On Refereeing

I just finished a very busy weekend of refereeing youth games, from U10 all the way though high school. I have been refereeing kids soccer since 1994 and really enjoy being out with boys and girls while they are out enjoying themselves.

There have been many reports of parents and coaches abusing referees during youth games, and I don't want to spend much time on that. People who have grown up yelling at professional refs at baseball, football, and basketball games and view it as a privilege of the ticket price (my favorite: "Hey ref, you are missing a good game!") forget that those of us who officiate at youth games are not professionals and do it strictly as a community activity. Yes, we get paid a little bit (I donate my pay to charities) but that is just a symbolic recognition of the time and commitment that goes into doing the job.

I have noticed that some coaches and parents sometimes forget that a soccer game consists of a group of children kicking a piece of leather around a grass field. Does such a game ever have deeper meaning that that? Sure, it promotes teamwork and skill development and other good things, but it is fundamentally a group of kids who are PLAYING. We need to remember what playing is all about.

The other point is that it is hard to be a good referee. You are making a multitude of decisions and judgment calls (especially in soccer, where you are trained to keep the flow of the game going and not interrupt things for minor fouls), and you are doing this in real time with 12, 16, or 22 players on the field. You do it in good weather and bad, and when you are fresh or tired. You are on the run for over an hour (reportedly 5 or 6 miles in a 90-minute game), and you do not have a substitute (unlike the players.) Plus, you can only call what you see, and you cannot be looking at the entire field all the time, and sometimes players block your view. If you are parent or coach, try it sometime during a practice scrimmage.

There are times you need to remind the adults to behave to maintain a positive atmosphere for the children during a game. Here are some of the most effective things I have seen a referee say to a coach who has been not behaving properly during youth games.

John (adult ref) jogs off the field as the game progresses and stands right next to a coach who has been carping about his calls. The coach says, "What are you doing here? You need to be on the field." John says, "You know, you are right. You CAN see things better from here."

Art (adult ref) stops near a coach who has been complaining. "How do you have time to both coach and referee? I can only do one at a time."

And finally, Ally (age 14 referee) approaches an adult coach who has been persistently yelling about her calls. He is 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. She is just reaching 5 feet and may be 100 pounds. She stands in front of him and looks up and says very quietly, "Don’t you think you are taking things a bit too seriously?" He is silent for the remainder of the game.

Paul Levy is President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He has been a referee for 14 years. You can read the complete discussion here.