Anyone who has officiated any sport at any level has had games in which things didn’t go as planned. What if the unexpected trip-up comes early? Whether the problem is a strange or unexpected situation or a mistake, a tough start often makes the rest of the game seem like an uphill climb.

My nightmare start went like this, during a high school football game. The opening kickoff went out of bounds. The team opts for a re-kick. The ensuing kick skids past the deep man, who retreats toward his goal line. As he picks up the ball he steps over the line. As the referee, it was an easy call: touchback. The ball goes to the 20 and team A begins its offense first and 10, right? Wrong! The receiver actually stepped back over the five-yard line. I’d lost track of where I was on the field. We should have had an inadvertent whistle signal accompanied by a re-kick. And of course, the embarrassment of explaining why the ref didn’t know the five-yard line from the goal line. That would have been a bad start, but in my case, it was worse. I didn’t find out I’d made a mistake until after team A had run its second play from scrimmage. The linesman told me why the home bench was complaining.

At that point the rules were no help since a play had been run. Two plays in and one bench already thinks, no, it knows the ref’s incompetent! I can think of a thousand ways I’d rather see a game begin. The backs of my ears were burning from irritation and embarrassment.

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The game continued without interruption until the first timeout. I went over to the home bench and told the coach what had happened. He’s one of those guys who screams when he’s saying hello. Imagine my surprise when he said, “I understand. Thanks for being a man about it.” Mentally I took back half of the bad things I’d thought about him. So, we’re three minutes into the game and I’ve made one mistake, resulting in 16 emotions I’ve got to keep in check because there is a whole game to be played.

Officiating is hard under ideal conditions. Throw in a stupid mistake early, and an official could lose control. If you make a bad call right away, correct it if that’s an option, otherwise forget about it and concentrate on doing your best the rest of the way.

Officials all react differently to stress. While some are better at handling it than others, every official will experience a contest in which things don’t begin as envisioned. It makes sense to plan how to deal with those things in your pregame before they occur.

While officials are supposed to be prepared for any situation that develops, I’ve never met one who hasn’t been “rattled” at least momentarily. What separates the good from the rest is how they handle the surprises. If a referee makes a mistake, other crew members can step up and give the official added information to correct it.

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Officials receive no “Mulligans,” you can’t hide, you can’t quit, and you can’t “make up” for mistakes or tough starts. The only thing you can do on the field or court is dig in and work harder. Afterward (at halftime or post-game) you can evaluate what happened and resolve not to repeat your mistakes. If every game passed without controversy or a difficult call there would be no need for officials. You need to learn from your mistakes and the rough starts so that you have fewer of them and finish strong.

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