It's really all the same ...
A few ideas from a fun Saturday afternoon helping out with Flag Football at the Special Olympics Washington State Games.
I don’t get nervous about reffing very often, but I’ll be honest, driving down to Renton, Washington on a Rainy Saturday afternoon, I was a bit of a nervous nellie.
I’ve probably done at least a couple thousand flag football games over the last 17 or so years, but even with the trusty orange sunglasses, I was feeling aprehensive. It was a new league style with a brand new rulebook I had studied for about an hour.
I just didn’t want to let anyone down.
In the end, the day went great, the rain held off, and they even let me ref one of the Gold Medal games which was an awesome championship that was decided 7-6.
The thing that struck me, even with the new rules and format, is that all reffing is really just the same. The rulebook might change, but people are people. They want to do well, play well, and win. In front of their friends and families and coaches.
As always, it’s never the calls, but the communication that makes the expereince and the day.
Here were a few ideas that I jotted down after one of the funnest shifts I have ever reffed.
1) The CCS (Core Communication Sequence) is alive and well -
It took me a few games to figure out the CCS for the Special Olympics Flag Football setup. In our leagues we have either DD - Down and Distance for the Gentlemen’s League, or DDG for Down Distance and Gender in the co-ed league.
Your CCS is a sequence you can start every play with, and everyone is always going to want to know, and sometimes do their best to confuse you on. A CCS is also your first tool of engagment on Game Info - The more frequency you add, the better your credibility and engagment in the game.
The CCS is all about the 1 key habit that most beginning refs miss that I will keep repeating until the end of time: Great Social Refs become the scoreboard. The first step in becoming the scoreboard is not just tracking the score, but figuring out your CCS and builing the habit of when and how often you announce it.
Instead of worring about calls and decisions, beginning refs should worry about game info and the CCS for your sport.
Not suprisingly, once I figured out my CCS for the day, my movement and calls and connection with the teams and coaches got much better.
Special Olympics has running and passing zones - so you cant just smash the ball in around the 1 first down cone, and the goal line.
So the CCS on Saturday was:
Down - Distance (Either mid-cone or Goal) and Run or Pass/ Pass Only.
Down - Distance - Zone
Once I got that, everthing else got easier. New refs beat themselves up about positioning and decisions. Start with your CCS and bump the frequency up to 3 times between each play [3-rep], and see how the game changes for you, and how other ideas like signals, movement and decisions all get easier once you start building the CCS habit.
2) New Refs Just Want to Push Back (and re-inforce that pedestal)
A couple of young refs on another field were getting complaints about missing calls from some of the coaches and one actually came over at half-time and asked if he could borrow a ref hat.
“I will do you one better,” I said. “I have an extra hat you can have, but you can’t push back on the coach, just because you are wearing the hat.”
Young new refs want defend themselves, and fight back as fast as possible. They wan’t to say what feels good in the moment. This is a waste of time, and energy. It will take your focus off the CCS, and it will always make the situation worse.
The 3H’s were still in effect even thought it was a brand new league for me - Coaches just want to know you hear them, help them, and have their back.
I spent a little time talking to the youngsters and trying to give them a couple of go-to jokes next time the coaches starting yelling at them. I don’t know how they ended up, but they at least found the jokes funny.
3) Most Rulebooks are Too big
About an hour before I left I “Clif Noted the rulebook” to make a “ref book” - a fun exercise I will have to write another post about if people are interested. Basiclally you skim a new rulebook and just write down the 10 or 12 important specs of the league - and the 5 new ideas you know you are going to create confusion or will have built in confusion, because people will mix up other leagues or the pro’s.
I zero’ed in on a few ideas like a hand touching the ground was the end of the play, flags falling off killed the play (which happened a lot), only 1 timeout per half, and no QB runs. Sure enough those questions and issues cropped up a lot in my 5 hour shift.
The whole “CLIF Note” process took me 20 minutes - and should give you a quick reference to read before you start a shift as a beginner. Its basically an attempt to simplfy a new rulebook and 80/20 it to build confidence during one of your first few shifts.
4) Be Early
I got there a half an hour early and checked in with the head official. Once we spoke for 5 minutes I hopped on a game mid-way through instead of waiting for the next round. Since a few refs didnt show up the help was appreciated, but getting their early helped me see the cone setup and understand the first down system and get a head start on adapting to a new league.
5) Be careful about out-souricng your info
We started off with volunteers keeping the scoreboard, and the game clock. After a few games of trying to figure out how to communicate a stoppage of time for a timeout or an injury, I just took over the game-clock with my stopwatch. Then I could deliver the offical time to teams much faster, and not let the clock get burned off when I was teaching or giving warnings during the game.
Even though someone else had my scoreboard, I was still in charge becomming the scorebaord for the teams, and definitley caught a few times the official score was off and needed to be corrected.
6) Use “Table-Setters”
A great ref Bryce, helped me with an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while. When there is a confusing play, such as what the rule was for shovel passes, a great social ref won’t just try and learn the rule and the application, but will re-enforce the idea in a big way …
They will set the table for the rest of the game.
Instead of just saying this is what I called, they will make it plain to all the players and coaches that this is the way its going to be for the entire game. Players and coaches love that clarity, especially in playoffs late in the day with a bunch of volunteers who might have been calling things differently throughout the day.
Bryce saw the opportunity to not only clarify that shovel passes have to cross the line of scrimmage, but that all teams understood that was the way it was going to be for the rest of the championship game.
A lot of refs (like the ones asking for a hat) are concerned about “Tone Setters” - they want lay down the law with how they are going to defend themselves.
Table setters build credibility with fans and players and coaches and let them know that you have their back. Bryce was right on to notice that, and instead of just getting 1 play clear, setting the table for the rest of the game.
As we were walking off the field, after the championship, one of the coaches was talking to an admin and said, “those guys were the best refs we had all day, because they actually listened to me and let me talk!!”
A pretty simple concept, that is the same wherever you ref, and a great way to end a really great day.
Your local Special Olympics Chapter could probably use your reffing help. See if they have games in your state that you can help officiate in the future.