When You are Observed

Learn from Your Observations

By Billy Martin

As we all strive to become better at the craft of officiating, sometimes we forget very simple things that contribute to our success on the court.


I’ve had the opportunity to observe and evaluate several hundred officials over the years, all with varying degrees of proficiency and skill levels.


Below is a short list of “common” observed items that appear on rating forms as AREAS OF NEEDED IMPROVEMENT. I characterize all of these as “simple fixes” and small changes that can lead to major improvements in everyone’s game.


Would any of the following appear on YOUR evaluation sheet?

Problem #1: Spot of Foul Mechanics / Signals

As the NFHS Official manual suggests (Section 2.4.2) – “It is imperative that a definite procedure in officiating mechanics be used when a foul occurs.” The manual goes on to list the duties (and order) that should be done by the calling official.


80% of the time (by my observation) the calling OFFICIAL DOES NOT:

VERBALLY INFORM the player that he/she has fouled – stating jersey COLOR and NUMBER.Lower the foul signal and indicate the nature of the foul by giving a PRELIMINARY SIGNAL at the spot of the foul.Indicate the spot where the subsequent inbound will occur, or indicate the number of shots being awarded.  Gain eye contact with your partner(s) during this procedure, to make sure you are on the same page.


Communication at the spot is key! Many times the official stops the clock correctly (whistle with closed fist raised) but then proceeds directly toward the reporting zone without finishing the appropriate signals and mechanics at the spot.


Think of it this way — before you head to the table (reporting zone) make sure you COMMUNICATE the FOUL properly before leaving this area.  Much of what you will do at the table is repeating what has already been communicated at the original spot of the foul.


Recommendation: Get in front of a MIRROR and PRACTICE with the official’s manual open. Make sure you know the exact procedure and signals for the spot of any foul as well as the reporting zone – which are two distinct items.  

Problem #2: Stay with Perimeter Shooters

One of the hardest habits to break as an novice official is the desire to “follow the ball” versus keeping a focus on your primary coverage area (PCA). This tendency carries over to shooters as well.


When it comes to perimeter shooters, on the wing, in the corners, or anywhere on the court. less experienced officials (by my observation) tend to:


Turn their head (and attention) AWAY from the permiter shooter – WELL BEFORE the play is completed.


FOLLOW the BALL flight – instead of watching the defender and airborne shooter until the play is over.


Miss illegal contact AFTER the play is completed … sometimes even borderline intentional / flagrant contact.It is extremely important to break the habit of following the ball flight and STAY WITH YOUR SHOOTERS until the play is completely over. Trust your partner(s) to watch the other players on the floor.


Recommendation: Use a “MENTAL CUE” when watching the play. In your mind, say something like – “STAY” , to remind you to stay with that shooter until the play is over. Or maybe mentally count – “one-one-thousand” before even thinking about turning your head away from the play.


Observation #3: Need to Develop a Patient Whistle


The skill of creating a “space in time” between an official’s signal (whistle) and the actual violation or foul occurring is a key best practice for all referees to learn.

Often I observe an official “blowing the whistle” at the EXACT TIME a foul is happening. Much of the time the official is moving to get into position or in transition – and not in a relaxed position.


Problems with this include:


Anticipation causes the official to BLOW the WHISTLE early.Sometimes the play turns out different than anticipated … and you are STUCK with the ruling now.There is no turning back once you blow.


Experienced officials develop a “knack” for allowing a tiny fraction of a second to mentally evaluate the play BEFORE signaling with their whistle. This permits time to allow the play to continue without interruption on the official’s part … keeping the game moving and ruling properly on the play.


Recommendation: LOOSEN your GRIP on the whistle. Whenever possible you should have a relaxed grip on the whistle so there is time needed to load the whistle with air. That split second can make the difference between an official with a perceived “tight / impatient” whistle, or a relaxed one. It’s permissible to ANTICIPATE the PLAY but don’t anticipate the ruling.


Hopefully none of these observations appear on your ratings sheets, but if they do you certainly can work on these areas to find major improvement in your game.

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