By Randy Vogt
The Huntington Boys Club and Massapequa Soccer Club, both of the Long Island Junior Soccer League, became the first formal soccer clubs to have Special Children's Programs when they separately started programs in 1979. A year before, I became a referee. As I have lived near both clubs for most of the past 34 years, it’s not surprising that I have refereed their games and the games of other Special Children in TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer) plus also ref the Special Olympics every year.
Although I have never received a penny for officiating the Special Children, it’s annually one of the highlights of my ref career. When refereeing, I’ve noticed mainstream kids, instead of practicing for their upcoming game on the same or adjacent field, attentively watch the Special Children instead and applaud every good play.
One of the Special Children named Craig Ludin, playing for the Huntington Boys Club since he was a little boy, has received so many gold medals from the Special Olympics in soccer and other sports that he’s been inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, just like noted athletes Sandy Koufax and Mark Spitz have been.
The U.S. government is now ordering schools across the country to make “reasonable” changes to sports programs so that Special Children can play -- or else create separate teams for them. The new guidance from the Education Department issued this past winter was hailed by advocates for Special Children and could do for them what Title IX did for females. It’s great that Special Children are starting to receive the same opportunities that mainstream kids and adults have always had.
Special Children’s Programs provide an opportunity for children who deviate from mainstream kids in mental, physical or social characteristics to such an extent that they require modified practices and services in order to develop to their potential. The question certainly comes up from my colleagues who are assigned to officiate Special Children’s games on what they should do.
As there are generally not as many Special Children playing as in a mainstream game, most of the TOPSoccer or Special Olympics games I ref are small-sided games of 7v7 or 8v8 rather than 11v11 on a full-sized field. I have never seen soccer’s only complex rule, offside, enforced with Special Children’s games although it might be on the books of some leagues.
It’s very difficult to differentiate the skill level of some of the Special players from mainstream kids while other kids are not nearly as advanced. For teams with kids who are rather remedial, you would want to keep the team going to the same goal in each half so the kids do not become confused which goal to attack in the second half.
Some leagues allow for kick-ins instead of throw-ins as a legal throw-in can be difficult for some Special Children to execute. In any case, the ref in Special Children’s soccer is more of a teacher than an enforcer and should not be too officious in determining illegal throw-ins and should clearly explain decisions that need to be made.
Handling fouls should be not be whistled unless they are very obviously deliberate.
One of the challenges in refereeing Special Children comes from very different abilities and sometimes different ages and sizes of players being on the same field since there are not as many Special Children as mainstream kids. Another challenge is a few Special Children will display anti-social behavior from time to time. The coach knows much more about that player and would probably be better trained for Special Children than the ref so the ref should ask the coach to get involved in calming down the player.
I’ve actually even seen a few Special Children trash talk while others will approach me during a game and ask me how they are doing. To which I always say, “Great!” After all, just being on a field running around and making friends is such a big step in their lives. Hopefully, we will see more Special Children soccer games in the future.
(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 preventiveofficiating.com/)