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Ask a Ref What angle are you working
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Ask a Ref: What Angle Are You Working?

My post, “Respect My Authority,” generated an interesting discussion. One commenter got me thinking about how coaches, players, fans, and officials work one another during a game.

Before I dig into that, let’s be perfectly clear on one point. Someone is trying to work someone else in a lacrosse game. Both coaches are trying to work the officials. One coach might be shouting angrily from the sideline trying to get a call, while the other coach might be super nice to the official running up the field. They are using different strategies to gain an advantage for their team. The players are working themselves up before and during the game to get pumped up and focused, but they might also try to provoke an opponent to commit a foul by saying something rude under their breath. Fans also inject their opinions during the game.

It is an American pastime for the fans to work the refs. Before a Giants/Phillies game in 1951, Douglas MacArthur said he was, “going to settle down now to watch the long hits, mark the errors, and razz the umpire, even if we know he is right” (As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels In The Land Of Umpires). At professional and college sporting events buying a ticket pretty much means you get to yell nasty things to the refs. Is that right or nice? No, but that is the situation and officials need to be able to handle a little heat.

Peanut-Gallery crowd fans at SFU vs. BYU lacrosse game in Boise, Idaho
The Peanut Gallery: A Love/Hate Story

High school and youth sports generally have guiding state or league principles that prohibit poor sportsmanship or degrading remarks from fans. Putting that into practice, if some fan wants to shout mean things at me from the top of the bleachers in a sold-out high school game I probably can’t hear him over the crowd noise, but if some dad wants to curse out my family heritage at a youth game while sitting in a folding chair with eleven other people at the game I’m going to deal with him.

Everyone on one team is trying to gain an advantage to help secure a victory. It’s the game within a game that no one admits is going on during play. What I find interesting is that no one talks about the referees working the teams.

How can refs work teams and why would refs do this? Well contrary to popular belief most of referees don’t enjoy calling penalties. We’d much prefer a game to go smoothly with players on both sides under control and well behaved. We call penalties when safety or fairness is impacted, but there are numerous times during a game where we can work to influence a coach or player to our advantage. For example:

  • “Hey #17, thanks for easing up and not going through the shooter after the shot.” – Telling a defender thanks for not destroying a defenseless shooter goes a long way to him easing up on future shots when the ball is well gone.
  • “Keeper, right here! Thank you sir.” – If the goalie has the ball and is looking to toss it after a goal I give him clear directions and I always thank him. It’s a small courtesy for helping me get the face off ready quicker, and I buy an ally on the field by being the “nice” ref.
  • “Gentlemen, respect the line.” – On a faceoff the wing players sometimes forget where their feet are. I warn both with no specific instruction for one team over the other. Both players get the same message and adjust their positioning and we get to have a clean face.
  • “Coach, number 43 is not in control of his stick. He’s swung and missed a few times, but if he makes solid contact anywhere but the hands or stick I’m throwing my flag.” – This warning usually comes between quarters. It tells the coach that I’m watching a particular player and gives him an opportunity to warn his own player. I may be the authority on the field, but the coach has more individual authority with his own player and a heads up from his coach that the ref wants his stick down is usually heard.
  • “Coach, if you want me to cover the goal your shooting on in a quick transition then I need you off the field. I’d hate to run into you and miss something on the field.” – Coaches are supposed to stay off the field and the refs are supposed to keep them off. I don’t like to be adversarial about it, so I explain to the coach that running into him could be a safety issue for both of us and could also disadvantage his team on a fast break.
  • “Easy, gentlemen, easy” – I picked this phrase up last summer. I’ve said get stick or get glove to a defenseman who misses and strikes arm or shoulder, which tells the opposing coach that I just passed on a slash. Saying “easy” is a lot more ambiguous, but it gets my point across to the defender that I want him to pick his checks more carefully.
  • “Gentlemen” – Years ago I read to always call players “gentlemen,” “sir,” or by their number during a game regardless of age. Those are terms of respect and shows that the referee is conversing in professional terms. Speaking in that manner usually gets me cordial responses from players and coaches. Not always, but usually.

Players, coaches, and fans try to work the officials to gain an advantage for their team. Officials work players and coaches (we tend to ignore fans) in order to keep the game running smoothly. A quick word of warning could prevent a major problem, and if it doesn’t then I take care of the problem and I know that I tried a low-key way of handling the issues preceding the major problem.

When I ref my angle is player safety and the fairness of the game. Everything I do works from that angle. I don’t care who wins, but the players and coaches do and that is the angle they work from. Like my last post said, if everyone comes to the game with a mutual respect for one another and knows the angles getting worked then there is a greater chance that the game will go smoothly.

Each official has inherent strengths and weaknesses that we bring to our game. The obvious physical attributes and mechanical skills – size, skating ability, positioning – are easily detected. The less obvious – but, in my opinion, more important – qualities the job demands are strength of character, integrity, judgment, and the ability to communicate effectively and cultivate and develop professional relationships with players, coaches, and other officials.” – Kerry Fraser (former NHL official) from The Final Call, Hockey Stories from a Legend in Stripes.