10 Tips to Becoming a Good High School Football Official

I have been a high school football official in the states of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia for six years with the Washington District Football Officials Association. In that time, I have gone from being a probationary who knew much less than I thought to a two time state championship game official. With hard work and the help of a lot of good people. We have a very good group of people within the WDFOA and the best of us take our jobs seriously. We have meetings regularly and monthly rules tests from April through July. Some of us have gone on to the college level and a couple are in the National Football League. The most famous two being former referee Johnny Greer and current ref Terry McAulay. McAulay was the referee for Super Bowls XXXIX and XLIII.

I have been offered college game assignments, but high school is my thing and I like it. I like to work Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. And I like to do games in a less pressurized situation than the colleges and pros.

As stated in the first chapter, I have only been a football official for six years, but I’ve come a long way in that time. The reason for that is I have listened and learned from the people who have been working games long before I came along. Their advice was to get on the field and work as many games as you can at the youth level. Make your mistakes there, learn from them and carry what you’ve learned over to high school. It was the best advice and I pass it on to officials new to our organization today.

With the help of the WDFOA, youth football officials that I have worked with and others I have learned certain tips to offficiating that have helped me to become pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. I would like to share them with you at this time

Here are ten tips to becoming a good high school football official:

1. Know the rules:

The easiest way to lose credibility in the officiating business is by not knowing the rules. And there is no excuse for it. Every official should know the rulebook inside and out. You may never use a rule your entire life, but must be prepared for any situation that comes up. There is nothing more frustrating than working with an official that doesn’t know the rules. And knowing the rules makes you a more confident official, because you know that you’re prepared for any situation.

There are many ways to learn the rules. Every official gets a rulebook during the off season. You should read it a chapter at a time. Once you have mastered one set of rules, than you can move onto the next. A great tip that I was given when I first began officiating is to learn rule number two: Football Fundamentals. Every playing rule is based on those in football fundamentals. If you can master rule two, than the rulebook becomes much easier.

The WDFOA gives us an online 25 question rules test every month beginning in April which leads up to the National Federation of High School Official’s test in August. It is a true-false test with the stipulation that we have to click on the answer then write the rule and where we found it in a box just below. If our answer is correct it comes up in black. If it is wrong, it comes up in red with the correct rule. This test does two things. It prepares us for the NFHS test, but more important, it keeps us in the rulebook during the off season when most of us are less likely to look at it.

Another way to learn the rules is by doing youth games and making mistakes. I don’t know how many mistakes I made at the youth level and I’m glad I made them all. Most youth league games use the same rules as high school with a few exceptions. I’ve made mistakes from calling the wrong penalty, blowing an inadvertent whistle to marking off the wrong penalty yardage. Youth league football is a great training ground for learning the rules of the game.

But the most important thing is not HOW you learn the rules but LEARNING them. There is no way that you can be a good official if you don’t.

2. Go to rules meetings and clinics:

Rules meetings and clinics are invaluable in learning the rules of the game and how to apply them. At the WDFOA, we usually go over any new rules that come up annually. We go over the rules which are hardest to remember such as those in the kicking game. We go over penalty enforcement. Sometimes we have meetings and clinics on a particular rule and just discuss it.

No matter how the meeting or clinic is run they are worth going to for all officials. Rookies and veterans.

3. Be in position to make the call:

A good official must be in position so that he can make the proper call. Get to the spot where the play is happening. Focus on the area that you are covering and no one else. Most organizations use five game officials with some using six. Each has a designated area and players to cover and that’s what they should stick to.

Being in position can save an official a lot of headaches. It gives you a much easier chance to see what actually happens. It increases your chances of getting the call right. It gives you a better chance of selling any call that you make. And if you do get it wrong, at least the coach knows that you saw the play. If you are out of position a coach knows it and will call you out.

We study on field mechanics year round at the WDFOA in order to make sure that everyone is in position. Whether it be scrimmage plays or free kicks we discuss where every man should be and what area they are to cover.

4. Use good judgement:

A general rule of officiating to remember is that you do not want to have an affect on who wins or loses the game. All that you want to do is call what you see and let the players decide who wins and loses.

This doesn’t mean that you “let the players play.” It means that you get the players to play by the rules, but make sure that you call a penalty if it is warranted. If the infraction has no bearing on the outcome of the play and is not a question of safety or sportsmanship than use good judgement. Don’t throw the flag on a hold from a tight end on the left when there is a sweep 30 yards away on the right. Throw it if the play is run right where the tight end makes the block.

Also, if a game is out of hand let the clock run. Try not to call any penalties on the losing team. Take your time without giving away too much during dead ball periods. The main thing that you want to do in these situations is get the game over to avoid someone getting seriously injured not to keep the score down.

5. Know penalty enforcement:

This is easier said than done and one of the reasons why some officials can never wear the white hat of the referee.

Knowing penalty enforcement is crucial, because it has a direct affect on field position along with down and distance. A good official must know the basic spot of penalty enforcement. Is it the spot of the foul? The previous spot where the play began? The succeeding spot where the next play will begin? How many yards is the penalty? Does it include a loss of down or automatic first down? Does it entail the playing of an untimed down at the end of a quarter or half?

All of these things come into play during penalty enforcement and must be handled right. Officials have to know them in order to tell the captain and coach what their options are. And so neither team can gain an unfair advantage.

6. Communicate with the coaches:

An official has to communicate with the coaches on the sideline. Mainly the head coach. You don’t have to talk to him between every play. But keep an ongoing rapport so that he knows what the situation is and can coach the game. This usually falls on the shoulders of the sideline or “wing” officials since they are right next to the coach.

Though it is essential to communicate with the coaches an official should not let this distract him from calling the game. Most teams have a head coach and a few assistants. Most of them will try to get your ear at one time or another. If it is something like what down it is than I will usually talk to any of them. If it is a rules question or something that has to do with what is happening on the field of play than I will only talk to the head coach. This way I’m not distracted by ten other people.

When dealing with the head coach, know the situation. Know what the game situation is. Is it a big game or playoff? Is it a game between two teams that are far apart in skill level and do you have the coach with the good or bad team? Is the game close? Is it a blowout?

This is so that you can get a pulse as to what to expect from the coach when situations arise. And both of you will be able to communicate better.

As mentioned earlier the main thing that you want to do is keep the coach informed so that he can coach the game. That’s all most of them wan to do.

7. Take the pregame seriously:

Pregame is very important for all officials not just the referee. And it should be taken seriously. At the higher levels officials usually arrive at the game sight at least three hours in advance. In high school where I live, we shoot for an hour. An hour and a half for playoff and two for championship games.

The arrival time is important, because it gives you a chance to relax before taking the field. In the case of pregame it allows you to prepare if someone doesn’t show. It allows you to go over everyone’s on field responsibilities. It allows the crew to go over any rules that someone has a question on or discuss situations which may arise. It gives the crew a chance to get familiar with the teams if someone has seen them play. Everything that someone may deem relevant should be discussed before the crew leaves the locker room for the field.

When going out to the field everyone on the crew should have a responsibility and take care of it. The referee and umpire should not have to be the only ones working before the opening kickoff. Everyone else should check field conditions, make sure the proper field equipment is present, check the footballs and watch the conduct of the players. Once an official steps onto the field he is at work. And should be until the game ends.

A good pregame will make the actual game go by much smoother.

8. Be on time:

A good game official should be on time. It makes things easier not only for you, but the other members of your crew. If you are on time than they know that you are prepared to officiate. And the sooner the entire crew shows up, the sooner pregame can be started. Also, more can be covered in the pregame.

Now as we all know things come up. Traffic, especially on Friday nights in the D.C. metro area is always a mess. So a lot of us can’t make it on time.

But a good official has to make the effort to get to the game sight as soon as possible. It helps everyone else to relax knowing the entire crew is present.

9. Look professional:

This goes for arriving at the school and going out on the field. Look professional.

Try to wear something decent to the game sight. It doesn’t have to be a suit. A nice shirt or sweater and slacks will do. Have your shirt tucked in, not hanging out. Be clean cut. Have facial hair trim. And carry your uniform in a bag, suitcase or what have you. Don’t let it hang out. Of course, some officials show up already in uniform, but it’s better not to if possible. It just looks better to show up in nice street clothes.

As for the officials uniform it should be worn professionally as well. Make sure that it is clean. Make sure the hat is not faded or worn. Make sure the penalty flag, bean bag and game cards are in place. Make sure the whistle isn’t hanging down to your waste. Make sure that your shoes are shined. Wear a decent belt.

Make sure that the uniform fits.

Looking professional is important to being a good official, because it shows that you care about what you are doing. And if you want to move up in the ranks someone may be watching. The easiest way to lose out is with a bad first impression from not looking professional.

10. Act professional:

No matter what goes on during a game an official has to act professional. No matter how much the coach yells at you. Now matter how much the fans get on you. No matter how bad a game may be. An official has to act professional at all times.

Officials are like law enforcement and must hold ourselves to a higher standard. We can’t argue with coaches or fans. We can’t engage in bickering with players. We cant’ get into arguments with each other. We must conduct ourselves properly so that the game moves more freely with less incident. And so that we don’t lose game assignments individually or as a group.

All of us have had to deal with irate coaches and fans. Some of us have had to deal with officials who aren’t very good or are stubborn. The best thing to do is to take the high road and do your job, because if you don’t than you will only get distracted.

Which will lead to you forgetting the rules, being out of position, not communicating with the coaches and messing up penalty enforcement. In other words not doing what you are there to do.

So act professional. It makes things easier for everyone involved even those who don’t act the same as you.

And there you have it. Ten tips on how to become a good high school football official. These tips can be used not only for football, but for all sports. Even though the rules of each are different these tips can be applied to anything from baseball to soccer to basketball.

They may not make you the best official, but you will definitely avoid being the worst.