“I can’t sleep on a Saturday night if I think I’ve got something wrong.”
That line is from a story written about what life is like as a referee in one of the most demanding locations in world football.
But I don’t live there. I live here. I live right here in the United States.
And that line describes me last Saturday night.
One call I made as a referee changed the entire temperature of my match that afternoon and had me up all night replaying it in my mind.
Did I get it right? Did I get it wrong? What could I have done better?
Maybe it hits me differently than other referees because I hold myself to an incredibly high standard, but the fact remains that the terrible treatment referees receive, whether we perform good or bad, from people who know and understand little to nothing about the sport itself, is one of the most puzzling phenomena I’ve experienced in my life.
One big, big difference between youth soccer referees and pro soccer referees is the post-game analysis, discussion, and decompression. It simply doesn’t exist in youth soccer. And it puts referees at a massive disadvantage for learning and developing into better referees.
I’ll go further…
On most weekends, referees have about 15-minutes between the final whistle of one game and the kick-off of the next. Repeat that 3 or 4 times and that’s a typical Saturday and/or Sunday. That time between games isn’t a break. It’s usually a quick sip of water and then right back out to the field for check-in of the next teams, a coin flip, and then boom, game time.
If there is a conversation between games, it’s usually with a parent or coach standing over the referees or in such a manner that they have something to say and they are waiting to express their displeasure.
A simple, “Thank you, ref. Good game!” is becoming less and less common.
Replacing it is, at a more rapid pace than I have ever seen in my nineteen years of refereeing soccer, blame being thrown the referees way for the result of the game, as if we were the ones who kicked the ball in the net, or didn’t complete the pass, or didn’t prepare the team properly during the week leading up to the game.
But that’s not all…
When it is our last game of the day, we’re sometimes followed off of the field, sometimes all the way to our cars, and harassed by coaches and/or parents about things they disagreed with. For some reason, all lessons of humanity are forgotten in these moments and it becomes something like open season for verbal shots to be fired.
To me, it seems like it’s normal to these people to get these shots in. Actually, it seems like they feel as if it is their right to lob insults our way.
Maybe it’s a privilege thing? Maybe they feel like their investment in their child’s soccer team or club has earned them an opportunity to take their frustrations out on the referees because they don’t know how to correct a single one of the hundred mistakes their team made during the match that actually led to their loss.
This will seem funny to some people because I’m absolutely guilty of this behavior I’m describing. In my early 20’s, I stopped refereeing to make room for more coaching. My referee friends (and former players and teammates) reading this will laugh as they recall how many red cards I have received.
But, in all honesty, I’ve grown up and learned a lot since then. And being even more truthful, I’ve had some really, really scary experiences as a referee that helped open my eyes very, very wide. I now see how big and how bad this problem is.
I’ve been swung at, spit on, had my car swarmed, challenged to fights on and off the field, and I’ve been called every bad name imaginable in a number of different languages.
I want to help fix this problem. It doesn’t belong in soccer, especially youth soccer, and I really hate seeing it getting worse by the season here in our local community.
Recently, a coach told me, “It seems like referees have a chip on their shoulder.”
Let’s start by asking, “Why?”
And then, let’s do something, together, to fix it.