An NFL ref’s advice for handling pressure

Photo by Photo by Nathan Shively

Bill Carollo blew the biggest call of his young career.

It resulted from Carollo trying to learn on the job as a football referee.

At 28 years old, he became the youngest Big Ten referee ever. The average Big Ten referee rookie was about 40 years old.

He spent his free time studying and memorizing rulebooks. To get in as much practice as possible, he officiated local grade school games at the same time he worked in the Big Ten. He was trying to prepare and get experience.

“I may literally do a grade school game after school at 4:15, and that Saturday do a Michigan-Michigan State game,” he said. “I really had to make use of the opportunity and learn. I knew I was going to make mistakes and I did.”

But if he was going to make a mistake, he’d rather do it at a grade school game than on national TV. It didn’t always work that way.

In his Big Ten conference debut, he made a call that took away a go-ahead touchdown. After a conference of all the officials, he was overruled. The other referees reversed the call.

But the damage to his ego and reputation had already been done. It was not a great first impression.

“I was really embarrassed,” he said. “My name was in the paper, and I had to stand up in front of 25 other Big Ten officials and explain why I blew the call.”

He questioned himself:

Am I wrong for being here?

Do I really belong under that type of pressure?

When I met him in 2006, Carollo was a successful businessman and family man. He had recently retired from a 30-year career at IBM, and was starting a second career as a vice president of global sales for a Fortune 500 company. His four kids all competed in collegiate athletics.

And that blunder in his Big Ten debut hadn’t stopped him. On the weekends, he officiated football games after two decades in the NFL, which included working two Super Bowls.

“It was a lot of pressure,” he said of Super Bowl XXX (1996), his first time on the sport’s biggest stage. “More than you could imagine or prepare for.”

There was even more pressure in Super Bowl XXXVII (2003), when he was the head referee. Fortunately, things went smoothly in both games.

Today, Carollo is Director of Officiating for the Big Ten. And he knows from his long career that, yes, referees make mistakes.

When NFL referees screw up — or fans just don’t like your decision — everyone in the arena and watching at home gets angry at you. So how do they handle the pressure? This was his advice:

Put in your 10,000 hours

“The investment is really big and the odds are really low to become an NFL referee. It takes about 22 years from grade school officiating to being a rookie in the NFL. I went from officiating Catholic leagues for four bucks a game to the Super Bowl. You never really make it, but at least you get established.”

Don’t take it personally

“There’s a tendency in the United States and with soccer in Europe to blame someone for mistakes. Usually the referees are the object. They won’t think about two fumbles and three interceptions. They think there was one bad call. . . . When players get in your face, it’s mostly the heat of the battle. Their passion to compete sometimes brings out some ugliness.”

Know it’s human to make mistakes

“We make three or four mistakes a game. Most aren’t known to the public. Just like the players, everyone’s human, and no one’s perfect. We’re graded on every single play of every single game.”

But don’t get too comfortable

“You’re scrutinized more because of the media. You can’t ever get too comfortable. We have one-year contracts. You make one bad call, you could be out.”

Emphasize the positive

“You really second guess yourself when you make a mistake, but it’s really a bigger mistake in your own mind. Ask yourself what went really well. Bottle that thinking. Focus on all the positive things you did right and get rid of all the negative thoughts. If you start thinking negatively you’re not focusing on the positive things. You need that confidence and that positive attitude.”

Focus — especially near the end

“Concentration to the very end of the game is very important. It’s finishing the game. It’s officiating to the very end. It’s like playing baseball and it’s the bottom of the 9th and you’re thinking, Don’t hit the ball to me. You can’t have that attitude.

Know your role

“Originally I didn’t want to be a ref. I wanted to keep playing. I thought I was going to replace Bart Starr for the Packers someday. Everyone wants to be the star player. But you know what, there are only so many stars.”

Keep improving

“Officiating is the hardest thing I do. And I do it to see how good I can be. You have to continue to improve, whether in business, as a father, as a husband or as an official.”

Be passionate about what you do

“I’m busier than I ever was. So my retirement isn’t a true retirement. It’s not a job, it’s a passion. You get up in the morning and you say, boy I have a lot of stuff going on today.”

So why did he make the wrong call in his Big Ten debut, which almost cut his career short?

Officiating those high school football games for practice backfired. Carollo enforced a high school rule in a college game. It was a simple mix-up.

Maybe it was a lack of concentration, he thought. Maybe it was inexperience.

Ultimately, he forced himself to stop thinking negative thoughts, focused on his good calls and moved forward.

Officiating taught him that you’re going to make bad calls in life, but you have to weather the ups and downs.

“It’s like falling off a horse,” said Carollo. “You just have to get back on.”

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