How refs can deal with spectator abuse

By Randy Vogt

Abuse from the sideline is a very sad component of some youth soccer games. Many soccer refs quit during their first two years of officiating with verbal abuse from the touchline being the No. 1 reason for quitting.

If all of us understood that referees are human beings who make mistakes and have feelings like everybody else, plus that coaches and spectators are role models for their own children, so many of the discipline problems associated with youth soccer would go away. And your league’s Arbitration Committee would be about as busy as the Maytag repairman.
My Soccer America column in August 2010 was on how referees control the coaches who need to be controlled. Coaches only have the ability, per the Laws of the Game, to give tactical instruction from the technical area and that is it. It goes on to state that coaches “must behave in a responsible manner.” Certainly, for a ref to allow a coach to give a running criticism of the officiating hurts game control. Allowing constant criticism from a coach (or anybody else) contributes to an environment in which the players stop playing soccer and begin to focus on what the ref is whistling, which leads to more robust challenges and more vocal dissent.

I have also learned that referees who control problem coaches have a much easier time with that same coach should their paths ever cross again as the coach knows that he or she will not be allowed to dissent much at all.

Coaches are part of the equation of touchline abuse but what about abuse from the spectators? Many spectators have absolutely no idea what the rules say, especially in youth soccer, and the only soccer games that they have ever seen are their son’s or daughter’s. The great majority of problems with parents are avoided by officials who hustle, smile, are approachable, get calls correct plus briefly explain decisions that need to be explained.

Over the course of an officiating career, a referee will come across that rare human being who has very little experience with the game yet thinks he or she is an authority on the rules and does not respect the ref’s decisions or whatever brief explanation the ref may give. Just smile and move on.

But what if that spectator continues to yell? Once the ref figures out which team the spectator is rooting for, he or she could seek that coach’s help to control the spectator. Many youth leagues now require that the coach control unruly spectators. When a coach has been instructed by the referee to quiet the team’s parents, the coach can send over an assistant to deliver the message or be forced to deal with the parents while the game is stopped.

If the spectator(s) continue the poor conduct, the coach receives a yellow card (should the league want coaches to be shown the actual card) and later a red card if the poor conduct continues. Before it gets to that point, the ref explains to the coach that the game could be terminated if the conduct persists. Should the poor conduct persist, the referee terminates the game and files a report.

The referee should not confront the spectator as this will only add fuel to the fire. Thankfully, spectator behavior rarely gets to that level. I can only recall abandoning one of my games because of poor spectator behavior.

The league might have adopted a Zero Tolerance policy, which governs the behavior of coaches and spectators toward game officials. It is imperative for the ref to know if a Zero Tolerance Policy is in force for the game and how that league interprets zero tolerance.

Yes, some people take youth soccer way too seriously and one unfortunate consequence of this verbal abuse leads to the referees remaining often being overworked on weekends. I started refereeing when I was 16 years old and obviously stuck with it. But it struck me as odd when some adults 2-3 times my age at that time showed less maturity at a soccer game than the players a few years younger than me. I still see this lack of maturity in some of the adults today.

As Jim Tunney, who officiated in the NFL for 31 years, once stated, “My definition of a spectator is a person who yells at me for missing a subtle hold in the interior line and, after the game, cannot find his car in the parking lot.”

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 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 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

12 comments about "How refs can deal with spectator abuse".
  1. Jack Niner, April 10, 2012 at 12:38 p.m.

    I always liked the 'center circle' ref's who thought they could call offside's better than the AR. Or even better is the AR who thinks offsides is solely based on where the offensive player and ball are relative to last defender. Thes two types of ref's, which I believe are quite common, invite a lot of 'spectator' howling. And with a 3 person soccer crew getting $100 for a 60 - 80 min game, there should be howling.

  2. Brad Hallier, April 10, 2012 at 3:39 p.m.

    I'm sure the fans who verbally abuse 15-year old refs feel really tough. I have seen young refs moved to tears after doing U8 games. Last year, I even saw a referee (God bless her) red card a U8 boys coach.

  3. uffe gustafsson, April 10, 2012 at 7:34 p.m.

    great article, jack must be one of those coaches that will bitch all game long that the calls are only against his team.
    lets set some facts straight we get $20 a game as center and that will pay for gas money and help paying for small part of my kid's club fee.
    the most problem parents have been in the younger kids games and unfortunately that is where most new referees start with, those parents rarely know the rules but they think they know which is really bad.
    also jack complained of offside well its a tricky rule, you can be offside but as soon as you get part of the play and that could mean you take a defender with you from the ball handler and in my book you are engage in the play even though you are not close to the ball.
    and for the howling at refs I will never let a coach or parent ever allowed such display. when ever i made a mistake I usually tell the coach sorry didn't see it or yes you are right I made the wrong decision, after the game at the sideline with the coach but never during the game.
    the other parent problem have been with Hispanic parents they don't seem to think that many refs do understand Spanish and hurling insults to refs and opposing teams players.
    though most of the times a word to the parent group that is to loud to keep it down will do the trick, if not a word to the coach will certainly stop things.
    to finish my comments rarly do you have 3 refs on the field for the U12 and below and its really hard to catch every little push or hold, I tell parents me and the kids are taking care of the game you the parents cheer em on and all will be fine.

  4. uffe gustafsson, April 10, 2012 at 7:40 p.m.

    and yes explaining every call is a good thing for the younger teams so they and the parents understand why you blow the whistle.

  5. R2 Dad, April 11, 2012 at 11:06 a.m.

    Are leagues still advocating that coaches be shown cards? I thought "Ask-Tell-Remove" was how coaches were supposed to be dealt with these days...???
    Uffe, you're correct about the new (U8) parents not knowing how to behave. The new youth refs, typically 12-16 year olds, do solo matches so they're unprotected from these forces of evil. Managing the game for them isn't the problem, it's the coaches and parents. How pathetic is that? I wish we had a mandatory meeting for U8 parents: "How to be a proper parent on the sideline", with lots of video of behavior to avoid!

  6. Daniel Clifton, April 11, 2012 at 11:20 a.m.

    When I was involved as a referee in the sport I was constantly amazed at the lack of knowledge of the basic rules of the sport that parents continually displayed, in particular about the off sides rule. I remember most of the screaming I heard was about the enforcement of the off sides rule where so many parents were clearly clueless as to how the content of rule and how it is enforced.

  7. Jack Niner, April 11, 2012 at 1:47 p.m.

    @RicF - Can you read? Here's my comment from above '3 person soccer crew getting $100 for a 60 - 80 min game' should be soccer (ref) crew. Sorry to not make it very plain. The rest of your rant is jibberish. I am a licensed ref. and have worked youth U10 - U15 club games.

    There is no excuse for poor officiating - it invites complaints from knowlegable fans, coaches, and players. I'm only interested in competitive soccer, not about old guys working church rec. league games. If you can't pass a basic fitness test, you should no longer be working competitive 'travel soccer' games, most certainly at the +U14 level. Parents and Coaches endure a lot of expense, which for many is a hardship, for out of town trnm games only to have them ruined by poor officials. So don't be suprised by howling at poor officiating.

  8. Brent Crossland, April 11, 2012 at 8:12 p.m.

    Randy -- I haven't got 3000 games under my belt but I've done probably 1/3 of that. Sorry, but I don't find this column very helpful. In my experience many senior referees tolerate too much, thus setting the stage for fan abuse of a young referee who then does not renew.

    I gave up asking coaches to control their fans/parents long ago after I was frequently told "they pay my salary". I do not consult the coach about fan behavior and while coaches get the "Ask - Tell - Remove" approach, unruly parents get a quiet "I'm not going to listen to this for the entire game" followed by an invitation to leave the premises. I'm also likely to tell a parent that "they need a better understanding of the sport their son/daughter is involved in".

    "Talk to the coach" is good advice for young or inexperienced referees. As in all other game control issues, experienced referees need to figure out what works for them.

    Niner -- I do agree & sympathize with your comments about the cost of traveling & tournaments and the impact of poor officials. My only response is that many times tournament assignors have to live with the referees that will show up. If you drive away all of the young referees because they're still learning you'll be stuck with all of the old, slow referees . . . like me!

  9. Jack Niner, April 12, 2012 at 11:02 a.m.

    @Brent - I agree with you - nurturing a new crop of young ref's is incredibly important to the future of the game in America. As there are now academy's for players it would be good to have schools for ref's - I know in some area's folks are trying to use mentoring. I am not endorsing ref abuse (or coach, player, or fellow fan), boorish behavior by anyone should not be tolerated and ejection is a legitimate means to try and control it, but folks should not be suprised when howling happens with poor officiating _ In fact I've experienced the opposite when teams and fans see a well officiated game - complements from all and requests to officiate future trnms.

  10. sean oneil, April 15, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.

    i have a big issue with this article!! for one i played soccer all my life and watch my sons do the same now. i understand the rules completely. today my oldest u10 player played today with the worst ref's i've see yet. 3 total which was get to begin with trying to get 3 is a chore ,usually only have 2. anyway the main ref today called a pk on us for the ball boucing up and hitting his side first then his elbow, other team scored. later on my son shots at other teams goal and other teams player sticks hand out and it hit it NO CALL. meanwhile the asst. ref on parents side blew the game. calling offsides ONLY when the other teams player hits it. Samething happened again but didnt' call it. the play and line was right in front of me. later calls our team a foul throw-in watching his feet. right in front of me again other team has throwin and players foot is halfway over the line and on the field . our parents were raging about the bad calls againist us and nothing againist other team. btw can i say a big push in the back on our team and in the box you got it no call. we have 2 parents thatcoach other teams and they were telling the main ref that the asst. is only waiting to call offsides till the player touches the ball when he was 2yrds offsides already.this day was a joke and proof why parents get mad at ref's . oh this person looked like a high school student. this is what we get here in NJ. going for my ref's lic when i can, i'll be taking my 7yr old with me so he can get one too and be a better asst. then the one today. Oh btw the 2 non calls lead to goals thank you.

  11. Richard Weishaupt, May 16, 2012 at 1:58 p.m.

    As a parent, coach and referee I have one problem with Randy's article. And it's not about bad refereeing -- it happens but sportsmanship should dictate that we all behave ourselves. What good does it do to constantly complain?

    My beef is with the "punish the coach" suggestion. In many leagues the parents/spectators are on the opposite side of the field and the coaches cannot even hear who is misbehaving, let alone try to calm them down.

    The worst soccer situation I ever experienced was when the ref ejected the opposing coach for fan misbehavior. After the coach left it got so bad that the game had to be suspended and our team feared for our safety leaving. Turned out the opposing coach was all that stood between a game and a near riot. Don't be too quick to penalize the coach.

  12. Neil Harrison, April 13, 2015 at 8:15 p.m.

    There is a flip side to that coin. I was at a game this evening where I was ask to not coach from the sideline. The ref inforced the above rule which I accepted so not to infract our teams coach. My issue is the rule states it should be inforced if the parent is verbally abusive which I was not. I was sending one/two word signals to MY daughter only.
    When you attend competitive games you often hear many lines of DIRECTION! coming from the sidelines. I believe that stiffeling a child's development is wrong. My daughter and I work hard on her positional play. We concentrate on anticipating the break towards goal, and running into space to create options. I was deeply disappointed this evening that a ref let his ego get in the way of the great progress she is making. Even though her team lost some good that came out of The situation. She said to me don't worry we will beat them next time;)

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