field from the crease and communicating where off-ball cutters are coming from.

Coaches and parents officiating for the first time have been, in my experience, a mixed bag when it comes to attention. Some try to pay attention to everything, which is not only ill-advised, it is impossible. That is why we work in two- and three-person crews. Others have a difficult time separating the coach/fan part of themselves. They stay focused on the ball and miss the off-ball interference or late hit because they’re not used to paying attention to the area of the field that is away from the ball. The longer they stick with officiating, the more game reps they pick up, and they start paying attention to the correct areas based on their position on the field.

To give you a sense of just how difficult it is to keep things straight in your head as an official, here is what goes through mine during a routine offside call:

  1. Keep a running count of all the players during the game
  2. Be in position
  3. Track the ball while keeping each player near the line in my field of vision
  4. Note any player crossover (2 blue, 1 red, etc.)
  5. Count forward
  6. Before making the call, double-check (carpenter’s maxim: measure twice, cut once)
  7. Make the call

If it’s a slow rolling ball to the midline, then I’ve got a few seconds to track everything. But, if the goalkeeper quickly outlets a pass to a midfielder who misses it, then I might have one or two seconds max to determine offside. And, I still have to keep items 1-6 in my head in order to apply the rule correctly.

This is why officials joke that the rules are overrated. I can get every question right on the rules test, but if I can’t apply them in a game, then who cares about my perfect score? Knowing the rules is the easy part, applying them correctly is incredibly hard.

Over to you. Have you ever officiated a lacrosse game before? What was that first game like? Were you surprised by the pace or how many variables there were to pay attention to? How did you overcome those challenges? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Gordon Corsetti is the manager of men's officials education at US Lacrosse.

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