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Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

How do officials make it to the top of their respective sport? What characteristics are necessary to achieve that goal? For years, both as a lead official and as a trainer, I have talked about an acronym I call the polish.

P for Professionalism. When you walk onto the court or field, how are you perceived? Will the coaches, players and fans give you a chance to prove yourself, or have they decided you’re not going to cut it? How can you help them form the opinion you’re a competent official?

There’s rules knowledge. If you don’t know the rules intimately, you’re at a disadvantage. You need to know the intent of the rules. Through judgment and experience, you officiate in many shades of gray. Was an advantage gained illegally by one player? When do I need to insert myself into the game? See the entire play.

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O for Outgoing Personality. How is your interaction with your crew, the players and coaches? Are you perceived as arrogant or unapproachable? You can be friendly without being soft, pleasant while still professional. You can’t stop and attend to needy coaches every time they grumble about something, but if you perceive something is going south in your game, you need to be aware enough to fix it if possible. The power in officiating doesn’t come from the position, it comes from the personality.

L for Leadership. Leadership and professionalism work hand in hand. When you walk into the venue where you’re going to work, what do people see? Do you exude confidence but not cockiness? Perception is a huge part of our success or failure. Do you look like you know what you’re doing? Are you dressed appropriately? Showing up to varsity sites in business casual attire when a locker room is available is certainly a positive start. If you have the look, coaches, players and fans will often assume you know what you’re doing.
Once the game begins, are you in position, do you have a strong whistle and mechanics? Are you in good enough physical shape to officiate the level of game you’re getting ready to work? If you had a bad day at home or work, can you put that aside and focus on the job ahead? Do your partners look to you for leadership when there is a situation during the game? Be prepared to be that leader, even if you don’t need to be every game. If your less-experienced partners are going to handle it, let them. Impatience will not help the situation. Let your confidence in them be apparent. Lead by example.

I for Integrity. To me, integrity is the No. 1 requirement and divider between mediocre and great officials. You must be above reproach in your personal and professional lives. I live in a large state but a tight sports community. Many of the people involved in one sport will be involved in others as coaches, players or fans.

If you get the reputation of being unfair or not to be trusted, word will get around. Many officials in our association work more than one sport. The worst thing you can do for your officiating career is to get known for the wrong reasons. If you aspire to get to the top, you must have a high level of integrity. Trust is the basis for your relationships with your partners, your board officers, assigners, etc. That will carry over to the sports venue where you’re working, no matter the level.

S for Style. All officials develop a certain style. With experience comes confidence, desire to improve, increased work ethic and higher goals. Officials adapt certain mannerisms they’ve observed and emulated. Keep the ones that work for your game and quickly cast aside the others.

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Officials advance at different speeds, and they have different levels of capability. You should always aspire to be the best you can be. There is satisfaction in reaching each new level or goal. Improvement and learning don’t stop when you get to the higher levels. As you gain confidence, you will develop a smoothness in your mechanics and signals that separates you from other officials. Don’t sacrifice substance for style. Our association teaches NFHS mechanics for high school games, and while many of us may have a certain style, we don’t ever want to embellish signals to the point we don’t convey the message.
H for Hustle (also Hard Work). False hustle is easily spotted. That is when officials rush from one place to another when not covering a play or moving to a new position mandated by mechanics. Stay in cruise control, exert yourself when necessary.

Hard work goes hand in hand with integrity. No official makes it to the top by being lazy. The rate of your advancement can be directly proportionate to your work ethic. There comes a time when the excuses must stop. Most of the responsibility for any official’s advancement lies in their hands. Book study, game film review, physical conditioning, preseason clinics and scrimmages, and camps are all necessary for continued growth.

You should always bring your A game with you, and it should be apparent to anyone watching. As an evaluator, I never like to see officials work at a different intensity level when they know I’m in the gym as opposed to when they don’t. As the olde cliché goes, the most important game in town is the game you’re working today. You need to work every game with the same effort.

If your desire is to become the best official at the highest level of the sport you’re working, those building blocks will help you get there. In my experience, that polish separates the superior official from the average official.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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