I once watched a golf tournament where one of the Sunday leaders hit an approach shot about 20 yards over the green. The announcer said that because of the pressure the player was jacked and his adrenaline was flowing.
That came to mind last winter while I was watching college bowl and NFL playoff games. Not to be critical of the officials involved, because for the most part they did a fine job, but I got the impression a few were so stoked that they were in overdrive. That can be more harmful than helpful.
We can be like athletes — in our former life, most of us were — in that crucial games can get us amped up. The old saying that every game is important is true, but in playoffs or postseason games the tension level is higher because more is riding on the outcome. In those situations it’s critical to take a business-as-usual approach. Easier said than done, I know.
In my onfield career I was fortunate to be picked to work national, state and conference championships at the collegiate level in two sports. My first big event, the College World Series (NCAA Division I baseball), came when I was 29. When I got to the stadium the day of the first game, which I had behind the plate, my heart was pounding. But I recalled what a MLB umpire had said about his first World Series. When he walked on the field, he was, for an instant, intimidated by his surroundings. Then he thought: “Wait a minute. I belong here. I’ve worked years for this. I know what I’m doing.”
He wasn’t bragging, just stating a fact. Lots of years of preparation had preceded that day. He’d had a good career so far. Someone thought he was ready for that assignment. Now it was time to calm down and get on with it. At that point I had umpired professional and college baseball for 10 years, so I put myself in the same frame of mind and it helped. I tried to take it like it was just another game. I was nervous at the start, and I didn’t work a flawless game, but I was able to control my emotions and work in a cruise-control manner like in the regular season.
If we let ourselves get caught up in the hubbub of a playoff, we can get away from the good things we did that got us there. The adrenaline rush can cause us to dart around more quickly, so our head bobs up and down more, which will impair our ability to see and properly process what happens. In football, we may overrun plays, close in on a pile of players so fast that we don’t catch a late hit five yards away, or not absorb what we see. In baseball or softball, our timing may become quicker. Double whistles can be troublesome in basketball. The bottom line is we may end up exactly where we don’t want to be — screwing up and affecting the outcome.
We have a saying in Texas that you “need to dance with who brung ya.” In officiating, that means at playoff time keep doing what you’ve been doing. Calm down. Slow down. It’s just another day at the office.
That also applies when we get promoted to a higher level. Sadly, I failed to heed that advice when the NFL hired me as a side judge in 1994. Having been a referee most of my career, I didn’t trust my foul-recognition instincts with all of the grabby action that goes on downfield in the pro game. And I let myself get too amped up.
NFL deep officials are told to keep a good cushion — good space between officials and receivers — as they run routes. When I got to the NFL, I took that to an extreme. Instead of processing whether a receiver was going deep or five yards and out and reacting accordingly, I backpedaled like a bat out of Hades. In one game I missed an offensive pass interference because I was so far away that I couldn’t see what happened and a defensive interference because I ran so fast to keep ahead of the receiver that it never registered that the defender pinned his left arm as he tried to catch the ball. I was so hyped up, in other words, that I took myself out of both plays.
At times something wacky happens and someone gets a playoff or promotion for which they’re not ready. But 50 years of officiating have convinced me that is exceedingly rare. We need to trust that whomever is in charge is convinced we can do the job. Then, when the time comes to go to work, do what got you there.
You’ve likely been working in a deliberate, cruise-control manner or you wouldn’t have been chosen, so don’t change. Take a few deep breaths, remind yourself it isn’t your first rodeo and you’ve prepared for that moment. Then do what you can to shut out outside influences and get after it.
If you get so hyped up you’ll get outside of your usual rhythm. That is not where you need to be when you’re on a big stage.
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