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The Language of Refereeing

In every line of work there is a language that serves as the basis for communicating, both internally and externally. Medical doctors own a language. Attorneys have a language. Accountants, too.

And the same could be said about basketball referees.

It is the referee’s language that allows us to communicate with fellow officials, coaches, players, and other game site personnel.

It is the referee’s language that provides necessary information to ensure the game of basketball is officiated at its highest level and in a fair manner.

Let’s examine the “language of refereeing” to see if some of these phrases can help you improve communication between your partners and with coaches during your games.

This is not meant to be an inclusive list of referee terms, but hopefully it will give all of us a good start at establishing a language to use once we start our pre-game conference, enter a gym and take the court.

I’ve divided the shared terms, phrases, and descriptions into four categories: Definitions/Rules, Mechanics, Positioning, and Judgement. Referee terminology is highlighted in black.


The high school basketball rule book gives us a lot of help when we begin establishing a “referee’s language,” especially Rule 4 that covers basketball definitions. For example, you will never find the word “baseline” in the high school rulebook. The correct language is “endline.” (The late J. Dallas Shirley, a Hall of Fame referee inductee, once told me that using the word “baseline” was a dead giveaway that you were an inexperienced basketball official.)

“Primary and secondary defenders” – A primary defender is the closest defender that is facing an offensive player. A secondary defender is the player that is guarding another player and then “helps” the primary defender guard the offensive player with the ball.


In the game of basketball, “mechanics” means more than just hand signals. “Mechanics” is the way we go about refereeing the game – how we whistle fouls, how we administer free throws, how we “take care of the game.”

“Fast whistle off ball and slow whistle on ball” – On ball, it is important to have a slow whistle to see the impact of the contact. When illegal screens, chucking a cutter or illegal contact occurs off ball which enables the team to gain an advantage, use a quicker whistle to stop the team from gaining benefiting from that illegal action.

Here are 3 important tools to be sure you possess to manage a game:

  1. Redirect communication – selective listening; diffuse emotions; communicating “I hear you”
  2. Run the game – demonstrate confidence, not arrogance; practice respect; reflect enthusiasm
  3. Responses to coaches – is the response relevant, or has the time passed?; was it effective?; can it be defended by supervisors?; did you seek a solution and not closure ? (closing communication with a coach, though sometimes required, is a risky move)


Competitive Matchups – A competitive matchup is when two opponents are within three feet of each other. When a competitive matchup occurs the covering official will referee this situation closely. When multiple competitive matchups occur in the official’s coverage area the primary official will keep a closer eye on the matchup closest to the ball while a secondary official should referee the other one(s).

Connected to the play – It is important that when you are engaged in a competitive play or action area that you are physically showing that with body and eyes that you are actively connected to the play. An example of this is when the Trail is concerned with getting beat as the new Lead so they disconnect by even one step.

Make sure your lines are defined – Referees need to be aware of all lines on the basketball court, and where the ball, players’ feet, or players’ bodies might be in relation to the court lines.

Position adjust before outcome or position adjustment – movements made to get an open look, generally at least two steps. If players shift to the right, make a PA to the left & vice versa.

Primary, secondary, or tertiary areas of coverage – In 2 or 3 person crews you have primary, secondary and tertiary (for crews of 3) areas of coverage. The Primary is the area where you are primarily responsible, depending where you are positioned and where the ball and players are located. The secondary area of coverage could be construed as a “help” or “assistance” position. Same with tertiary in a crew of 3. Making a call in your secondary area of coverage or an extended court coverage call is when your partner had a closed look, or you have “high certainty” that the call needs to be made.

“Referee outside-in” – The concept is keeping your field of vision on your primary coverage area however holding your position outside the ball or competitive matchup (off the court versus on the court) will help you see the whole play. It is a rare occasion when a referee would officiate “inside-out,” meaning your position would be “on the court looking out.”

“Referee the Gap” or “Open & Closed Looks” – Open looks are clear views between offensive and defensive players. Closed looks are trying to see the play when looking through players.

Start/Develop/Finish – These are the three phases of most basketball plays. To officiate plays accurately it is critical to see the play from beginning to end. When a player drives to the basket the concept is to allow the play to start, develop, then finish. If a whistle is warranted, it should be in rhythm with the play allowing the player to finish rather than coming early and wiping off shots or baskets.

“Two referee plays” – These are plays where there is an on- the-ball defender and off-ball plays such as screening in close proximity, all occurring in the same action area.


“Ants and elephants” – We want to be sure that ants do not become elephants. An example is the slaps on a rebounder and hand plays that are not called, then the player retaliates with an elbow (elephant).

“Crew cohesion” or “Staying connected” – How is the officiating crew working together as a team, during both live plays and dead ball situations? Is the crew consistent with their interpretation of “refereeing tight” (fast whistles) or “refereeing loose” (slower whistles)?

“Curl away, Stay away” – If the player curls into the lane, and the ball disappears from your sight, then allow another crew member to referee defensive moves toward the ball. You can’t call what you can’t see.

“Freedom of Movement” – The ability of players to move freely around the court and to each position without experiencing any illegal contact such as: rerouting, impeding, chucking, holding, impacting a player’s rhythm, speed, balance, or quickness, or any other illegal contact covered by the rules of basketball.

“High certainty” – Very important in secondary areas of coverage or in help situations. If you come in to assist on an out-of-bounds, 3-point clarification, etc., you better be 100%. There is no “I think” in those situations. Be sure that you are giving information to make a change that video will confirm.

“Incidental v. Illegal Contact” – Intent does not determine if contact is legal or illegal. Severity of the contact and impact on the play will determine if it is a foul. Marginal contact that does not reroute, impede, or dislodge the movement of a player can be ruled incidental. A foul is contact that does reroute, impede or dislodge (RID) an opponent.

“Message senders and game changers” – Officials should send a “message” early to players who disrupt the game through “dirty” play. Officials should also be aware of “game changing” plays and work to get 100% of these plays called correctly.

“Natural game flow” – The highest level of play in the game of basketball is when whistles are not being blown. It should be the goal of every crew, but not at the expense of ignoring game stoppages that need to be addressed and whistled.

“Point of contact” – This is the area of the body where the illegal contact occurred, and it’s important for the calling official to verbalize and signal where the contact occurred. For example, if the contact was on the wrist, verbalize and signal as such. If the contact was an illegal screen, verbalize and signal as such. Be sure to know where the “point of contact” occurred, and more importantly, be able to communicate it to the scorer’s table and to coaches.

“Possession change” – This is when the ball changes possession because of a violation or a foul. Whenever there is contact leading to a possession change, or a potential violation leading to a possession change, it’s important to get the call right, especially in the last 2-3 minutes of the game.

“RSBQ” – If the illegal contact affects the player’s rhythm, speed, balance, or quickness according to the rules, this is a foul.

“Sequencing” – This is how referees officiate plays like drives to the basket, acts of shooting, rebounding, block/charges, out of bounds, and the list goes on. For example, if you were to “sequence” a 3-point shot, you would think “control, foot, line, defense,” or in other words – does the shooter have control, where is the shooter’s foot in relation to the 3-point line, and now where is the defense? Or, if you were refereeing a try for goal, you would think “up, down, then rebound (watch the shooter as they arrive at the pinnacle of their jump, watch the player arrive back to the floor, and then, and only then, turn your attention to rebounding.

“Straight line path” – If an offensive player is moving directly to the basket, or is moving in a straight line anywhere on the court, and is knocked off that path, then that should be considered a foul.

So what other terminology can you offer to add into our “language of refereeing?” Feel free to add it to the Primary Focus chat space located on the Des Moines Officials Association’s website.

And that’s this month’s Primary Focus.

4 thoughts on “The Language of Refereeing”

  1. Great stuff here, SVB! Want to take your officiating to the next level? Be familiar with the language of officiating in the sport you work. While this terminology represents our VERBAL communication which is critical, I’d emphasize that proper mechanics are also essential as the NON-VERBAL way we communicate with all stakeholders in a game.
    For example, take a relatively small mechanic in basketball, used frequently by officials: the “stop the clock” signal. How confusing is it when we raise our hand with a closed fist, when we meant to have an open hand? Details matter. If you meant a foul, but through your mechanics I “hear” a violation or time-out, we’ve got some ‘xplainin’ to do!!
    One final point…
    The language of officiating, when it comes to mechanics, has different dialects. Respect the game you’re working by “speaking” the correct dialect/using the proper mechanics associated with your specific game. People may have an idea of what you’re “saying”, but remove all doubt and demonstrate your knowledge by using NFHS mechanics in a high school game, NCAA Women’s mechanics and/or NCAA Men’s mechanics in those respective games.
    Remember, your actions (mechanics) speak so loudly, people can’t hear a thing you’re saying!

  2. Dave Rittman – You are correct. Communication efforts are both verbal (as in the language of refereeing) and non-verbal (as in the approved mechanics of basketball officiating.) Thanks for reminding us that we need both to do a great job for players and coaches.

  3. Thanks for the article – it will be a good read again in June preparing for camps and again in October to begin another season!

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