Why should you care about the lacrosse refs and the rules?

Back in 2000, I ventured onto the lacrosse field in a way that I had never done before. I wasn’t carrying my lacrosse gear, my goalie stick or my coaches hat. I wasn’t carrying a goal or meeting with fellow friends to play, teach or spectate. This time, I was walking on the field as “the enemy”, at least in my deluded eyes of the time this is what I thought.

I was entering the field as an official, and honestly, it was weird.

When I started playing lacrosse, from a very young age, we were taught about officials through the silent method of “actions speak louder than words”, and most of my fellow teammates had a similar attitude towards the officials. Often, it was a despising nonchalance, one of bitter detest and certainly not of respect. What I’ve learned in the past 16 years of officiating has changed me in so many ways, but the biggest has been as a player and human being.

Ok, you may be saying, “you’ve been hit in the head too many times playing goalie” Tim Rossi.

Yes, I can understand this knee jerk reaction to this response, but take a moment to read this and perhaps you might learn a valuable lesson that took me way too long to understand.

When we grew up despising the referees, this concept from our parents, coaches and fellow team mates was actually doing a disservice to ourselves, our game and the third team on the field. It can be a thankless job working as a ref, and perhaps as I am a ref now, it’s karma returning from all of those years of my antics, misunderstandings and often times, anger.

If I was upset at letting in a goal, or mad at someone doing something wrong on the field, or even angry at myself for making mistakes, the easiest scapegoat was usually standing right next to me – with vertical hands in the air to signal a goal, seemingly mocking my defeat. Another ball crossed the plane of the pipes, and another digit added to the scorebooks. As my goals against average increased, my blood pressure and rage increased in unison.

What has taken me many years to truly understand (now being on the other side of the position in my stripes), is that the role of the lacrosse official has got to be one of the hardest jobs on the field. Actually, I’m quite certain it is the most challenging. “What?”, I can hear you mumbling to yourselves, especially as I write this to a group of goalies and lacrosse fanatics.

You might be saying something akin to, “You must be joking, officials have the easiest job out there, all they have to do is show up, jog around a bit, know a few rules and blow the whistle. Cake walk.”, you may be thinking to yourself.

After wearing the stripes for these many years, this is the farthest from the truth.

Imagine this. You’re standing on a field, with 20 active players, all wielding a metal stick complete with helmets, gloves and basically, armor. Each one bigger than the next, fast, quick and all the while whipping a hard rubber ball around. You, as a referee, have two, maybe three fellow officials, and are responsible for the safety, fairness and rule abidings of all of the people on the field.

You do this while people all around you, from players and coaches to parents and spectators, let you know how much you are missing, as they always seem to have the right answer to every call on the field – whether or not your call is the same is irrelevant. Oh and you’re not wearing any protective equipment, only bearing a simple plastic whistle.

So, take an average high school game, there are two officials on the field. That means that each official might be responsible for watching 10 people at a time, making sure the flow of the game is fluid, watching for any tricky playing and also being sure to remember all of the rules in the book. Which, btw, is one of the most complicated set of sports rules out there. Not because of the sophistication of the rules, although there are a few tricky ones, but mainly a factor of time. Almost everything on the lacrosse field happens in a split second.

Now, perhaps this paints a different picture then what you’ve thought of before. Maybe you already knew this, but just figured there was nothing to it.

This is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. It’s a combination of anger management and really understanding the rules. What most coaches, players and parents don’t understand, and even beginning officials don’t realize, is that the role of an official is not to make sure that every single rule is called all the time, but rather the appropriate rules are used at the right time. This might sound weird at first, but think about it for a second. If the officials called every infraction on the field, each game would last 24 hours. There is no possible way that two or even three refs can watch all 20 people at once. And even if we could, is this the purpose of our jobs? To call every little infraction happening on the field?

So what does a ref call and why?

Ok, so now we’re getting to the heart of the matter, and if you want to be a smarter, better player on the field, listen to what I’m about to say. If you follow it, you will be able to concentrate more on the present game, and get over what happened easier and quicker.

Our job as officials is threefold. First and foremost, is to be sure the game is safe. Let’s face it, 20 testosterone pumped guys on the field in full armor can yield precarious situations. Secondly, when it comes to the play of the games, the better officials are there to make a call when an advantage is gained by breaking the rules, unless of course it is based on a safety issue.

We don’t make up the rules, and so when you think about it, knowing the rules can be used to your advantage. If you don’t know the rules, you might fall into the category I was in as a previous player – it hurt me. And lastly, there is a lot going on all at once during a game. Keep in mind that we also make mistakes or miss things. I always liked the comment that a veteran official told the captains during a coin toss in my beginning days. He said “guys, when you play the perfect game, we’ll ref the perfect game”.

So in summary, here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you walk on the field. Refs are not perfect, and think about the pressure of having to listen to all of those people complaining to you. Refs are human beings, and yes, there is a part of the job that necessitates a thick skin, but this isn’t an excuse to yell, complain or treat them without respect. If you were to talk that way to a police officer, a random person on the street, or even someone you respected, how do you think they would act or react? Think about this one and let it really stew.

You may understand these topics, but perhaps you’re asking, “how has this has made you a better player?”

Take some time to learn the rules. I can guarantee you will be a better player when you understand what they are calling and why they are calling it. If you have a question, don’t be afraid to wonder about it and to want to gain clarity. Perhaps during half time you can ask your captain or coach to clarify something that you don’t understand. Don’t go up to the official during the game to ask a question, unless you are asking to clarify how long a penalty is or something like where the ball will be placed.

The final comment is that when you can keep yourself in control, you will play better. And this is the final thing I learned after so many years of officiating that then made me a better player. Instead of getting so upset at a bad call, or a multitude of other things to be mad at, take a deep breath, or do whatever you need to do to get your head back into the game, and into the present moment. After all, being in the moment is what allows for being “in the zone” and this is what great goalie play necessitates.

When you do ask a question to a referee, here are two different approaches. One could be “ref, what the heck were you thinking when you called that penalty? You clearly didn’t see what actually happened”. Another approach could be, “Mr. official, I’m not sure I understand what that call was, can you clarify with me what was called?” Think about how these two approaches to the same question can make such a big difference, both on and off the field. Don’t ask it in a condescending voice, that’s often worse. If you can’t do that, than wait until you’re less aggravated and more emotionally together. It’s ok to have and show emotions, but if they are directed at someone else in anger or disrespect, it can have dire consequences – again both on and off the field.

Read the rule book when you have a spare moment. Ask your coach, or ask questions to officials or to an official’s organization. No one knows everything, so be smart enough to know that you don’t know everything.

Coaches, parents and any other adult in a position to mold a players attitude has a big responsibility that is often not spoken about. If this adult confirms bad behavior of players on the field, they are creating a disservice to all of the lacrosse community and to the public at large.

If we take a look at the bigger picture, we can gain valuable lessons on the field, for when we are off the field. And let’s face it, we’re off the field a lot longer than we are “on the field” and if this is not addressed, it can lead to further problems down the road. This is what positive coaching is all about, and it’s often not addressed as well as it should be.

This might be a lot to hear for the average lacrosse aficionado, but a little adjustment and understanding will go a long way. Good luck out there and if you do see me in stripes, keep in mind that I don’t have eyes behind my head, and I’m not perfect.