Old man looking at younger man in the mirror

Dear Younger Me: What Advice Would I Share?

Bart Millard; singer, songwriter, and frontman for the music group MercyMe; wrote the lyrics to a song titled “Dear Younger Me.” In the song, an older, knowledgeable man ponders what he would say to his younger self if he could go back in time and provide advice:

“Dear younger me; Where do I start; If I could tell you everything that I have learned so far; I wonder how much different things would be.”

As I contemplated the song’s message, I reflected on what I would say to myself if I could go back in time to 2007 when I started officiating football. Intrigued, I sent a note to some men in my association to get their reactions.

The following is a compilation of some of the noteworthy responses, relating to both on- and off-field behavior.

Find a Mentor

It’s practically impossible to develop without constructive connections with other officials. As a rookie official, I was fortunate to be drafted by a crew chief who was willing to spend extra time visiting in person, talking on the phone, and responding to my Emails.

Some men with whom I’ve communicated were not as fortunate and they commented their advancement was slowed by the absence of an active mentor. Your mentor doesn’t have to be an official who’s been working for 30 years. You can find respected officials with 5 or 6 years of experience who would enjoy helping you develop.

Ask your mentor to come to a couple of your games and critique your performance. Don’t just rely on your game partner(s) to provide feedback; they will be focused on their primary coverage areas and won’t be able to closely watch you. They also won’t be able to take detailed notes during the game.

If you have game film, send it to your men­tor for feedback. Don’t expect your mentor to pursue interaction with you; you need to provide the motivation to connect on a regular basis.

Stay Connected to a Study Group

Similar to connection with a mentor, it’s important to regularly interact with a group of officials, either in-person or virtually (using online forums or social network sites). It’s worth repeating: it’s practically impossible to develop without constructive connection with other officials.

Some of the men I surveyed unfortunately found this to be true. They initially attempted to grow unilaterally, without discussion or interaction with other officials. It wasn’t until they purposefully networked with other officials; discussing rules, reviewing mechanics, and studying game film; that they appreciably progressed.

Keep a Study Notebook or Journal

This is one of my biggest regrets…I wish from my rookie year I would have maintained a single study notebook. Over the years, I’ve attended countless meetings and clinics without employing a method to record beneficial content. There’s no way for me to remember 16+ years of “goodness,” and my failure to properly document what I’ve learned is an unfortunate mistake.

Stay Connected to Rules and Mechanics

The colloquialism “It’s like riding a bike” implies something that, once learned, is difficult to forget how to do or is easy to recall how to do. This begs the question: is officiating “like riding a bike” or does the officiating “muscle” require frequent attention?

From my experience, the latter is true. I can’t ignore studying fundamental officiating principles for 8 months and then expect to immediately “turn it back on” in August. I’ve sometimes been guilty of this neglect, and it’s horrifying to step on a football field knowing I’m not mentally and/or physically prepared to present the best officiating product to the schools I serve.

Just as our muscles will atrophy following only a few weeks of physical inactivity, our memories will begin to betray us if we don’t mentally stay connected to our craft. I find myself having to relearn or remind myself of rules and mechanics at the start of each season.

I would instruct “younger me” to minimize this loss by staying proficient over the entire year or by starting to exercise the mental officiating muscle well in advance of the season.

Too Much Hustle

Almost 100% of the officials I surveyed mentioned misplaced hustle as a reflection they would share with their “younger me.” One official commented “Just because you can run faster and harder, it doesn’t mean you should.

Too often, I wanted to show off how I could hustle to show I cared when in reality, I’d be better off keeping my eyes steadier with a slower movement.”

Another official observed, “Early on I wanted to run everywhere as fast as I could and demonstrate ‘hustle’ but I think it caused me to miss a ton of what was happening and I often rushed calls.”

All movement must be purposeful

There are examples when an official must hurry to a specific spot to be in the proper position to accurately observe an action. Reaching the goalline or line-to-gain before the runner arrives is a notable example.

The “too much hustle” concept relates to excessive physical action which takes the official out of position to properly adjudicate the play. An example of live-ball over-hustle is when a wing official advances too far down the field during a free- or scrimmage-kick or a pass play. (Each association should have a mechanics manual which prescribes proper positioning when the ball is live and officials should be familiar with these instructions.)

When the ball is dead, officials can often be guilty of misdirected hustle. The most notable example is when wings rush to physically mark a forward progress spot. This over-hustle often adversely impacts dead-ball officiating and can compromise the necessary cushion we strive to maintain between ourselves and players.

Avoid the Quick Whistle

I’ve had two inadvertent whistles in my 13 years of officiating, and both occurred because I felt obligated to protect players. My first inadvertent whistle transpired when a kick receiver muffed the ball after signaling for a fair catch. The second happened during a fumble scramble.

As officials, we sound our whistles to indicate the ball is dead by rule. Certainly, our whistle will ultimately protect players because they will stop their activity, but we should not often rush to sound the whistle. We can (and should) have multiple plays in each game in which a whistle is not sounded or in which a whistle is sounded a few seconds after the ball is dead by rule.

Having a “patient” whistle is an important officiating precept. One of my mentors instructed me to let the ball bounce twice following an incomplete pass before I sounded my whistle.

A quick whistle is comparable to “over-hustle” in that we can sometimes rush to make a decision and sound our whistle instead of carefully observing the action and providing a more deliberate response.

Don’t Be in a Hurry to Reach the Top

I’m an “activator” by nature and am often driven to quickly accomplish a goal or reach the conclusion of an event. As a newer official, I was overly anxious to work my first varsity game. I felt like I was competing with my peers and had a measure of professional jealousy when others on my crew or in my association received the recognition I felt I deserved.

When I reached veteran status, my impatience transitioned to working notable playoff games. I somehow connected my value as an official to my assigned schedule. If I had the opportunity, I would tell the “younger me” to focus on improvement behaviors and to avoid expending emotional energy on things outside my control.

For some inexplicable reason, officials often treat each other as rivals instead of as allies. It’s correct to set lofty goals and strive for excellence, but not at the expense of failing to experience each essential step of the journey and not at the price of “using our buddies for traction” in achieving our goals.

Dump the Regret

The second stanza of “Dear Younger Me” goes: “Dear younger me; I cannot decide; Do I give some speech about how to get the most out of your life; Or do I go deep and try to change the choices that you’ll make; cuz they’re choices that made me.”

One of my favorite sayings (an African proverb) is “smooth seas do not make good sailors.” Latin writer Publilius Syrus stated, “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.”

The implication of these two quotes is if things always go well, we probably won’t learn because of the lack of challenging situations. I’ve always been one to agonize over mistakes on the field and stew on them for weeks or even months.

Only recently have I trained myself to have a “short memory” following blunders. I would tell the “younger me” to anticipate mistakes (no official has experienced a perfect game) and to use those mistakes as teaching tools.

I would tell “younger me” to stop worrying about my reputation and be more open to sharing my on-field mistakes so others could learn. I would even tell “younger me” to look forward to conflict and difficult plays because they provide opportunities to grow and learn.

It’s never too late

If any of these observations resonated with you, the good news is it’s never too late to have a conversation with “older me” and implement some of the lessons learned. Regardless of the number of years we’ve donned the uniform, it’s never too late to incorporate healthy habits and attitudes.