Four Eyes Off The Ball---Know Your Primary and Where to Look

By Referee

You need to learn to train your eyes and “quit looking at the basketball.” It’s a mantra to improve your officiating skills by looking off the ball.

We need  “Four eyes off the ball,” in a three-person crew, we “don’t need six eyes on the ball,” There’s a whole other world out there off the ball. You have three officials on the court, so only one-third of those eyes should be following the ball, the other two-thirds should be off.


Starts with positioning.

It’s critical to set up in the right position. Focus on your primary, and from there, keep an eye on cutters and picks. A vast majority of our calls are on the ball. Everybody in the building can call those.

Beyond cutters and picks, watch the shooter as they try to free themselves up. The shooter may get bounced several times while weaving through defenders. That affects the timing of the offense and throws it out of sync,and the shooter “screws up because we let the excessive contact happen.”

Focus on the action of knocking shooters off their routes as they weave to set up in an area. That “chucking the cutters.”

Another area to watch and enforce is setting up in post play — being ready for when the ball is received in the post.

Another area is transition. “Rough play starts even as the players are coming down the court, if three officials are watching over their shoulders in transition, then no one is looking at what’s happening as the players set up on the other end. Rough play starts there.

Most of the time, it’s the offensive post player who initiates rough contact. He’ll use his rear end or hip to dislodge the defender; then we catch the wrong guy because we haven’t been looking where we should be looking.

It is called “head jerk” whistles, when a partner makes a call on the ball when the official should be looking elsewhere. The primary official on that play jerks his or her head to see why the call was made because the primary official has passed on the ruling.

Those types of plays — where they’re right in front of you but the whistle comes from your partner across the court — cause problems. The coach wants to know why you (as the primary) didn’t make the call because you’re standing right there.


For younger officials in particular, don’t be a hero and blow your whistle in front of others unless you are 100 percent certain. Officiating the closest match-up also helps the game go smoother. Whether you are in the trail, lead or slot, referee the nearest match-up. It’s the easiest thing to look at! "

In your pre-game encourage your crewmates to anticipate those situations so they are prepared: “Pick those match-ups that are coming toward you so you have whistles in the right areas, and not as the play is moving away from you.”

“In the heat of the moment, it requires discipline to make the call off the ball.”

A tip you might employ is self-talk to help with discipline to keep your eyes off the ball. Call out to yourself the players you are responsible for at the exact moment in time and concentrate on them, using the players’ jersey numbers to focus your concentration.

How long you stay with the action in your area depends on how competitive the match-up is. If one player is on top of another, stay with it.

Know your primaries. If you’re not responsible for action on the ball, you’re off ball. Know what you need to do in each position — lead, trail and center.

During your pregame, particularly with a less experienced or unfamiliar crews, go over “areas of intersection” on the court, where there can be coverage confusion. That often occurs during transition in the game from offense to defense as the official moves from on-ball to off-ball coverage. We need two sets of eyes on those intersection (of coverage) plays, for a split second.

What separates the top officials is their enforcement of off-ball action. The on-ball stuff is more apparent,know your responsibilities and when you don’t need to be covering the ball.

When you are watching off ball to watch the defender. If you watch the defender, you will be able to see illegal activity by the offensive player as well as the defensive player. The key is to know “why” the action occurred, and that means paying attention to activity within your area of responsibility.

“Four eyes off the ball” is a “universal concept,” there are clear primary areas designated for the crew to officiate.

Off-ball coverage is about being disciplined and strongly officiating competitive match-ups in your primary, not just the “area” itself. If there is not a competitive match-up in your primary, extend to your secondary and find the next competitive match-up that you can actively officiate. Off-ball coverage is about finding competitive match ups in your primary and being ready to come with a whistle in situations where your partners have a closed look.

Ask yourself, “What is going to hurt me next?” Typical things to look for off-ball include screens (backside, at the elbow, crossing along the end line, etc.), cutters, rough post play and displacement during rebounding.

“Enforce freedom of movement by asking yourself if a player’s RSBQ (rhythm, speed, balance, quickness) is affected, that can help you determine whether you need to blow your whistle or not.

Emphasize addressing off-the-ball coverage in the pregame, and using self-talk for focus:

“I’m always looking for my next match up, and what type of play could hurt me next" “Focus on your primary. Help in your secondary. If you referee your primary really hard, you’ll have a really good game.”

Trust your partner.

Four eyes off the ball means trusting your partner. You have to trust your partner to clean up his area. If your partner has the dribbler, he shouldn’t need your help.

During the pregame, discuss the need to clean up illegal contact early, and the game will go “1,000 percent better. The rule changes emphasize cleaning up the illegal contact to increase freedom of movement. It’s an integral part of what the rules committee wants us to do. We need to do our part as officials.

Coaches will coach what you allow them to do, use that to their advantage and exploit it so extra physicality remains. 

We, as officials, must be committed to cleaning up illegal contact from opening night in December, all the way through the championship game in March.

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