Ref Unfairly in Practice – Teach your Team to Deal with Adversity

In my opinion, lacrosse has to be one of the most difficult sports to referee.  It is fast (or at least it is supposed to be fast), the field is big, there is a lot going on, many of the rules are subjective, plus there is a culture of constant referee harassment from both coaches and parents.  Given all of these factors, it is impossible to think that any ref will ever have a “perfect game”; there will ALWAYS be missed calls.

I don’t think the last point I made is very radical or revolutionary and I imagine that deep down inside most if not all coaches would agree with me on the premise that no matter what, lacrosse refs will always make mistakes.  So, if this is common knowledge, it is crazy how bad coaches lose their minds during games when the refs appear to miss a call that puts their team at a disadvantage.  If it happens all of the time, why act so shocked every time it does happen?

My college coach at the University of Denver, Jamie Munro, (JM3 Lacrosse, check it out!), used to tell us over and over again that “the refs are just part of the field.”  It was his way of saying, “the playing surface is a factor that you cannot control so you might at as well just learn to adjust to it, and the refs are no different.”  I never remember him losing his cool on refs during games and I also do not remember too many instances where my teammates did either.

As my playing career ended and I got into coaching, I became much more aware of the constant attention that coaches paid to the refs rather than coaching their own players during games.  Knowing immediately that I wanted my teams to take on a game day demeanor much more similar to Coach Munro and my old DU teams, I developed the idea of reffing unfairly in practice (I may have stolen this idea from someone else, but I cannot remember who or when so I am just going to assume that I invented it!).

When you are coaching in practice you become the ref.  You control the action, call the fouls, start and stop play, determine scoring systems, etc.  This gives you a great platform to start teaching your players (and assistant coaches) lessons in dealing with bad calls during competition.

One of my favorite things to ref unfairly is Continuous 3v2 (aka West Geny).  Split up into two teams and players are constantly transition from defense to offense; it is perfect for keeping score and making practice more competitive.  Whenever I notice one team winning by a great deal and the game is almost over, the next time the losing team has the ball I call out “Next goal wins!”

The first time you do this, I can almost guarantee you that the losing team will score and win the game.  When you call out “next goal wins,” the winning team loses their mind on how unfair that is while the losing team gets excited about their newfound momentum.  The more you do this throughout the season and take some time afterward to talk to your team about why you are reffing things unfairly, you will notice that your team doesn’t react to the uncontrollable factors (such as your bad calls), they just keep playing and remain focused on the task at hand!

I have certainly not always been an angel on the sidelines myself.  But I do strive to constantly improve my sideline behavior by portraying a consistent demeanor of focus to my players.  This is a difficult thing to improve because it is hard to practice; in fact, I would guess that most coaches and teams do not practice it at all and just assume that they will be able to react appropriately in the heat of battle.  Reffing unfairly in practice is a great way to keep this concept fresh on the minds of your players and coaches.  Plus, it will start to carry over into your team’s ability to handle other uncontrollable factors besides just dealing with refs and bad calls.

Here are a couple of tips to reffing unfairly:

  • Pick on one particular person or team more than the other – if you notice one person or team get too high or too low, target them and see how they react
  • Do it during competitive practice games (works better when it is a game and you are keeping score more so than a traditional drill)
  • Always explain to the team WHY you are doing it this way – to teach them not to worry about uncontrollable factors such as refs – if you don’t explain why, kids may take it as a personal attack
  • Make sure the coaching staff is on the same page so that all coaches understand it is part of the plan and you are not just losing your mind – just as your players learn to deal with the refs properly, your assistants will too
  • Praise your team when you begin to notice their ability to react appropriately (or not at all) to unfair situations

I know it may seem a bit aggressive but putting your players in extremely unfair scenarios periodically throughout practice will definitely have a positive impact on your team’s ability to react appropriately during games.  Also, take comfort in knowing that there is a really good chance your opponent has not put the same emphasis on remaining focused through adversity as you have (remember, it is lacrosse culture to lose your mind during games when something unfair happens) and this gives you a HUGE advantage when it comes to winning the game!

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