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Why I Ref: A View from the Middle
by Mike Woitalla, April 24th, 2014 5:45PM
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TAGS:  referees, youth boys, youth girls


By Mike Woitalla

By 9:30 last Saturday morning I had run more than three miles, earned $20, and had been in the middle of a bunch of kids thoroughly enjoying the beautiful game.

I’ve reffed five games in two weeks, earning enough money to pay for that device on my wrist that counts my steps and reveals how much exercise I’m getting.

The exercise is one of the great fringe benefits of reffing. But I particularly appreciate the close view I get of soccer played by children who never cease to entertain.

* After a 12-year-old goalkeeper kicks away a shot, her coach yells, “You can use your hands!” … And she shouts back, “I know. But I don’t want to!”

* In another girls rec game, the team that’s leading 3-0 at halftime lends a player to the short-handed trailing team for the second half. When she gets the ball she takes a hard shot at her new team’s goal. Fortunately it’s off target, and she says, “Sorry! It’s confusing!”

* Retreating to midfield for a goal kick, I hear one teammate say to another, “You think it will be a pizza party or ice cream?”

Being in the middle also puts one in good earshot of the parents and coaches. And in my last five games I’m delighted to report exemplary sideline behavior.

The exception was a mom screaming, after an innocuous challenge, “Push her back when she does that to you!” I did notice she seemed to regret her outburst as the other parents stared at her.

I’ve been reffing teenage rec games and preteen “competitive” games, where I’m seeing more and more coaches trying to encourage good soccer.

In a U-10 competitive game, the team that gave up an early goal and would lose by a big score kept, during the entire game, trying to pass out of the back, using the goalkeeper like a field player to relay the ball from one outside back to the other. The coach never got upset when things broke down. And he kept encouraging his players despite the risk of this approach.

The biggest chore of reffing seems to be the pregame.

No matter what level, there’s always the process of checking in the players. More difficult with the girls than the boys because of the jewelry. Twice in one weekend, a girl says she can’t take off her earring because it’s a stud for a newly pierced lobe.

The coach and the girl make a plea. I’m not sure exactly how dangerous earrings are, but I know I’m not supposed to make exceptions. Us refs have to have a united front, because we constantly get the excuse that, “The last ref said it was OK.”

I say, “Look, if I say it’s OK and then next time you tell a ref that I said it was OK, I’m going to get in trouble.” So she says, “I won’t tell them your name!”

And why do so many kids nowadays have bands on their wrists?

The whole checking in process can take some time. I’m usually always at the field at least 30 minutes before kickoff. But last week I had one of those days with games at different fields and traffic issues that got me there just 15 minutes before kickoff.

It was a competitive game early in the spring season and apparently there have been registration snafus here in Northern California.

By the time I’d gotten the paperwork and player cards from both teams, I had eight (!) sheets of paper in my hand, two sets of player cards, along with loose individual player passes.

This was for an 8-v-8 game of U-10s. I had “Temporary Official Rosters” and “Official Match Report” forms from both teams. We had kids who seemed to fear taking off their friendship bracelets might actually severe those friendships.

But when I had both teams lined up on the field, I was relieved that it was exactly 1 p.m. – the scheduled kickoff time. I blew the whistle. Nothing happened.

The little girl at the center spot looked up and said, “There’s no ball.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at Woitalla refs youth soccer in Northern California and coaches at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)

Soccer America on Twitter: Follow Soccer America | Mike Woitalla

  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: April 25, 2014 at 12:23 a.m.
    Brilliant! Thanks for the laughs, and the reminder that we referees do make mistakes. Bracelets. Looming--it's a thing: I've listed to FIFA referees speak, and they refuse to admit they've made errors. Of course they do, but FIFA has built this expectation that they are infallible like the Pope and I think that hurts all referees.
  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 25, 2014 at 9:17 a.m.
    Mike, you're doing the Lord's work. Keep it up!
  1. Sidney Hall
    commented on: April 25, 2014 at 9:31 a.m.
    This was a great article! I loved the excerpts from the games, it made the article seem to come to life. The last sentence was spot on. Sometimes we forget that no mattr how old we get, how much experience as a coach, referee, or parent, we are indeed still human. Well done!
  1. Ginger Peeler
    commented on: April 25, 2014 at 12:38 p.m.
    Priceless. When my daughter used to ref little boys many years ago, she said, "they're so much fun to watch! They fall down all the time for no reason!"
  1. John Soares
    commented on: April 25, 2014 at 1:42 p.m.
    With a BIG smile on. I'm happy to say I've experienced most of those "circumstances" and many more... including the "No Ball". It can be a lot of fun! Fortunately after many, many years there has only a few (very few) occasions where I needed the $20.00 for drinks:)
  1. Randy Vogt
    commented on: April 25, 2014 at 7:41 p.m.
    Great article, Mike!! I wish that I thought of it myself. And you are right that, contrary to the stereotype of unruly parents in youth sports, most parents are well-behaved. The problem parents tend to be the adults who are living their lives vicariously through their kids but thank God that they are a real minority.

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