Counting is one of those mundane officiating tasks most refs would rather do without. When you stop and think about it, however, counting is an important job - one that can impact team strategies, especially at the end of games.
When do you count? There are specific times to use the visible count:
The only other time a count is applied: The three-second count in the lane. That count however, is not a visible or verbal count.
Who counts? The official with on-ball responsibility counts when the count involves a player with the ball. Either the on-ball or off-ball official can call a three-second violation.
On-ball and off-ball coverages switch depending on the position of the officials and the ball. If you started a count, continue with it even if the ball moves out of your normal coverage area. Stay with the count until the count ends or the violation occurs. As soon as the count ends, apply normal on-ball, off-ball coverage responsibilities. Here's an example: A dribbler is closely guarded near the top of the key and the trail applies the count. The dribbler moves opposite the trail and below the free-throw line extended - normally an area covered by the lead. While dribbling there, the dribbler is still closely guarded. The trail should remain on-ball and continue with the count, even though that's out of the trail's normal coverage area. Once you've started a count, continue with it until the count ends.
Free-throw counts: The trail gives a visible counting signal when the ball is placed at the disposal of a free thrower. For a free throw, the trail should use the arm furthest from the basket to not distract the thrower. The count should also be less demonstrative than a normal count (only a wrist flick is really necessary) so it does not distract the shooter or draw unnecessary attention to the official.
Non-verbal. In all Federation counting situations the counts are non-verbal, meaning only the hand signal is used; no voice. The CCA manual doesn't address the issue specifically. However, most college conference supervisors do not want verbal counts. If you're unsure, check with your supervisor to see what is accepted. If there's no governing body to check with and you're still not sure, don't count verbally. A verbal count gives an offensive player an unfair advantage by letting the player know there's about to be a violation. The player can react to the official's voice because rarely does the player see the arm motion; the player is more apt to look to dribble, pass or shoot and not watch the official.
Switching hands. There's no specific preference for which hand to start a count with. Use whatever is most comfortable. As the trail when applying a backcourt count and moving in transition, consider using the hand that is closer to the scorer's table and team benches to give them a clear view of your count.
Once a count has started, continue with the same hand for that counting sequence. If a different counting sequence starts, count with your other hand. That shows that the first count is over and the new count began. For example, if you're applying a backcourt count with your left hand and immediately after the dribbler crosses the division line the dribbler is closely guarded, stop counting with your left hand (the backcourt count is over) and begin the closely guarded count with your right hand. That shows there's a new count. Change hands only when one count switches to another quickly. If there's an appreciable delay between the ending of one count and the start of another, it's OK to use the same hand.
Closely guarded counts. Depending on the closely guarded count rules that apply in the game you are working, you may have to change hands a few times during the play sequence. Here's an example: One count starts when the player with the ball (who hasn't dribbled yet) is closely guarded. The second count begins when the player dribbles and is still closely guarded; use the hand opposite the first count. The third count begins when the dribble ends and the player with the ball is still closely guarded; use the hand you used when you began the first count. Switching hands ensures everyone knows a new count began.
The "not closely guarded" signal (arms outstretched parallel to the ground) is CCA approved only. The signal is used to indicate a defensive player is not close enough to the player with the ball to begin a closely guarded count. It is also used to show that a player is no longer closely guarded after a count began. It's a great signal for end-of-game situations. Federation officials: If governing bodies allow, use it.
-Written by Bill Topp. Referee senior associate editor