Rule vs. Spirit

Published on June 10, 2015


By:  John Van de Vaarst, National Clinician

At the beginning of an official’s high school soccer career, the rules are studied, learned and become more and more natural as situations occur during each and every game.  The official becomes more “at ease” with the harder calls such as offside infringement vs. offside position.  The official also recognizes the more unique plays that require a quick interpretation of the rule.  For example, a shot on goal is taken and the goalkeeper comes out to make the save.  The goalkeeper deflects the ball to a defender who attempts to clear it.  The clearance goes directly to an attacker who plays the ball toward goal and it is then played by another attacker.  The official sees the defender and the attacker and quickly recognizes that the goalkeeper is further from the play.  The official now stops play for offside.  This is the correct decision since there was only one defender nearer the goal line.   It is easy to error on this play and assume the goalkeeper was automatically the second defender.  The rule was interpreted properly.

Over the past season, several coaches have commented that officials are having difficulty with recognizing a hand ball.  The NFHS Rule Book clearly states that a hand ball is a deliberate play of the ball with the hand.  Incidental contact by the ball to the hand does not constitute a hand ball even if the player gains control of the ball as a result.  It is easy to call the incidental contact a hand ball so that the spectators do not react and think that the official missed the play.  However, the easy way is not the proper way.  The official must know the rule and the proper interpretation.  A second problem is deciding that an incidental hand ball near the middle of the field is not a hand ball and then deciding a very similar situation in the attacking area is a hand ball.  Officials must learn to be consistent with decisions no matter where on the field the incident occurs.

Officials with limited experience react to contact when the ball is in the air and two opponents are competing for the head ball.  Fans and even coaches complain that the opponent had his/her hands on the back of the other player.  This in itself is not a foul.  The situation becomes a foul when the player uses the hands to push the opponent to gain an advantage on the play.  Again, officials must be consistent when making this decision despite the location of the potential foul.

Officials with more experience and those that tend to receive the harder assignments and  tournament games are the ones that have the ability to apply the spirit of the game in addition to know how to interpret the rules.  The spirit of the game includes many factors such as how much physical type play should be allowed, how the game should flow, and how the players are reacting to decisions by the official.   Officials need to recognize the style of play quickly and adjust accordingly.  If both teams are very skillful and passing the ball quickly, more than likely they will expect the game to be called closer and physical play be limited.  If both teams are playing hard and making legal contact, the players will expect the game to flow with a minimum number of fouls called.  The harder games to officiate occur when one team is playing a skillful style and the other more physical.  This is when the official must clearly know how to apply the spirit of the game and ensure that the game is controlled and both teams have the opportunity to use their skills without the potential for hard fouls or retaliation.

Another example of using the spirit of the game is verbal communication by the official.  When a player commits a hard foul, the rule indicates that a caution could be issued.  However, the official could talk to the player if the official believes that this will correct the behavior.  Top level officials have the ability to communicate in a manner that the player readily accepts the decision and responds accordingly.  Another example of applying the spirit of the game is proper use of the advantage rule.  Knowing when to apply the rule and allowing play to continue can allow the game to flow with a minimum of interference and make the game more enjoyable for the players, coaches and fans.

In summary proper application of the rules of the game and knowing how to apply the spirit of the game takes practice and the development of specific skills.  The official must know the rule book completely and know how to apply the rules in every situation that develops during a game.

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