It is common practice that you should closely watch player behavior during a match in order to be prepared for what comes next, to adjust and modify your view of the game as it changes, and to develop a “feel” for what the game needs. Less common, but equally important, is making sure your pre-match recon is picking up subtle hints that can clue you into how the match may unfold.
When assigned to a game at which the venue, the teams and the coaches are unknown quantities, you have to start somewhere and that “somewhere” consists usually of broad generalizations about the reputation of the league or tournament, the age of the players, the “division” in which the teams reside, and similar rough indications of strength, experience and training. We blow the whistle, play begins, and then we start seeing what the players, collectively and individually, will bring to that day’s game.
Useful as this observation is, many of us tend to overlook other sources of information available to us. There are, of course, other members of our officiating team who may have particular knowledge based on their personal experiences. We can research websites of the teams or the league. We can tap into the undoubted experience of the assigner who tapped us for the match.
And we can arrive at the field when we are supposed to, prepared to use that time productively. Yes, the mechanics of officiating call for us to arrive at least 30 minutes before game time. Yes, those same mechanics also have us doing all sorts of administrative necessities — player credentials, field and goal safety, player-equipment restrictions, pregame discussions about local rules, etc. Despite all those responsibilities, we can still afford to spend a bit of time being more aware of what is going on around us and using that information to our advantage.
Better yet, we could arrive earlier than the minimum 30 minutes and use the extra time to be unhurried and more observant. It is amazing how many clues to player behavior after the whistle blows can be inferred from watching them before the whistle blows.
For example, regular season senior amateur matches are notorious for having late-arriving players. Usually, we consider that little more than a nuisance because it messes up the smooth performance of our checking of credentials and equipment. But have we ever considered some deeper issues? A late-arriving player who wants to join his or her teammates quickly because that tardiness has left the team understrength is also probably less “ready” to enter the field because there has been no warmup, no last-minute coordination of roles, no opportunity to shake off the mental dislocation of the hurried arrival, etc. That, in turn, is more likely to lead to confusion, instability, irritation, haste and a desire to make an instant impact to atone for the lateness — all of which increases the likelihood that this player will, during the first few minutes of being on the field, commit fouls or be injured.
Recon as the teams warm up. Is it player-run or coach-run? Coaches who are more active in directing the team’s warmup are also more likely to be directing their actions on the field during play. Player-run warmups, on the other hand, tend to indicate that the coach will stay on the sidelines, confident that his or her team can manage play on their own. How might that affect your own developing relationships with the players?
Warmups are often set up with each team occupying one half of the field, but what happens if warming up “strays” into the other team’s half? Observe the interplay and you get a hint as to the likely temperature of the match once it begins … because, in effect, it has already begun! Suppose one of the red team’s practice balls is inadvertently struck across the midfield line. Does the opposing team kick it back to them, ignore it, begin playing with the ball, or actively withhold the ball? The probability of seeing similar behavior in similar circumstances after the opening whistle blows is quite high.
What exactly is each team practicing? Short passes? Corner kicks? Shots on goal? Who is receiving the passes? Is there a favored receiver? It is virtually a truism that a team practices (and builds its warmup routines) on their playing strengths. And, even if you are not watching, the other team probably is — and thereby learning what you are missing.
Are there one or two players who, despite arriving with the team, are not participating in any warmup activities? Perhaps their role on the team does not require the usual panoply of soccer skills — their specialty may be breaking up play one way or another.
Is there a team member actively involved in directing warmup activities other than the identified captain? Sometimes that assists you in knowing who the real, functional team leaders are rather than those who merely have the title. And that in turn enables you to more quickly enlist their aid when there is trouble and you need an ally.
How disciplined is the warmup? Does it follow an observable, predetermined pattern? Or is it merely a bunch of people, each doing his or her own thing, having fun and not “practicing” anything in particular? That may suggest a similar pattern will be seen on the field when it comes to the use of teamwork to accomplish a goal. Of course, it could also mean that the team is so confident of its teamwork that all it feels it needs to do is stretch their muscles. Either way, it could be instructive.
No available minute of your time should be ignored when it comes to doing pre-match recon and gathering information because each minute is valuable. While it is certainly true that you have much to do from arrival to the first whistle, find ways for you and your officiating team to keep an eye on the stream of information the teams are sending your way even before the game starts.
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