Some games seem to take longer than they should — like Yankees vs. Red Sox games — but the sports we officiate have sensible durations. Through it all, officials have an obligation: stay out there until the bitter end. It would be kind of nice if they paid us overtime for long games, but we settle for enjoying the tired joints and dehydration until somebody other than us cracks. What’s the best way to run on empty?
Empty varies from sport to sport and I’ve seen it all in my career. I’ve worked the plate in a 13-inning baseball game (on the back end of a doubleheader). The 400 ball-and-strike decisions and deep knee bends I made were just the start. I also had to stay alert and keep track of game situations like the count, the outs and the positions of the runners. That’s hard to do when you’re starting to see two of everything. An extra inning is fun. Two are a challenge. Six are inhumane.
Volleyball can be a big challenge, too, because it’s common to work six matches in a day during a tournament. The real challenge in volleyball is concentrating for that long; unless you push yourself, you begin softening on ballhandling decisions and you can start second-guessing yourself as close calls accumulate. Inevitably, the day comes down to 13-13 in the deciding set of the championship match and you have to be just as sharp then as you were at 9 a.m. After a day like that, you can come home with a uniform that might not need washing, but be so mentally wasted that someone has to feed you.
I believe soccer is physically the toughest on officials because of its pace and continuous motion. A half-hour of extra time in a college or professional game is torture for everyone. The players train to leave it all on the field after 90 minutes and the teams are limited in substitutes. By the time penalty kicks roll around, there are some very tired (and ornery) players surrounding a referee who’s run two or three more miles than expected. Football and basketball, by placing more officials in the fray, are somewhat easier from a gross fatigue standpoint but there can be exceptions.
There’s a commonality in all of this: You work on your physical fitness so that you’ll remain mentally fit throughout the game, no matter how long it lasts. If the blood isn’t getting to your legs, it sure isn’t getting to your brain, and that’s when trouble starts.
As the game drags on, you might cheat a bit on your diagonal or give yourself a step or two more to transition from trail to lead. But you can never lose focus and let tiredness affect your decision-making or game presence. Players are like wild animals and, as soon as they see your shoulders start slumping or you start pointing the wrong way, they move in for the kill. It’s not that you shouldn’t be tired; it’s that they shouldn’t be able to tell. I have it on good authority that Marine drill sergeants Scotchgard their shirts so they never look as sweaty as their platoon. As officials, we have to work the same ruse. Even if a black hole has formed where your stomach was recently, you have to look and act like you can last as long as it takes. What are some of the things you can do?
Expect every game to go into overtime
Pessimistic, I grant you, but the point is to keep your energy reserves and hydration topped up, not wish you had. I worked soccer with a guy who had been the senior linesman on a cup final in the old North American Soccer League. The game went into extra time on a hot, humid day in Miami, whence the referee flaked with leg cramps: my man Bill was suddenly it. He got the game to penalty kicks by himself, with one linesman. In the dozen or so times I worked with him, he always walked through the door looking thin as a rail, with a water bottle in his hand. It paid off.
Train to work at 100 percent of your expected demand
Early in your career, you should be working out hard enough that game days feel like a break from training. That gets harder to do later in life and it can actually start hurting you because you need more recuperation time. As you get older, think about changing your training strategy: Work out as hard as you can and then plan a rest day or two after a game. You have to accept your limitations and pick your spots better. Overtime won’t be any more fun, but you’ll be able to get through it.
Learn ways to keep your focus
As you begin to tire, your mind starts wandering. When you learn to expect it, there are things you can do to counter it. What a lot of officials do is start talking to themselves more, preferably without their lips moving. The active process of “speaking” keeps your cognitive process engaged and helps you stay alert. If you might have instinctively covered third on a play in the first inning, tell yourself, “Be ready to cover third,” before the play starts in the 12th inning. Don’t rely on your instincts as much, as the game gets longer.
Look like fatigue won’t be an issue
Volleyball referees don’t get much exercise in a match. In fact, once they’ve climbed the ladder to the platform, it’s downhill from there. Nonetheless, coaches still favor fit-looking officials because they correctly associate fitness with the ability to concentrate and bear down over the course of a match.
Contestants don’t need much help to doubt officials these days, so don’t give them any by looking like a slob when you show up. The best officials have learned that looking neat and athletic is legal tender when building rapport with players and coaches. In fact, every official should do that. No matter how many of your internal organs are turning to Jell-O as the game wears on, keep up the appearances.
Early in his career, four-time Super Bowl referee Jerry Markbreit was working a college game in a monsoon. The score was out of hand, the fans had left and his uniform was ruined. He still treated it like the most important game of his life. Turned out it was because a stranger met him at the dressing room door and asked him, “Do you work this hard every game?” The stranger was merely the supervisor of officials for the Big Ten and Markbreit started working for the man the next season.
Overtime causes stress for officials because of the finality involved. If you kick a call and cost someone a run in the sixth inning, there’s always a chance Babe Ruth will step up to the plate and get you off the hook. In extra innings, a similar gaffe can end the game on the spot, in favor of the wrong team — and the conditions are better for you making a mistake as you get tired. The fact the players are pooped, too, isn’t much help.
The officials’ job is to prepare for any eventuality in a game and one of those is it being double the expected length. All you can do is be physically ready and understand how you react to fatigue; then develop a mental approach to work through it. The players will do their part by deciding the outcome.
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