Youth refs should emulate Willy Wonka, not Pierluigi Collina

By Randy Vogt

Officiating professional soccer is definitely not for the faint of heart. This is not surprising as people’s livelihoods are based on the results.

Officiating youth soccer is sometimes not for the faint-hearted either. The majority of youth soccer referees quit within their first two years with verbal abuse by kids’ parents being the No. 1 reason for quitting.

New and relatively new refs are trained by the best and brightest referees, many who officiated professional games. They are often many years removed from the girls under-7 or boys under-9 games that inexperienced officials referee when starting out. Unfortunately, this often shows in the clinics as new referees are taught that they are “judge, jury and executioner” when officiating a game.

The emphasis in clinics for professional referees is correctly on enforcement but it’s a mistake to emphasize that for youth soccer referee clinics as the games are so different. On the youth level, the emphasis needs to be on compassion.

Yet when was the last time you thought of “referee” and “compassion” in the same sentence? Youth soccer refs are taught to be the next Pierluigi Collina, the bald ref from Italy who officiated the 2002 World Cup final and is considered the best referee of the past generation. Being Signor Collina is a noble yet unrealistic goal, when youth referees should strive for something within their grasp by being more like Willy Wonka instead.

In the games that referees start out with, the young players are thrilled to be running around with their friends. The parents, who can terrorize new refs, are happy when their kids are having fun and they see a smiling, hard-working referee. If the ref could briefly explain the decisions that the adults do not comprehend, all the better.

Referees need to treat coaches, players and their parents as allies unless they clearly indicate otherwise. It’s important for refs to know and enforce the Laws of the Game but equally important is the knowledge how the rules should be applied to the age and skill level being played.

Law 18, common sense, applies as much to youth soccer games as Laws 1 to 17 combined. Kids say the darndest things on the soccer field, such as when I signaled and said “Corner kick” during a Boys-Under-8 game as the ball went over the goal line and the forward asked, “For which team?”

Referees should take the attitude that they are being given the privilege to officiate that day. After all, you meet new people, have an opportunity to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, get exercise and, hopefully, have fun, all while earning a little money.

The best refs bring out the best in everyone, including themselves. If the ref is having a good time, you’d be surprised how many other people are being affected with that positive attitude. Those song lyrics often come true, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!”

This positive attitude has worked for me for more than three decades as refereeing has been one of the highlights of my life. I cannot tell you how many people warmly greet me on the street, sometimes years or decades after I have officiated their games.

But just like Willy Wonka, I cannot go on forever as new and younger referees need to develop to their potential. If referees can make it past the critical first few years of their career, they can advance up the ranks. Who knows, maybe they could be the next Pierluigi Collina one day!

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 7,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In his book, Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at

7 comments about "Youth refs should emulate Willy Wonka, not Pierluigi Collina".
  1. , February 10, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.

    Ok these are all great points. at the risk of retribution (I'm a coach) I will bring up two points that are never addressed and seem to fall on deaf ears. 1) Do not schedule young kids into older age groups even as AR. I know they need to learn, but not at any cost. Put them in games where they will feel successful and let them mature into the game. I've had too many under trained and under age refs that have made mistakes and cost games. I don't care about the games themselves. A team can lose on any given day. But it reinforces negative feelings for refs and it could have been handled by better administration. If there are not enough age appropriate refs then that’s the way it is. Assign a capable center and coaches will live with it. Why set kids up for abuse.
    Now that I'm on a role, I'll get to the real issue. Get rid of bad adult refs, the ones with attitudes and those that don’t understand the game. Rid the game of those that think it’s about them and not the players. Stop protecting them.
    You give coaches and players "RED CARDS" and some coaches rightfully lose their jobs. I'm OK with that. I have pushed for appropriate discipline for 25 years. When a ref has a bad attitude, fire them. Don't protect them. Don't put them on the field to start a war. Only the players lose. I do know that this is not popular. It will likely be interpreted by some as dissent. A breathing body does not make for a good referee or coach. I’ve seen too many coaches and players take something out on a referee for a minor mistake, when what they were mad about was something that took place in the last game by a bad ref. The abuse can be directly correlated to the past experience. Not enough bodies to handle all the games. Supply and demand. Cut back on games. Or only use ARs for older ages.
    I feel for the kids. I always have a group of my players refereeing games. It’s good for them. Just as I wouldn’t put a U13 player into a U18 game, not because they couldn’t play but because they won’t gain the important tools to understand their role. Save the young refs by bringing them along slowly and don’t give them mentors that have bad attitudes and think they are more important than the game. Don’t rail on me, I’ve already said the same about coaches.
    By the way, I’m tired of being told to stop giving instruction to players when they are taken down from behind because I tell them to play to the whistle and if it’s ok to push from behind in this game then push from behind. (I’m joking of course) I haven’t gotten a send off in 35 years of coaching. Now maybe I will. But these things have to be said. I’ve said them in person to the referee administration in 5 States. There is always a yes but answer or it’s the coaches, parents and players fault. I’ll admit that they are right. But only because we believe that referees are a necessary part of the game. We can fix it together only when we work on it together.

  2. , February 10, 2011 at 2:59 p.m.

    One last add on. One thing we do need to teach young refs is to grow thick skin. When my son was 14 he was refereeing a u10 game. The coach was yelling at him and came on the field because he was calling bad throw-ins as instructed. He got a call from the head area referee assignor asking him to file a complaint because the coach (a parent volunteer) had stepped on the field and abused him, parent reports had said. My son said he didn’t know what they were talking about in terms of abuse. He said a coach yelled something at him and stepped on the field. My son told him he could go back to coaching now and that was the end of it. You see Willi was right. This game we love is not for the faint of heart.

  3. Rick Figueiredo, February 10, 2011 at 3:48 p.m.

    Excellent article. Let me add that I tell my players that we should strive to make the referee our 12th player. Be polite, be courteous and maybe on a 50/50 call he/she might just give it to us.

  4. Michael Cornelison, February 10, 2011 at 3:55 p.m.

    In the youth league in which I coach, we have commiserated in the past that poor coach and parent sideline behavior drive our young referees away from the activity after only an alarmingly short time. Alternately, this article makes me think about the attitudes of some of the more "experienced" refs we face, particularly at the competitive level, and how those refs influence the young ones -- both directly, by setting the example described in the article, and indirectly, by reinforcing the seed in parents and coaches alike that all referees are out to work them over. I recognize that experienced referees are hard to come by, making weeding-out the dictatorial ones a difficult prospect. However, perhaps something can be done (if not already done so) to hold them accountable for appropriately training by example the youth referees with whom they often are working.

  5. Bill Riviere, February 10, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.

    I am an adult referee of nearly 15 years and recently have also started high school refereeing. Randy makes some great points--as usual. I agree that some adult referees are way to commanding and officious and that is bad for the game. But with a huge shortage of adult referees, who's going to fire them?! And the overwhelming majority of adult referees are never reviewed/evaluated, etc., and neither are the young referees.

    The basic issue is that the referee system needs to be modified to include OTJ youth referee mentoring. (Sitting home in front of a computer exam and getting a 75 does not qualify anyone to referee!) An adult referee (hopefully non-officious) should be assigned to periodically work with beginning youth referees over a 2-3 year period. They should do that by attending games and helping them with everything from whistle blowing to foul recognition to game management. Nurture them, teach them how to handle loud coaches and parents, then they will be more likely to stick with it and will be much the better for it. Then there would be more adult referees and they would be better. And there would be sufficient qualified adults who could mentor young referees....and the cycle goes on. That's how soccer started in this country. Refereeing is way behind the game.

    I know state associations have mentoring and evaluation programs, but they reach far too few referees and usually reach only the ones who are already good and just want to get better. Every youth club in the US should have a mentoring program...

    Doesn't that make real sense?

  6. Frank Rosch, February 11, 2011 at 12:23 a.m.

    Great article! Really, this should be the attitude of ALL who are involved in the game.

    I've been at coaching/reffing since 1975 and we all too often miss the point that it's a privilege for each of us (ref, coach, player, spectator) to be involved. Sure we have problems, but they're not going to be fixed by the approach of the "anonymous" poster - blame everyone else. He doesn't sound like he has much fun at games. I oversee 90+ referees for a youth club and in their training and game calling, we always emphasize "Have Fun!" Otherwise it becomes a job, a task, a burden! Let loose - don't worry about mistakes from the ref, the coach, the players, the parents. Work in such a way that you promote joy and compassion in our youth. This they will remember fondly and it will impact them deeply!

    Additionally, if you think we've got problems with refs you should check out the English FA where there has been such a loss of refs that they have dropped competitive games for certain ages and started a "Respect" program for parents. All because the adults (parents and coaches) have become overly competitive and lost the joy of soccer. The FA regularly has games played without refs because none are available - they've been chased away by "adult" attitudes.

    Let's just quit pointing fingers and all try to enjoy ourselves, while striving to be the best at what we do!

  7. Frank Rosch, February 11, 2011 at 12:30 a.m.

    Also, don't teach the refs to grow "thick skin", teach your parents, players, refs, and coaches "respect". The English FA has found this to be the key, rather than allowing these rotten attitudes to continue.

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