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By Jon Bible

Iremember sitting at the breakfast table on the morning of a late-season game between two cellar-dwellers. One official, a garrulous person whose normal speaking voice could be heard in the next block, exclaimed, “How the hell did we end up with this piece of (deleted) game?” We all laughed because it pretty well summarized our collective sentiments.

An important lesson I learned that day is never to go into a game with the attitude we had that morning. The two teams had only two or three wins between them. All through breakfast and the pregame we were thinking about how long, tedious and boring the contest was going to be. As luck would have it, however, the teams played lights out right from the start. They executed well, played solid offensively and defensively and kept the score close.

The problem was that, at least at the start, we did not officiate up to their level  — in fact, far from it. The opening kickoff was an onside kick that was recovered by the kickers. One of the covering officials, however, was unsure whether the kick had gone 10 yards and another one pointed the wrong way, as if the receivers had recovered. We got things sorted out, but it made us look bad from the start. A few minutes later, one of the wing officials lost his focus, got tricked on a play and blew an inadvertent whistle after the runner had broken through the line and was running virtually unmolested toward the goalline.

Eventually the offense scored on that drive and after the try we went into a timeout. The referee called the crew together and read us the riot act. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, “Get your (deleted) heads out of your rears! We’ve got a game to work and we look like (deleted). If anyone else (deleted) up again, I’ll whip his ass after the game.” From that instant on, we worked a solid game.

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That is what a good referee will do. It’s part of being a crew chief, not just a penalty-announcer, to recognize that the crew is in a funk and do what he thinks needs doing to get them out it. That said, it’s still up to each crew member to respond by getting his head on straight.

What did I do differently? First, I told myself to block out all outside influences and focus on my keys and engaging in my regular pre-snap routine. I went back to basics, in other words. Doing that makes it much less likely I will be aware of, much less bothered by, the skill level of the teams involved. I also reminded myself not to get in a hurry  — take my time, work in cruise control, process what I see and see the football. When you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you’re far more likely not to be able to put together what you see happening.

Sometimes, when you’re facing a dismal afternoon of four seventh- and eighth-grade games, with players who can barely line up properly much less execute well and coaches so young they hardly know if the ball is pumped or stuffed, you need to be able to do that.

The key is to come to the experience properly equipped. By that I mean know your keys, depending on the play about to be run, have a consistent pre-snap routine and know what it means to work in cruise control and not to get into too much of a hurry. Younger officials may have trouble doing the latter, because a lot of that comes with experience, but even a first-year official should be able to have the first two issues nailed down. Then, when the game turns out to be more intense than you thought it would be — or, conversely, you thought it was going to be close and it turns out to be a runaway — or outside influences like bad weather mess with your head, you can get back into the proper frame of mind by thinking, “Go back to basics.” Then, on each play, concentrate on executing your pre-snap routine and focusing on your keys.

That long-ago experience served me well when I became a college referee. The referee in that game was the first to take the blame for allowing us to get into the kind of negative, down-in-the-dumps mind-set that caused us to screw up more than once from the get-go. I know it’s trite to assert that we can’t take games for granted, but knowing it and doing it are two different things.

Referees have to ensure their crews are properly focused before each game and are not dwelling on things like how lopsided the score might be. More than once, when I’ve sensed that my crew (perhaps including me) was on the verge of taking a game for granted, I’ve said, “Boys, we’ve got to work hard for 60 minutes or we’re going to get bitten in the backside.” Usually that’s all it takes to snap us back to reality.

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Another quick war story from my younger days. I was on a crew with a referee who did not get along with the league office and the supervisor. Nearly every pregame turned into a gripe session with some people bemoaning how things should be done. As the year progressed, our collective performance became worse. A couple of us talked about how to get us into a different pattern, but we knew we wouldn’t get anywhere with the veterans. At the end of the year our rating was so bad that the league threatened to take us off a big game. That didn’t happen, but the experience convinced me that no good can come of sitting around complaining about supervisors, fellow officials, the game we didn’t get but should have, whatever. All that will come of it is letting your chin drag so much that you’re not mentally prepared to work when the time comes and that will set in motion a vicious cycle that will cause your performance to continually get worse.

I once heard a veteran official say that his stock statement was, “Take each game as it comes. Work each as if it’s the Super Bowl.” Easy to say, not always easy to do, but something to strive for. And that applies to every game from Pop Warner to the NFL. If we take that approach, we’re far more likely to be able to go into games equipped to handle things when they turn out to be much more (or less) intense than we expected. And if for some reason our minds are not right at the outset of such a game, we can turn things around if we take one play at a time, focus on our keys and pre-snap routine and work in cruise control.

Jon Bible is a veteran football official from Austin, Texas. He is a referee in the United Football League.

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