December 16th, 2001. The Cleveland Browns are playing the Jacksonville Jaguars. 1:02 left in the game, and Jacksonville is up 15–10. The Browns have the ball, and have a crucial 4th & 2 ahead of them. They pass, complete the pass, get the first down. On the next play, they spike the ball. But wait — the referee whistles the play dead. The play before is under review: they’re not sure if the Cleveland player actually caught the pass. The video says he didn’t. So the call is reversed, and Jacksonville gets the ball.
And then, all hell breaks loose.
An angry mob is threatening to get on the field; beer bottles are flying everywhere. People are getting hurt. One guy gets hit, falls down, his skull cracked open, bleeding. The referees run for their lives, away from the crowd into the locker room. And they don’t know if they’re going to even get out of there unharmed.
Yes, their call to overturn the play after another play has been run was flat out wrong. But does this really warrant throwing beer bottles at people and threatening the referee’s lives?
When you watch a perfectly refereed game in any sport, chances are it’s been a good game. You will rave about the plays a few players made, or be disgruntled that your team lost. But one thing you almost certainly won’t mention (or even notice) is how well the referees called that game.
When you make a mistake as a ref, you can be sure that people will yell at. That’s the reality. Coaches, players, fans and especially overzealous parents will question every call, insult you and even threaten you.
Yet, when you call a perfect game, a coach or player may recognize it, but the vast majority of people will simply take it as granted.
So — why in God’s name would anyone want to be a ref? I don’t know.
I’m a Lacrosse referee in Germany. And I absolutely love it.
I don’t ref in stadiums, and fans don’t throw beer bottles at me (yet). But the constant bickering, the constant yelling, insulting, that all is very common.
Yet, these aspects pale in comparison to what refereeing gave (and gives) to me. It’s challenging, insightful, and sometimes even fun. Here’s what I love about refereeing:
1. Your responsibility isn’t to win
Refereeing is non-competitive. You’re not here to win anything; you’re a facilitator. Your primary objectives are the safety of the players and the smoothness of the game. While the safety aspect isn’t as prevalent in non-contact sports like soccer, it makes a huge difference in Lacrosse. The sooner you whistle a play dead, the sooner people stop hitting each other. The more strict and consistent you are with your penalties, the less players will try to hurt each other.
As a player myself, it’s awesome to see the game from a different angle and to understand what position a referee is in when you’re yelling at him: he’s not there to punish you or hate you, but simply to protect your health and the smoothness of the game. He doesn’t want anyone to win, he just wants a flawless game with no injuries.
2. It teaches you a lot of stuff
A. Decision Making Under Pressure
Ever seen a ref hesitate in order to contemplate a decision? Probably not, because you’re only watching pro sports — and the referees are the best out there as well. A good referee makes snap decisions on every call. In amateur sports, it’s different — refs hesitate all the time, and that leads to a poorly ref’d game.
For me, one of my biggest learnings that often it’s not that important what the call is; it’s just important that you make one quickly and with confidence, and players will accept it. This teaches a skill that translates to many other situations in life: It’s not important which decision you make, it’s just important THAT you make one. What should you wear? What should you eat for breakfast? iPhone or Android? Doesn’t matter, but the sooner you decide, the better off you’ll be.
Having to make snap decisions also teaches you to create first principles for default decisions. If I hear something hitting a helmet, and I don’t see it right away, I’ll still throw a flag. You can always sort it out after you’ve thrown it. It’s better to give one penalty too much than one too little, so the principle is: when in doubt, always call the penalty.
You can do the same in life: always have a default decision. For instance, when I don’t know what to eat, I always eat pan-fried cheese (halloumi style), two fried eggs, red lentils and frozen veggies. Thus, I do not use up any decision energy by contemplating what I do; I just have a default.
B. Maintaining Authority While Being Questioned
„Come on, ref!“
My favorite phrase. Players will constantly try to challenge your authority, constantly try to get in your head. They know when you fucked up, and they’ll let you feel it. The more you let them get to yourselves, the less cool you will be — and the harder it will be to referee the game properly. By keeping your cool and shrugging off mistakes, the game will be a lot smoother.
Again, this translates to real-life situations. As an entrepreneur doing a lot of negotiations, keeping your cool with people attacking your logic from every angle is highly important. Sometimes your line of argumentation will be flawed, and good negotiators will see that. Being able to recover from that can be the difference between a favorable and a non-favorable contract.
In the end, both in refereeing and negotiating, you need to realize that everyone has one common goal. The players don’t want to get injured either, and they want a fairly reffed game (assuming basic sportsmanship which, granted, isn’t always the case). Two parties negotiating just want an outcome that works for them both. So even when people are giving you shit, keep in mind that the greater goal is still the same. This will help you be the bigger man.
As head referee, you have the ultimate accountability. It’s up to you to run the pregame talk, in which you set the tone. When someone makes a call, and it’s obviously wrong, it’s up to you to overturn it. When a call is made and the ruling is unclear, you’re the one to make the final decision. There’s no one there to cut you some slack. You have to own the situation.
Owning the situation is always easier if you’re 100 % prepared. If you know the rulebook by heart, you can always make the right ruling. Experience and knowledge help own the situation, and help you lead others.
But sometimes, even if you’re 100% prepared, there will be ambiguity. Then, it’s up to you as the leader to interpret your knowledge and experience in the best way possible — and make everyone accept it.
The same is true in entrepreneurship. If you’re your own boss, there’s no one to run to when shit hits the fan. You need to own the situation, because you’re the one most qualified for the job (or so we’d like to think, but let’s be honest — often, we aren’t really).
This feeling is scary at the beginning, but once you get used to it, it provides a lot of relief: you realize that if you’re able to own these situations, you can own any situation in life — no matter when and where.
That’s what leaders do: they own their fate.
D. Realizing that everyone makes mistakes
#refereesarehumanstoo, something that usually seems forgotten. From the view of a player, referees need to be walking rulebooks with hawk eyes and a sense of utter confidence. But, guess what: they’re not. They’re humans, and they make mistakes. Lots of them. So cut them some slack when a call doesn’t align with your opinion. You can’t change it anyway, but trust me: the ref knows if he made the wrong call.
It’s okay to make mistakes. Just don’t make the same mistakes over and over again. But when you miss a call, „flush the toilet“ and focus on the next play. You can and should apply this in your life too. You made a wrong decision. So what? Move on, learn from it and make the right decision next time. Unless you decide to jump in front of a high speed train, chances are your decision won’t kill you. So don’t sweat wrong decisions: make one, make the mistake, learn from it. And then do it all over again.
3. It Increases Your Integrity
When calling a game, it’s important to be consistent. The players adjust to your reffing style (which is why, as a player, I slash harder and harder until I get a flag in order to get a sense of what’s possible and what’s not). If you’re inconsistent, you will frustrate and lose them. On the other hand, if players know exactly what to expect from the referees, the game will run smoothly — even when sometimes they’ll get angry at your tight calling of the game.
In real life, that’s what integrity is: being consistent with your values. You always know what to expect from people with integrity — and refereeing is a good way to learn to stick to what you believe in, even if it may sound pathetic.
4. Giving Back To The Community
I’ve been playing Lacrosse for almost 9 years. The highlights are always the games. But what would a game be without referees? Absolutely nothing. Playing a game without refs is pointless, stupid, and boring. As with everything in life, you shall do unto others as they do unto you.
For me, that means that if I want referees at my games, I need to be a referee at games too. Referees are an essential part of the sport, and if you cannot bring up enough refs or have to pay for them to travel from far away, it slows down the growth of the sport. How are more people supposed to play Lacrosse if we cannot even referee every game right now?
This is evident in the 1. Bundesliga West for women’s lacrosse in Germany right now. There are so few black (higher level, not skin-color) refs that many games have to be moved and/or a black ref has to travel to Frankfurt from Berlin, despite the fact that there are at least 25 teams closer to Frankfurt. Everyone talks about growing the game, but that’s not how it works. You don’t just need to develop players, you also need to develop referees — and I believe German Lacrosse can do a lot better job at that.
Side note: isn’t it funny that Lacrosse is so politically correct in that a higher level ref has a black license, and a lower level ref has a white license? Who would’ve thought?
When I say German Lacrosse, I mean everyone involved in it. If you don’t have a refereeing license — get one! If you’re an experienced ref, teach your unexperienced refs about being a better referee. If you’re the DLAXV — please please please give your experienced black refs the possibility of becoming even better:
People become better at any given skill mainly using three parameters: (deliberate) practice, tight feedback loops and teaching the skill to others. As black ref in Germany, you get a lot of practice, so that’s not an issue (we don’t have that many, after all). However, if you’re the most experienced ref at your club, how are you supposed to learn any more? That’s the situation I’m currently in — and it’s making it really hard for me to get better quickly.
Third, please give your experienced black refs the possibility to give white level (refresher) camps. You learn basic stuff at white camps — stuff that every black ref knows. Refresher camps wouldn’t hurt either. And it develops the experienced refs into better ones as well, simply because they have to think through their knowledge. Hell, even writing this article made me a better ref, simply because I had to think through the underlying principles of reffing.
5. You get better as a player
Last but not least, being a ref has turned me into a better player. It blows my mind how many players don’t know the rules of Lacrosse, so they commit technicalities, lose the ball, get penalty times, simply because they don’t know any better. You know what the referees are thinking, so you can adjust your playing style to the right degree of intensity. Most of all though, you develop an eye for the field that at least I as a player didn’t have before. You look at the bigger picture, instead of focusing on the ball.
In the end, you realize that refs are human and make mistakes. You can blame them all you want, but in the end, it’s not going to make them better. So do what you can do: control the controllables. And play your game as good as you can.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I ref games. This is why I spend the Saturdays and Sundays on which I don’t have any games on the field, even though I have more than enough other things going on in my life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That is, until someone throws bottles at me. Then I may have to rethink that philosophy. But chances are I won’t be reffing in big stadiums anytime soon. 😉
Want to read more? Follow me on Medium under @dominik_nitsch and head over to www.dominiknitsch.com.