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Youth Soccer Referees Need Support – Not Harassment

“Call it both ways!!”
“You’re blind!!”
“Blow your whistle!!”
“Open your eyes!!”
“You need glasses!!”

Do these phrases sound familiar? They probably do if you’re a referee, or if you’re a parent trying to enjoy your child’s soccer game on the sidelines.

Contempt and disrespect towards game officials continues to plague both sidelines, from disgruntled spectators who feel that everything is being called against their team; to screaming coaches who seem to have a better view from 60 yards away.

Needless to say, there is a very high probability that the majority of these “sideline officials” have never bothered to take a referee class, or made an attempt to read the Laws of the Game.

Being a sports referee is not an easy task; it is something that requires concentration, patience, excellent communication skills, fitness, and most of all judgement based on the rules of the sport. It is this judgement that usually comes under extreme criticism often regardless of the level of competition.

Youth soccer referees arguably have one of the toughest officiating jobs in comparison with basketball, football, baseball, or hockey officials. This is due to the number of players involved (assuming an 11v11 game), the large area to cover, the continuous action, and the split second decisions which are usually correct only 50% of the time based on sideline remarks.

Given these circumstances, one would think that both coaches and spectators would be more understanding when a call is either missed or judged incorrectly.

Youth soccer leagues all over the country lose referees, especially young referees, every year due to harassment and intimidation from spectators and coaches. Once the shouting and crude remarks aimed at officials begins from the sidelines, it is certainly to be followed by the players on the field.

Referees are not perfect and even though some may be assigned to officiate a game above their ability, no one deserves to be verbally or physically abused. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children the importance of being respectful to a person in authority, and in a soccer game, the referee is that person; regardless whether it is a 13-year old or a more senior person.

It is time for youth soccer leagues all over the country to take a stand against referee abuse, especially when the target is a young official.

I propose that leagues require persistent offenders (parent or coach), those individuals who consistently yell at referees, to become certified and work several games before being allowed to return to the field as a spectator. Another suggestion is to implement a parent education program that requires parents to attend a preseason meeting where sideline behavior is addressed; including a no tolerance policy towards referee abuse.

One other idea is to have parents officiate in-house games at the youngest ages where results really do not matter; this may even encourage them to work more competitive games. The more parents can see the challenges associated with refereeing, the more understanding they will hopefully be when, as spectators, a call does not go their way.

Ideas as those mentioned above may not lead to a large inflow of officials but it might result in the recruitment of a few new officials for your league; not to mention the possible removal of a screaming parent from the sideline. If further encouragement is needed, consider the following reasons for becoming a referee:

  • Only job you’ll have where you’re the boss once you show up.
  • Better understanding of the game.
  • If you’re a parent of a child who travels frequently to out of state tournaments, it is a magnificent way to cover your travel expenses; including mileage, hotel, and meals. Most tournaments are always in need of referees and are willing to cover some or most of these expenses.
  • Great way to save for the holidays or a family vacation if you’re a parent.
  • Excellent pay for kids and an perfect way to learn the game from a different perspective

Could your soccer league function without referees? Probably not!

It is critical for leagues to encourage its membership to learn all sides of the game. So next time you reach your boiling point at a game due to what you consider to be poor officiating, ask yourself the following questions,

“Would I be yelling if my child or other family member was the referee?”
“Can I do better?”

I would like to say that in most cases, the answer to the first question is most likely “NO”, but as we all know, there are always exceptions to the rule.

If the answer to the second question is “YES” and you are not currently a certified official, then make sure to register for the next referee class, purchase the necessary uniforms and accessories, and become part of the solution.

If the answer is “NO”, then do us all a favor and just keep your mouth closed.

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Luis Forero

Luis Forero is a USSF C-License coach with over 30 years of coaching experience at all levels of youth soccer. He is currently an AFC Lightning Academy Coach in Fayetteville, GA; a Georgia Soccer coaching instructor, an Olympic Development Program evaluator, and a USSF certified referee.

  • Thank you for publishing this article. I would like to hand it out to the parents before every game I officiate – and since officiating currently is my main source of income, I officiate quite a few games… We must continue to educate the PLAYERS, COACHES, & PARENTS that DISRESPECT & DISSENT will not be tolerated during this game!!! OHN Referee: USSF 25+ yrs, HS 20 yrs, & 15 yrs NISOA

    • The referee needs the be fair and reasonable. There most be a way for checks and balances. I am from Michigan and I can tell you some of the worst trained soccer referees are here. If you make a complaint the Michigan soccer referees association doesn’t allow parent to send in remarks. Personally I think every referee is a big pile of crap. I hate everyone of them. I

      • The most ironic thing is that just about every coach and parent would love to have a referee with more experience. Yet the behavior of those very same people is the main reason kids quit officiating, only to be replaced by someone with even less experience. If you want experienced refs, stop discouraging them from re-certifying. Let them work in an environment that encourages them to learn, grow, and gain the experience YOU desire them to have.

  • I wonder if clubs should ‘audit’ their parents occasionally. A club official or non/participating coach could sit with the parents/fans and observe their actions – grade them and inform them. Extra work but not all teams need to be covered. Just the potential that it could happen might have an impact. I have been a soccer parent, a coach, and now a referee. Watching a game my daughter was coaching where no parent knew who I was opened my eyes. Conversely, my daughter watching me referee opened her eyes – “they complain about everything. I will never become a referee”. IN referee – USSF 9 years, IHSAA 9 years, NISOA 3 years.

  • Agree on most of what stated in the article which seem to have been written by a very frustrated referee.
    Thank you to all these parents for making the investment in their child’s game and future, and along the way keeping us focused on with their loud comments. Coaches, I am sure most are biased toward their teams, so I personally as a referee don’t get offended until they cross the line from being a roll model to self acting thug in a youth environment. Many tend to forget that regardless of the level of competition, it is still a youth environment and a sport based on fair play to all, including that crew needed to officiate their games and make them official.
    Forgetting all the pros and cons of this (Yes there are pros as it confirms that we are all human capable of making a mistake at one point), recent studies show in Canada:
    1. Referees has to score 80% or higher to pass the mandatory exam for certification & re-certification, and then the fitness test.
    2. Coaches are required to take a referee and Respect in Soccer courses. They have had 50-60% success at the referee course.
    Understanding the game is one thing, and making Unbiased decisions on the field is a whole different thing.

  • I completely agree with the basis of your article that parents and coaches should not verbally abuse the referees. Soccer is a game and the boys and girls who play should have fun doing it. I think too often clubs, coaches, and parents forget this and let their own egos impede that.

    I am confused by this statement “I propose that leagues require persistent offenders (parent or coach), those individuals who consistently yell at referees, to become certified…” I base this on your earlier statement that, “there is a very high probability that the majority of these “sideline officials” have never bothered to take a referee class, or made an attempt to read the Laws of the Game.” Paid referees should have read the Laws of the Game. Paid referees should have taken a referee class.

    As a parent, my concern is for the physical safety of my children. I have watched too many referees turn a blind eye to abuses. I have watched too many referees allow games to escalate in to “Lord of the Flies” situation, often with coaches encouraging it. I watched teams provide video evidence of these situations and the league ignore it and continue to assign those referees to games.

    League organizers need to define the expectations for their leagues. Until league offices place standards of conduct for not only the parents but for the referees this situation will not change.

    • Dave,
      I don’t think you understand what he is trying to say. He is proposing that parents/spectators who persistently disagree publicly with referees decisions be obligated to become a USSF certified referee and work games before being allowed to return to the sideline. And his earlier statement about “sideline officials” was not describing assistant referees (referees with a flag), but parents/spectators who attempt to referee the game from the sideline, and have most likely not taken a referee clinic, or even skimmed over the IFAB laws of the game.
      Also, If you believe that your child is in severe danger during a game, go over to the coach and ask to sub them out, and take them home. After that, contact your league administrator or referee assignor and recommend that a mentor be placed to work with that referee, so they can fine-tune their match control skills.
      Good article, Luis

      • Jack – Yes, I missed the “side line” official referencing parents. And yes, I have pulled my kid off a field and contacted the league about the games. And no, the league has not addressed it because, in my opinion, of the issues brought up in the article – too few (quality) referees to officiate games. In my opinion, the leagues do bear some of the responsibility for this situation. The leagues need to address it with the referees, parents, coaches, clubs, and players.

      • One point that is only briefly (and indirectly) touched on iss that knowing the laws of the game is only the beginning of being a ref. If a ref has a US Soccer badge on his shirt he has passed a laws knowledge test, which is more than knowing the law. The test is no more written around scenarios seen in the game. Some are written in such a manner that there can be more than one correct answer and you have to pick the correct one.

        What’s more important is the mentoring each ref gets prior to being able to call their first game. Then they are given Assistant Referee assignments to begin. This is accompanied by monitoring by their more experienced match Referee. Learning to call the game puts the laws into practice and it is a far more important part of the process. All thi take time, and yes, you WILL get a green ref depending upon the age of your athelete, And as the ref gets more experience, they will be given higher level games, where they will again be slightly behind the curve.

        The reason I became a ref is I was an abuser, and once my son left the game, I decided to show them how to do it. I learned very quickly how wrong I was, and now that I’ve retired, I look back on the experience of working with a group of fine professionals who give their time to allow our kids to play. Without them, there are no organized sports as officials in all sports are equally abused.

        I politely suggest you try it from the other side of the whistle before digging your heals in and declaring you know more than a trained referee.

    • In Michigan, parents can not report referees and I can attest the referees in Michigan are the worst around. Most are 13-15 boys that are on power trips. If you contact the Michigan soccer referee association they pretend these kids are The police and threaten parent with restraining orders. No checks and balances

  • Much needed article. Needs reposting as much as possible.
    Minus referee development the sport goes away.
    Was a referee 40 years, U12-D-1. First generation of referees since Soccer grew in popularity are retiring.
    Deperate for new, excited officials.

  • I have been involved in youth soccer for more than 50 years and have been a player, a referee, a coach and an organization board member. This problem is by no means a ‘new’ one but it has accelerated and coarsened in recent years. I would suggest that the first step is to compel (through the governing organization) teams/clubs to self-police their problem parents; If that fails, the GO should assign board members/volunteers to observe problem games (as reported by referees/concerned parents to the GO) and report back to the GO at which point clubs are approached with options including problem parents being denied a place on the sideline (1st offense); Suspension of their player (2nd offense) and removing the parent and player from the team (3rd offense). Clubs and GO’s need to take the lead so coaches are not made out to be the ‘bad guy’ and risk suffering the same abuse and intimidation by such parents as our referees currently experience.

  • I don’t support harrassment of refs at all. They should be able to take a little chiding though in the spirit of the sport/game. Anything over the top should be stopped.

    But what about those that allow assaults to occur? What about those that let a game get out of control? I think some like to see the away from the ball goings on. They should not be on the field at all. Unfortunately, like any other profession. There are ones that sully it and some that take it seriously.

    Surely you agree, the safety of the players should be their #1 priority. A poor ref needs to be reported and held accountable like a bad parent/coach/player.

    • I am both a coach and a ref. I don’t think any game official should allow dangerous play. That being said I have centered many games where the parents are the ones telling their players to hurt ” take that person out ortane them off their feet or you don’t take that shove them back” the opponent. I personably don’t know a single ref who wants to let a game get out of hand.

    • If I really feel my child is potentially being assaulted on the pitch it’s my responsibility as his/her parent to protect my child instead of subletting their safety to a 15 year old youth referee.

      Hold yourselves accountable.

  • I have officiated many soccer games. I never tolerated abusive parents while I was officiating. As a result of this, I was chased away because the board lacked the courage to back the referees. So as a result, they are short handed and depend on youth referees to do the job. Just recently, the Spring League had to be cancelled because of a lack of referees.

  • One tactic I found useful was using half time to educate parents on a few basic rules like: “tell me when the ball is out” with a show of hands…and why can your daughter/son be fouled and your team keeeps the ball and we say “play on”? Taking a few minutes with parents can go a long way.

  • As many of you have posted, I’ve been involved with playing, coaching, officiating, league managing, assigning and watching the sport for 43 years. I always held myself to the highest standards, like I was being assessed, when officiating. If there was a full sprint counter attack headed to the coffin corner then I was on a full sprint to stay in position, which is not an easy task in 6A high school ball or U19 regional tournaments. But I did it. When an old knee injury kept me from doing this, I no longer took the higher level games. I dropped back to a slower pace so I could keep up. I do not yell at the officials, I know how it feels. However, as a coach now, I will approach less experienced officials after a match and ask if they would like an honest opinion of their performance. Most younger referees say sure, and listen. Not that I’m a licensed assessor, but I do have years of experience. If there were more assessors, then there would be a much higher level of officiating throughout the country. It would also keep the old guys with bad knees, such as myself, from not moving out of center circle to call a match. Assessors should also be held accountable on their decisions on how to staff a match. Dont put a 14 year old kid on a U19 final, not even as AR. Just not a good fit but I see it all to often. I agree with the author on this point, especially in youth settings. However, what would the fan reaction be to the officials in a Brazillian Serie A final where a blown off sides call costs a team the championship?

  • Hello Im Eddy. Iplayed 10 years in the most competitivel eagues in the midwest and as a player of the game, I mostly agree with this, but to me the officals regulating the game should play the game before becoming a ref. Most of the time refs are behind on a play when mistakes are being made. That said refs should always be monitored.by a superior every game as if it was an audit.

    • I agree with your comments, the parents would be stifled if the notion that an impartial referee monitor would routinely come and see how the referees do their job. a supervisor as you mentioned someone who has played the game and studied the rules.

  • By and large, I agree, but let me share two instances where the refs got it totally wrong.. 1) In a recent EDP game, the score was 3-2 in our favor. At the end of regulation time, the ref added 2 minutes for stoppage, despite the fact that there WAS no stoppage. In that time, the opponents scored, bring the score to 3-3. Now, our player charges down the field with the ball, is IN THE BOX and get fouled. Still within the 2 minutes. the ref blows the whistle and calls the game without allowing the PK, He also ran from the field to his car.

    Second incident, different game: 2 girls go up to head an incoming pass, and bang heads. One girls goes down, banging her head on the turf, and doesn’t move. The ref tells the girls to play on. The coaches from BOTH teams call out to the ref to hold play, and he replies “She’s OK. Play on”, at which time the girl’s coach yelled at him that she was not alright, and a head injury calls for immediate stoppage as she ran to the field. This was a downfield injury, and not on a scoring drive.. The exact same thing happened later in the same game.

    My point is that a) refs need to be fair in their calls. They obviously can’t see everything, but when a foul is obvious, it needs to be called, and b) safety is KEY to this or any other sport. When a player is laying lifeless on the ground, you blow the damn whistle to stop play.

    • The safety thing absolutly that play needs to be stopped as for the extra time. That is solely at refs discreation , you say there was no stoppage but if one team delayed the restart by not throwing ball in play on a throw on or goal keeper not putting a ball in play after being told to do so are just two examples of where extra time could be added. If you ever sounder why approach them after match( respectfully) I have no problem explaining the situation to specatators as long as they are respectful

  • MY problem with soccer officials is the lack of accountability. Officials in our area make more money per hour ($24 for an AR and $36 for a center) than EVERY employee in my shop. As a business owner If my employees don’t perform or do the job correctly They are reprimanded and eventually lose their job. Also as someone who used to take customer service phone calls all day long for MUCH less money than that per hour, I had to deal with upset people all the time. I don’t think officials should be cursed at or degraded, but using a phrase like “Call it both ways” to show your displeasure with a call as long it is not derogatory should be acceptable. In an incident just last night the AR was not in position (even with the last defender on the end line) and the goalie CLEARLY allowed a ball to cross the line but he said no goal. The AR was NO WHERE near me and as I was explaining to another parent that he missed the call because he wasn’t where he should have been. He rushed over, got in MY face and said if you don’t like it you can leave. My daughter has been involved in select soccer for 5 years and I have NEVER seen a referee act like this. MY father-in-law was the President of the State soccer Officials for over 10 years and told me after that he had never seen anything like it. He also commented that the quality of officiating is MUCH lower than it was in the past. There is no accountability and as long as all you want to do is make a great hourly rate you are pretty much guaranteed a job. Sorry but in ANY other business other than being a referee that wouldn’t fly.

  • It’s not really an hour, though. Factor in the time it takes to get to the game, plus at least 30 minutes before (an hour before kickoff for some matches, and even more for a major college match or a professional match), plus the time it takes to fill out a game report if you’re the referee. Then tack on the annual registration costs (possibly including maintenance/upgrade assessments and those aren’t cheap) and the cost of gear (as an active USSF and NCAA referee, I have 16 different jerseys; 4 pairs of shorts, 2 NISOA and 2 USSF; 5-6 pairs of socks, USSF 2-stripe, white 3-stripe, several colored 3-stripe; black running shoes, black turf shoes, and black cleats; 2 watches, one SPINTSO and one cheap Casio; flags; 3 whistles; cards; and a dedicated bag. That all runs easily over $2000 and is pretty much the standard for any official I would expect you to deem acceptable based on your comment. This also doesn’t even factor in black undershirts and compression shorts, let alone headsets or beeper flags.

  • This is an outrageous article. Kids work extremely hard to win, and very frequently poorly trained referees, many with no passion for the sport, won’t issue calls because they don’t know the rules, or weren’t watching, or feel the players don’t deserve the call because of something that happened earlier in the game. Club’s won’t hire competent referees and instead set up “no tolerance” policies on coaches and parents for complaints. Egomaniacs are attracted to refereeing. Many start the game giving lectures to the players on “what their jobs are” or “what he will allow and won’t allow”. An easy way to tell if your kid’s club has good or bad referees is to go a google search for referees and the club. If they are regularly recruiting and insist on training or experience, then it’s probably a good league.

  • Just had a referee at u11 level call a penalty in the box that couldn’t be identified at the literal last second of a 0-0 game between the number 1 and 2 teams in the league resulting in a successful penalty kick. Taking the game away from the team that dominated the entire game and taking the league win away from a team who had been working hard towards it the entire season. What should be done/said at that point?

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