Making the Right Call: How Football Officiators are Effective Communicators

Over the summer I decided to take a class—just for fun—to learn a new skill. They say that knowledge is power, and I do believe that it’s important to always learn new things. With that belief in mind, I created a list of potential classes to take. Cooking? I’m confident with the barbecue and crockpot, so that’s good enough for me. Dancing? There’s definitely room for improvement, but I’m better than Buzz Aldrin was on Dancing with the Stars. Painting? Let’s just say I can paint “abstractly.”

I did some more research and I finally found my class: football officiating. That’s right, I would become a licensed high school football official. I enrolled in the eight weeks of classes and the necessary clinics and couldn’t wait to don the zebra stripes.

One of the first things that I picked up on in class is how effective communication is vital to be a good official. Next time you’re watching a football game, whether its pee wee, high school, college or pro, pay particular attention to the officials and how they communicate throughout the game. It’ll surprise you.

Below are a few things that officials will do during the course of a game and what it says about effective communication.

1. Meeting with the head coaches prior to game time

The referee is required to ask the head coaches if all the players are wearing proper equipment prior to the game. There are simply too many players on the field for the officials to inspect every single player. As a result, the official trusts the head coach that all players have the proper gear.

Lesson: Know whom to rely on for accurate information

2. Make clear to the visiting game captain to call the coin toss IN THE AIR

The winner of the coin toss can select to either a) receive or kick or b) the goal to defend. or c) defer If you’ve ever seen the movie “Rat Race” you know what can happen if a referee were to blow the coin toss in a big game. Having the captain call the coin toss in the air reduces the chances of miscommunication. If the visiting captain called heads or tails prior to the game several scenarios may exist that increases the chance of miscommunication. By calling the coin in the air everyone witnesses the heads or tails call and the result.

Lesson: Make deadlines clear and transparent to avoid confusion

3. Officiating games together as an assigned crew

Officials work as crew because this arrangement allows for more familiarity with how they communicate with each other. If officials worked with different people every week there would be a lot of miscues over what penalties to strictly enforce. There are a lot of gray areas when interpreting the rules of football. A crew can better manage a football game by knowing what the other members in the crew would likely consider to be a penalty.

Lesson: Working with a familiar team increases communication

4. Confer with other officials before enforcing the penalty

The NFL has seven officials working a game with different responsibilities: a referee, umpire, head linesman, line judge, field judge, side judge and back judge. There needs to be one person to generally supervise the game and have the final say over a call with this many people. The official having final authority is the referee (he is the only one to wear a white hat). Notice that when there’s a penalty the officials will often all meet and confer with each other. Finally, the referee will serve as the spokesperson and explain the call. Imagine what would happen if each official announced a penalty instead of the referee. There would be no clear message and confusion would erupt.

Lesson: Discuss important issues as a team and designate a leader to serve as a spokesman to convey a unified message to a group

5. Constantly communicating using hand signals

You’ve probably overlooked this before, but pay attention to how officials communicate between plays. Officials will often use hand signals prior to each play to indicate the down to each other. Also, officials frequently “punch back” when the quarterback throws a pass behind the line of scrimmage. This is to notify the other officials that the throw was not a forward pass and it’s a live ball that can be recovered by the defense. These are just a few examples of a crew will communicate with each other throughout the course of a game. A crew often develops their own unique set of hand signals as they gain more experience working together.

Lesson: Frequently checking that everyone is in agreement improves communication

It’s not easy to be a football official because you have to have a thick skin and be confident in your decisions. Nevertheless, a good officiating crew can serve as a great example of how to communicate effectively under high pressure situations. Next time you’re watching a game and you see a questionable call, try to give the zebras some slack. After all, breakdowns in communication can happen. The key is to work with your crew and learn to prevent it from happening again.

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