Most soccer clubs and organizations have a code of conduct, or code of sportsmanship. All of these ask coaches, players, parents, spectators, club officials to respect the game officials, the referees and their assistants. Yet without fail we can observe every day how those involved in the game disrespect the referees. Why is that and what can we do instead?
Let us first review the role of the referee. In it’s simplest terms, the role of the referee is to ensure that the game is played respecting the laws of the game, whether they be FIFA Laws or local adaptations of them. Where players, coaches, or spectators violate the rules, the referee can hand out penalties to keep the game fair. That’s it. Regardless of whether we have a child refereeing a game of even younger children, an adult call a competitive amateur game, or a professional referee manage a professional game, the job is the same.
People become referees for various reasons, but they all start at basic levels. Just like players progress through their own training and development with some reaching professional levels, so referees progress through training and qualifications to become professionals. Referees are no different than the athletes or coaches – they can make mistakes. And just like a player missing an open net, a coach making a grave tactical error, a referee’s mistake can decide the outcome of the game. So why do we tend to be harder on referees? Because the referee is easily identifiable and they are in the minority when compared to coaching staff, teams, or spectators. It’s a bit of preying on the weak mentality.
At this point I want to leave the professional arena and focus on amateur soccer.
Within amateur soccer we have paid game officials and we have volunteers. For paid referees who have invested time to earn qualifications it is an opportunity for some extra income. These referees are typically adults or very confident young adults. They know how to deal with disrespect and can manage the game. In my experience as player and coach I found arguing with a referee during a game rather unproductive. They don’t change their mind and subconsciously they may resent your or your team’s theatrics and make the next 50/50 call against you. The most effective way to deal with situations at this level is to ask the referee at half time if they would take some time to explain a call or explain a rule. In most cases their explanation makes sense and the issue goes away. And sometimes they are made aware of something they miss and this allows them to correct it in the second half. I always instructed my players and our team’s fans to leave any challenge of the referee to me, the coach.
Let’s discuss youth/children’s soccer when referees are other children. They typically volunteer to referee because they like it and want to be referees, or because they get some sort of educational credit for community service. They likely have sat through a seminar or two where someone explained the rules used by the club. Good clubs will post these rules for all to see on their web site. These young referees have little experience and are often nervous during the games. This makes them the most likely candidates to make mistakes. They are also the ones most affected by public criticism. And yet, on every game day in every league we see coaches and parents scream and yell at these young volunteers for making mistakes. How despicable. Imagine if coaches (and some do) and parents screamed at YOUR child every time they miss an easy pass or goal? These young referees are someone else’s child. They need more respect to build their confidence and more help in their development. I advocate that it is the coach’s responsibility to set the conduct expectations with the parents, the team and themselves, and follow them. Let everyone know that you, the coach, will deal with any refereeing concerns with the aim of helping. The best way to do this is to quietly ask the referee a question at half time, or point out a rule they may have missed. Or after the game. Approach them with a smile and thank them for being there. It is also good if you let the club know that some referees are making some wrong calls. Quite often it leads to a mid season review of the rules with these young referees, leading to a better experience for all during the remaining games.
It is always right to be kind, it is never right to yell at a child.