A few weeks ago, I was refereeing a youth soccer game in Hammonton when one woman in the crowd, sounding like a cigarette-smoking Joy Behar, repeated the same line for the entirety of the 60 minutes:
“Win the balllllllll! Win the balllllllllll! Come on! Win the balllllllll!”
Earlier that day, in a different game, I blew the whistle at full time with one team of 15-year-old girls clinging to a 3-2 lead.
That resulted in this response from a guy in the crowd:
“He’s not going to let them take the corner kick? What a loser!”
Most times you just tune out the white noise and focus on the game, but it does wear on you with repeated exposure.
So it hit close to home when the Washington Post published a story a few days after the tournament, explaining how D.C.-area referees were quitting youth sports in record numbers because of verbal abuse from parents and coaches.
I haven’t received too many insults in the six months I’ve been officiating, at least nothing that was genuinely offensive or made me want to quit. If you can’t handle being called a “loser,” then you’re probably not cut out for the job.
But, more than language, the biggest issue is that parents don’t know the rules.
It results in off-base complaints that annoy more than anger.
In soccer, we work three-man crews, so you’ve got a center referee and two assistants who run the sidelines, flagging for offside and calling fouls in their area of the field.
I’d say that 80 percent of parents don’t understand the offside rule, which is basically when an attacker is standing behind the last defender when the ball is kicked.
Here’s a fancy diagram to explain:
Misunderstanding of the rule usually results in something like this:
- Player scores a goal
- Parent from the losing team – “He was offside by at least three yards.”
- Parent from the winning team – “He was onside by at least three yards.”
Parents then tend to squabble among themselves while trying to remember what the FIFA rule book actually states.
There was another situation during a U14 game in North Wales.
- Player is flagged offside
- Parent from losing team – “Do you need us to slow the game down? They’re 13 years old!”
- (I don’t respond)
- After the game, parent approaches me – “You guys got it together in that second half, but the first half was terrible.”
- (I don’t respond)
I’ve only seen true abuse twice, when one parent told another to “shut the f#@! up” before threatening to deck him. In that case we separated the dads, resumed play, and watched two kids on the field start a brawl about two minutes later.
Undoubtedly, the pitiful crowd conduct influenced the behavior of the 15-year-old competitors.
The other scenario involved two players, one of whom was red carded for intentionally trying to injure an opponent, and his teammate, who followed that up by saying, “Well, next time, we’ll cut their heads off.” Needless to say, he was also kicked out of the game.
Those two situations were probably the low point of my reffing experience.
Quizzically, you sometimes see parents avoid the rest of pack and stand by themselves on the far ends of the field. This is mostly 40-something dads who either want to get away from the inane commentary of their peers, or, they’re so intense that they have to move somewhere else to focus on the action and prevent their yelling from pissing others off.
I also get the sense that the barking is some of sort of stress reliever.
I’m sympathetic to the plight of a parent who works a 50-hour week, then spends the weekend driving their children all over creation for baseball games or ballet lessons. Watching their kids play sports is actually one of the few times these parents can slow down and take a breath, so I think the whole idea of yelling at the ref provides a release from the daily grind of being the custodian of two, three, or four kids.
Seriously, I think yelling at the ref is a stress reliever. That’s why I wasn’t bothered when I got blasted in the stomach with the ball six weeks ago, only to hear a parent shriek, “Get out of the way ref, you’re ruining the game!”
My advice for parents: Read the rules, respect other parents, and understand that your behavior in the stands influences the kids on the field.
Seen at footy field in UK. If similar signs could be designed for ALL youth sporting events, as some parents spoil it! pic.twitter.com/iTvE2nEjhl
— Richard Fleming (@FlemingSport) April 25, 2017
The other thing is that coaches exhibit similarly embarrassing behavior.
Most of the yelling I hear from coaches isn’t directed at me. It’s directed at 12- and 13-year-old kids who are just trying to play the game.
“You gotta run faster!”
“Don’t lose the ball there!”
“Why would you do that?”
“Next time, you’re coming out of the game!”
Those are the things I hear from the coaches.
Most fail to understand that teenagers don’t hear, don’t absorb, and don’t act on instructions that are howled at them from 30 yards away.
Studies in sports psychology show counterproductive or diminishing returns on scolding, with players developing a fear of “messing up” when they are constantly under siege with instructions and corrections. A lack of balance between criticism and praise can severely stunt a young player’s ability to grow and evolve not just as an athlete, but as a human being.
I’ve also found a strong correlation between yelling and losing.
The coaches that do the most yapping tend to suffer the most losses, while the quiet and patient coaches tend to win more.
It’s probably because their teams are better prepared, which results in the coach having to do less screeching during the actual game. I did a match recently where one coach did not direct a single negative comment to his players and they comfortably won, 3-0. He complained only once, not seeing a deflection that resulted in a corner kick for the opposing team. One of his players walked over and told him that the ball came off a teammate, resulting in the coach unnecessarily apologizing to me.
In that situation you had honesty from a player and respect from a coach, which says a lot about that group and the club they represent.
And maybe one of the most important things that coaches don’t realize is that an official is never going to change his mind because of yelling. That’s not to say that you can’t get inside a ref’s head, and some will try to influence decision making with constant pressure and the niggling application of self-doubt, but most officials will completely ignore the coach until the game is over.
When’s the last time you saw an NBA official reverse a call because Draymond Green complained?
Anyway, just like parental behavior, players are also influenced by the way their coaches carry themselves.
Boorish coaches usually have boorish players who emulate the whining and complaining that comes from their superiors. It’s like a sporting Reaganomics, with influence trickling down from instructor to pupil.
It’s not to say that all coaches are crude. There are some brilliant people out there who know the game and know how to instruct impressionable young kids. They take on these part-time roles while also working day jobs and raising kids of their own.
Sometimes they’re just volunteers, trying their best to keep the ship afloat since no one else in the community is available to take the job. We can be cognizant of these limitations while also understanding that you don’t need to be Jay Wright to understand the value of basic human interaction.
My advice to coaches: Stop shouting at your players, don’t worry about wins and losses.
The onus is, however, on referees to perform professionally.
Lunacy from coaches and/or parents doesn’t mean that officials can dog their responsibilities.
It’s a part-time thing that most of us do on the side to make some extra cash, but many teams travel long distances and spend a lot of money on youth sports. The bare minimum should be a competent performance, letting the kids enjoy the game while keeping everything under control and looking out for player safety at the same time.
And yes, you’re going to need some basic skills in conflict mitigation to be successful at the job. If you don’t like being yelled at, don’t sign up.
You also might need to do a bit of running, keeping up with the speed of the game instead of just standing in the middle of the field trying to make calls from 40 yards away. This problem might be specific to soccer, but I can certainly see a baseball umpire or football ref taking a bad angle or being in the wrong position.
Accountability comes from all of the adults on the field, and that includes the officials.
You can roll up to a match, receive your money upfront, then proceed to phone in the game while getting a little bit of exercise, but the role of arbiter is more important than most officials are willing to admit.
And I don’t buy the excuse that the pay is crappy, as if that would be an excuse for a mediocre effort.
I’ve done games where I’ve earned $70, $80, and $90 for 90 minutes of work. Even running the sidelines as an assistant fetches anywhere from $35 to $50. Sign up for those monstrous weekend tournaments and you’re walking away with $300 to $400 dollars for two (incredibly long) days of work. Sometimes you can do anywhere from six to seven games in one day when those events come around.
Admittedly, it’s very easy to earn your certification, at least in soccer. You sit through four short classes before taking a test, which clears you to do pretty much any youth or recreational adult league game.
You don’t actually have to officiate a practice game before doing a real game. There are a lot of officials out there who don’t have a ton of experience at all, and some didn’t even play the sport they’re overseeing, which I think severely hinders the ability to relate to many in-game situations.
There’s also some age disparity, with young, teenage refs being placed in roles that they probably aren’t ready for. Nothing is worse than seeing abuse hurled at a 15-year-old official, but the reality is that they shouldn’t even be in that situation to begin with. I’d prefer to see younger refs working strictly with children.
That said, there’s no perfect way to operate. Sometimes you push back and sometimes you don’t. Avoiding the parents completely is usually a good start.
My advice to officials: Take the job seriously, set the tone, and be consistent.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re a ref, a coach, or a parent, because we can probably all do a little bit better. Youth sports are an integral part of American culture and there’s probably an underestimation of how our behavior influences the kids who are actually playing the game.
Remember, it’s not about us. It’s about them.