Should Refs Adjust Their Style to Fit the Players?

By Randy Vogt

Most youth soccer referees quit within the first couple of years of officiating with verbal abuse by kids' parents being the No. 1 reason for quitting. But if they can get through those critical first two or three years, refs will develop a reputation and style, both of which will evolve over the years.

My style as a ref is to call fouls a bit more conservatively than many of my colleagues but to try to play the advantage clause as much as possible, in part so the game will have a nice flow to it. With most fouls, I am looking to see if the player can play through the foul.

Yet it’s extremely important that I communicate that I’m playing the advantage to help prevent retaliation. The signal being both verbally by yelling “Play on!” and physically by extending the arms with an upswept gesture, starting with a position below the waist and brought up to shoulder level. I will often even briefly tell the fouled player afterward that I saw the foul and played the advantage plus sometimes speak to the player who did the fouling as well.

During the recent college season, I noticed many teams who I officiated were adjusting their play to fit the amount of contact that the officials allowed. Certainly on the pro level, the players are aware what that ref will allow and will not. It will be nice when more and more youth teams adjust their play to fit the way the game is being officiated.

So if teams are adjusting their play to the officials, should the officials adjust the way they are calling the game to the teams? My answer is certainly, especially if the ref can sense during the game that there is broad agreement between the teams within the Laws of the Game as to what is a foul and what is not.

I still have the superb “Fair or Foul?” book, which helped me develop as a ref at the beginning of my career. Authors Larry and Paul Harris use nine cartoons on the different types of referees. The Facilitator is a happy man with a halo over his head and wearing a badge that says “Goody Two Shoes.” According to the cartoon, the Facilitator calls fouls commensurate with the level of play, covers every inch of grass on the field (if necessary), is flexible, prevents problems before they occur, is respected by the coaches plus compliments and complements his linesmen.

Try as I might, it’s too bad that I was not the Facilitator during a recent high school game as I misread a bit what the players wanted. Two skilled teams were playing and there was not anything going on from a discipline standpoint so the officiating crew let the teams play. Any dissent, and it was a little at first, came from the perception that a foul should have been whistled. There was no dissent at all after fouls were given. There was little interest in playing through the foul except when the fouled player was right near the opponent’s penalty area.

I should have whistled a few more fouls and played the advantage less as that’s what both teams wanted. In the second half, there were two cautions -- for dissent as well as for unsporting behavior when a player showed little interest in playing the ball. If I had read that game correctly, I believe that both cautions would not have been necessary.

(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

3 comments about "Should Refs Adjust Their Style to Fit the Players? ".
  1. Doug Martin, November 29, 2012 at 1:03 p.m.

    So, by not calling fouls but letting them play on... the perception from "skilled" players was you were not protecting them ?

    To me the error was not in letting them play on, but perhaps in your man management of the player guilty of a foul after the play on command was made by you .... was you verbal follow up clear to the player... next time I blow the whistle and award a free kick if the advantage is not achieved ?

    Remember the rule is “The Referee: …allows play to continue when the team against which an offence has been committed will benefit from such an advantage and penalizes the original offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time."

    My understanding is you did not suspend time ... to see if true advantage occured you called it, but you perhaps did not assess if it occured and thus you let the miscreate away scot free.

    That is what creates dissent, and then clamping down on it with a card penalizes the player unfairly, referee error, compounded produces yellow, which may mean a suspension from play in the next or subsquent games.

    I suspect if a coach on the sideline had said " Mr. Referee you must protect the skilled players" you would have cautioned her and or expelled her from the game for "dissent".

    Evil is the referee who does not know a few words to calm the waters when transgressions are made and allowed to flow... for the sake of the game.

  2. Thomas Hosier, November 29, 2012 at 1:13 p.m.

    I have seen too many "play on referees" penalizing the skilled players, as fouls to the skilled players continue to escalate throughout the match until it became totally out of control. Me, I am tired of seeing skilled players being mugged and the mugger getting away with it. It is best to stop the thuggery and muggery before it gets out of control.

  3. Kent James, November 29, 2012 at 7:22 p.m.

    First, I would suggest that you are conflating two separate issues; advantage, where calling the foul would take away an advantage gained by the non-fouling player, and fouls that are trifling. Advantage calls should be used where possible, but there must really be an advantage (there would rarely be an advantage in your own third, for example). The trifling calls are where you have more leeway; the little clip at the ankle that causes the player dribbling across midfield to stumble, but they retain possession (they've 'played through' the foul). You call all of those, and the players may get annoyed, since they don't affect play and it disrupts the flow of the game. HOWEVER, when one team is constantly fouling the other, even if the other team is "playing through" the fouls, at some point you need to call the fouls (and perhaps issue a card), because if you don't, sooner or later, the team that is being constantly fouled will get frustrated and strike back. Besides, when players are forced to constantly play through fouls (even if they're capable of it), the game gets ugly. Additionally, while some players may be okay with playing through fouls, others may not, and they have a right to be protected. A conversation with the team being fouled can help assess the situation, but it is the referee's job to control the game, and I would suggest that it is better to call a few too many fouls than to not call enough and let the game degenerate into a slugfest. While it is important to listen to the players (especially if the players for whom you've called the fouls say they'd rather you didn't call that), there are limits. I've been an AR on games (NAIA games where you've got 20 something English players who washed out of the pro-leagues and come to the US on scholarship) where they would prefer that you let them kill each other (because it's a man's game). And while in such games you may not call piddling fouls, if you don't set the right tone, it will degenerate. The primary job of the referee is to protect the players (and the integrity of the game), even if they want to hurt each other.

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