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Photo Credit: Jim White

Many of us have checklists that we ponder in the days or hours leading up to a given contest to make sure we’re ready to officiate. We make sure we have all our gear, refresh ourselves on the rulebook and we glance at the mechanics manual one more time. But isn’t there more we could do and perhaps should do? What about the teams we’re about to officiate — shouldn’t we know more about them? And if we did, wouldn’t it help us do a better job?

The consensus is yes. Just as you wouldn’t go into a meeting unprepared, we can and probably should take the same attitude into officiating.

“That’s always the biggest challenge: arming yourself with enough information ahead of the game so you as a crew are as prepared as you can be, but you’re not prejudging situations, prejudging potential fouls, potential actions — you know, we’re going to call things a certain way today not based on what we see but based on reputation,” explained Mark Uyl, assistant director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association and a D-I college baseball umpire. “I think that’s the real balancing act that goes on here because we have more information leading up to a game than we’ve ever had, yet we’re also trying to call what we see that actually happens over the course of a game.”

Bill Carollo, Big Ten coordinator of football officials, talked about “Football IQ.” The former NFL official said it’s part of being ready for anything an official might see on the gridiron.

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“Football IQ helps us, but it doesn’t automatically give us all the answers,” he said. “We still have to make that call, but anticipating, ‘Hey, they’re throwing the Hail Mary, they’re set up for it.’ That’s pretty obvious, but we don’t want to be surprised about a play.

“We don’t necessarily collect the stats ourselves, but each week we’ll assign an official to team A and one to team B. Then during our pregame meetings they’ll present a PowerPoint or examples of plays from each team. We’ll look at special teams, too, and when you add all this up, we talk about football IQ. We should know what these teams are going to do in certain situations before they do it.”

Granted, high school officials likely don’t have access to as much video or statistical research as officials on the college and professional level do, but there are ways to glean that extra nugget of information about a team.

“It’s not going to come to you,” said June Courteau, NCAA national coordinator of women’s basketball officiating. “Are you just going to sit in a chair and wait for it to appear at the door?

“If I get a couple of hooks like, ‘This is a strong three-point shooting team,’ then that drives the pregame. For instance, we know in women’s basketball that the majority of the three-point shots are set with a screen probably 4-5 feet from that shooter. We also know that when that ball swings back, the center is loaded up on that side with the shooter, screener and defender. And so we may have to initiate rotations, so it’s not just talking about what their tendencies are, you now have to take the tendencies and apply them.”

What can high school officials do to get more information? Carollo said look at the box scores.

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“Look at the week before or two weeks back and see what the trend is,” he added. “You look at injuries. If a team has to use its backup quarterback, he’s not going to throw to a small window over the middle. Or if the leading receiver has a hamstring, they’re going to throw short, safe passes because the quarterback is a sophomore and not a senior.”

Uyl believes it’s possible for baseball and softball umpires to do more pregame preparation, too.

“I think in the baseball world we really need to catch up with what our brothers and sisters in the football and basketball worlds have been doing for a lot of years,” he said. “We need to talk about the two teams that we’re going to have. Now with everyone’s statistics being online, I think we do a real disservice leading up to a conference weekend if we’re not looking to see who the two or three top base stealers are for each team, how many stolen bases they have, which obviously can help the base umpire better prepare.

“You look at the hitting statistics. Does a hitter have an inordinate amount of hit by pitches? That may tell you this is one of those kids that maybe is looking to stick the elbow out, crowd the plate. And then the other thing to look at is the pitching statistics and see how many balks have been called. Early on in my umpiring career, if I called a balk on somebody’s starter, the coach would come out and tell me that his pitcher hasn’t had a balk called the previous 10 weeks of the season.

“Yet you go on and look at his stats and the kid has eight balks. So I think we need, baseball and softball umpires especially, to take advantage of the statistical research that’s out there. We can use that as part of our pregame to have the items that should be on the crew’s radar any given weekend right there in the forefront, so I think you can handle the game much more efficiently.”

To get an idea just how useful pregame information can be, pay heed to Esse Baharmast, FIFA technical instructor in the FIFA Referee Assistance Program and a former World Cup referee. The soccer world seems particularly adept at using as much information as possible.

And according to Baharmast, even novice soccer officials can use pregame information to their advantage just by watching teams play and viewing game film.

“We study to see whether the players are left-footed or right-footed, for starters,” he said. “On free kicks, we study to see what area of the field they really use, the characteristics of each team and the systems. The more we know, the more we can scout the teams and the more prepared we are and nothing comes as a surprise.

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“For example, does a team use a short corner kick? Do they use a long corner kick, and who’s taking them? If we know that information ahead of time, then we are already in the right place before they even do it. In soccer, it’s really all about the game of angles. If you’re in the right position, then you can get the right angle and it makes it so much easier to see it. And once you see it, you can make the right determination.

“If they (officials) can, watch some games and pay attention and become more familiar with the teams and style of play. Even in high school, officials can always look to see between players because that’s what’s going to happen. To get the best angle of view they need to see between players and they have to think, ‘OK, where do I need to be?

Where do I need to go to adjust and see players and the space between them?’” Baharmast believes film study (and this is where websites such as Hudl help) can be a benefit for the novice official, too.

“If you are a former player or coach, it is easier to read the game,” he said. “So when we teach officials who are inexperienced or who haven’t played the game, we’ll say, ‘Take a look at how this team attacks. They always come from the flanks and cross the ball into the center, so you really don’t have to worry too much about the flanks because you know the ball is going to come in the middle. They’re going to go down the line and send the ball.’ So the more we talked about it, and the more we showed it, the referees figured out they need to know more about the teams and the way they played and their style of play.”

That’s information officials can use. Even if video isn’t available, team and individual statistics are likely online and it’s possible to get a feel for who the key players might be. For instance, in football, is your next assignment with a team that attempts more passes than many others in the league? If it is, then it might be helpful to go over pass coverage responsibilities.

Is it a team that uses several spread formations and utilizes a covered receiver on the line of scrimmage? Find out from your chapter who’s had this team before and see what they do long before Friday night’s game.

As mentioned, websites or services such as Hudl are now available, so it’s possible to even witness a team on video before you see them. That could be a huge advantage.

But at the same time, don’t go in with preconceived notions, particularly when it comes to coaches’ behavior. Many times, those same team statistics that reveal which are the passing teams and which aren’t will give you information as to which teams are the most penalized. Don’t go looking to throw flags against a team just because it looks as if it’s expected.

“I’m sure those conversations (about coaches) still go on, but I’m hoping we’ve come a long way from those days where the pregame meeting basically boiled down to 15 minutes complaining about what a certain coach said or did in a game an official had three years ago,” Uyl said. Courteau agreed.

“Coaches say a lot of things. Coaches think a lot of things,” she said. “But they still have to happen. You have to be able to filter the information they tell you. If you go over and shake hands with a coach and the coach says, ‘No. 32 travels all the time,’ or if you’re standing in front of them and they say, ‘You need to watch for holding.’

“You have to let that play happen. If you get so tunnelvisioned on what someone has told you, you’re going to miss your other responsibilities. You have to be a professional. If a coach starts to go south on you, then you have the tools to deal with that.”

For Carollo, part of the officials’ pregame preparation involves a team’s penalty tendencies, but it must be kept in perspective.

“When I was doing the NFL, the Oakland Raiders were the most penalized and everyone knew that,” he said. “Or certain teams might have more pre-snap fouls, like a really young team with an inexperienced offensive line. They line up wrong, they miss the count. We know if it’s 40 percent of their penalties or 45 percent of their penalties are pre-snap fouls.

“So we do know that. But it’s not like one guy, ‘This number is a bad guy out there and we’re going to go get him.’ That’s not fair, but if they have a lot of holding calls and they get tired in the fourth quarter … we look at penalties and when they are penalized. But the teams look at our officials, too: ‘Is this guy going to call holding on the first play of the game?’ or ‘He doesn’t call anything.’

“We look at that, but certainly we’re not looking at individuals. … It’s a team trend that we give data so whether it’s pre-snap, after the play or during the play we have a pretty good feel and we want game flow, but if there are 20 penalties, we’re throwing 20 flags.”

The bottom line? The more you know, the better job you can do.

“Really, if you go into a game and the two teams have had a rivalry and they’ve had some bad blood, it’s good to know all of that,” Baharmast added. “You don’t want to be prejudiced against it, but you want to be ready and not be surprised.

“So you know going in it’s not just a friendly match because the last game between these two teams there were a lot of problems, and there were a lot of bad feelings. It’s always good to know that.”

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