Earlier this week I sat down for an hour long conversation with legendary American referee, Esse Baharmast. Esse is the first American referee to participate in the Olympics (Atlanta 1996) and Men's World Cup (France 1998). He centered the first MLS game and is now an active FIFA Instructor, supporting referees and their training in World Cups and many major tournaments.
We sat down to talk about youth soccer and our referee issues as Esse is now the Director of Referees of Colorado Soccer Association. The entire conversation can be found at the SoccerParentResourceCenter.com along with hundreds of other interviews, articles, courses and more.
As a sneak peak, enjoy this 15 minute clip with the transcript below.
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Can you try to give parents listening just a perspective about just how difficult it is to referee a soccer match especially a youth soccer match?
Well, it really is difficult because, first, the size of the field and the number of players that you have to control. 22 players and the size of the field, 70 meters by 110 meters at the highest level. You have one referee in the middle and two assistants and a fourth official if we have a fourth official. But when it comes to youth games, you're really dealing with sometimes a solo referee asking for two club linesmen, volunteer parents to come out and take the flag. Also, the laws of the game are so subjective. There's so much interpretation.
Handball, I mean, FIFA has tried to make handball or handling a little bit easier and say, "Attack here. If the ball touches the hand, it's automatically a handball." Well, but when it comes to the defender, well, the hand has to be making the body bigger. It has to be in unnatural position, things of that nature. It becomes subjective and what looks from one angle to me like a clear handball may not be a clear handball to somebody else who's looking at it. So, the laws being subjective, the size of the field, it's not an easy thing. Here at the Colorado Soccer, Mike Freitag, is our Director of Coaching, who coached Indiana to NCAA Championship.
Every Monday he and I bring in videos from the weekend, an d we look at it and it's like, "What do you think? Penalty, no penalty, what do you think? Handball? No handball? What do you think?" This and that. He says, this is from him, he says, "My God, your job is so difficult. You guys have it difficult, this is not easy." One other thing that I think, if any player, any coach referees one or two games, that's it. No more, just to get the feel for it. They will see how difficult it is and something that looks so simple, is not so simple.
Yeah. I'm the worst referee ever. I mean, fortunately, it saved me from having to ref all the camp games, because nobody ever wanted me out there because I just found it impossible. I never called anything just in these little friendly games during camps that we'd have in the evenings. So I really do appreciate how difficult it is, and I'm constantly struck by the position that we're putting novice, whether it's young or old, but novice referees in. And trying to control and properly call the game, which is certainly just not an easy task by any means. What are some of the key things that parents get held up with? I've written articles about handball and offsides, what are the key things that keep coming around that if parents had some more information about or understand the law better that maybe we'd have a little bit less stress?
One of the things is that there are contacts in the game. It's a contact sport, that are not necessarily a foul. It could be a shoulder-to-shoulder. Again, from your perspective, it may look different than from my perspective. One of the things that I hear is from the parents like, "Keep it safe, keep it safe." The safety of the players. If we went and blew every time the whistle that a parent wants to see a foul called, the ball would not be in play. So there's a little bit of physicality into it, but we as referees we have to know the level of the players and safety of the players is number one priority.
But at the same time you want to get the game going. That's where they have a little bit of difficulty, especially if the player goes down and it seems like they're injured or it looks like an injury and the referee doesn't immediately stop it because the ball is going on goal or the other team has the ball. Things of that nature. It really makes them vocal and ... that's one.
Handball is another one. Again, FIFA just put out the changes in the laws trying to make handball or handling a little bit easier to understand.
They had to come up with almost 100 videos, to the point where I said, "This is too much. I need to teach the concept." So we took the best 10 videos just to teach the concept that, this is the hand in natural position, this is the hand in unnatural position. If the hand is above the body like this and it touches, whether it is deliberate or not deliberate, it's a handball. Things like that.
So handball is a difficult one. Offside is another one. Offside, whether the player is involved in active play or not involved in active play, interfering with an opponent or not. Really, this is what we tell our assistant referees, "If you're not directly in line with the second, the last defender, you will not get it right." I don't understand that somebody who's 30 meters away, 40 meters away, screaming for offside because, we tell the assistant, "If you're one meter away you're not going to get it right." So, for someone who's 40 meters away, they must have superhuman powers to be able to recognize the offside position.
Yeah. It's so interesting. I have a project called The Sideline Project where I educate parents about sideline behavior, and part of the project is a survey that parents fill out. In the survey, I specifically ask, "Do you feel like it's appropriate to scream at a referee during the game?" I am always so surprised by how many people actually say: “Yes, I actually do feel like that's completely appropriate” and, to follow up to your point, because I think it's interesting is that there's a little comment box.
By and large, at least half if not more of those comments are related to safety. "If I feel like my child's not safe or if I feel ..." I think that putting out information and content about, this is a contact sport. Just because people fall onto the ground does not mean that there's a foul. Just because somebody gets pushed over and off ... even the line that they're running doesn't necessarily mean that it's always a foul. I think that messaging is important for parents to hear.
Yeah, absolutely. The fact that they think it's okay to scream at the referee, and the majority of these games are done by kids who are teenagers. Imagine a teenager is nervous and trying to get good at math or at whatever they're doing, and your only mode of talking to them is yelling at them. This is not just a parent yelling at their own kid, this is a stranger parent coming and yelling at the kid. Here's a teenager who's trying to do the best they can.
We have mentors, their job is to, at the halftime, at the end of the game, talk to the referee and give him feedback. Now all of a sudden we have 54 different coaches from the side and they think that the way to coach is to be screaming at him and telling him, "You're terrible. That was horrible. That was not ..." How do you think you're going to get results from something like this? If you did this in a math classroom, do you think that those students will learn and keep coming back, or do you think they're just going to walk out and say, "You know what, this is not my thing. I hate math. I don't like this"?
That's what we don't want to do. That's what we don't want to do. We want to make sure that they learn. We cannot expect these kids to be experts, even at the highest level. This is why there is VAR, why there is ... These are professional referees who work at the highest level and now we're going to expect a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 16-year-old to really be mistake-free and it doesn't happen.
What's the solution to that? I know this is something you think about especially in your work now more so centered in the youth game. What is the solution to curbing the behavior? The reckless, hostile behavior of parents, and coaches to be fair, that is often happening on the sidelines? Any thoughts on that?
For me it's education and understanding really foundation of civility. Foundation of civility starts from kindness and respect. If we put those two pillars in place, kindness and respect, and start from there, then we can build on top of that. Then we can start looking and saying, "You know what? This is a 14-year-old kid. This is a 15-year-old kid. He or she is trying to develop and become a player just like my player is trying to become a player." Let's talk about goalkeepers because goalkeepers and referees are pretty much in the same mode. We must be crazy to be doing this thing, right?
We always get blamed for the ball that went in and things like that. Very few times we get the, "Oh wow, good job.” So, a goalkeeper who has a ... lets the ball go between the leg, and now gives off a goal. Imagine if the coach starts screaming at them and say, "You're horrible, you're terrible." Do you think that's going to make that goalkeeper better for the next shots that's going to come in, or is going to shake their confidence that it's going to be even worse than they were before? How long are we going to keep this goalkeeper playing?
Same thing with an attacker who just missed an open net. Open net and he puts it away and doesn't score. If the coach says, "You're terrible, you're a horrible," do you think that's going to help that player score the next one or no? So, why do we think that talking to the referee in this shape or form is going to make him better? What we need to do is respect, understand that they are being developed, they're going to make a mistake. I can guarantee you they're going to make a mistake, but the key is for them to learn from that mistake and not do it again.
And for the coaches and the players to understand, referees treat them like the field conditions. Some places you go, you have fantastic fields. Someplace you go, it's muddy and not good. It is what it is. Deal with your game, leave the referee alone and let us deal with our side of the equation, which is trying to mentor and coach and develop and make sure this referee doesn't make the same mistake again. That's all.
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