Should new refs be identified -- like in driver's ed?

By Randy Vogt

There are hundreds of soccer referee certification clinics held across the United States every year. Sadly, most refs passing these courses do not last two years with verbal abuse by the adults in youth soccer being the No. 1 reason for quitting.

In preparing this article, I recalled my first year of refereeing when I was 16 years old back in 1978, doing girls U-12 intramural games, which were 11 vs. 11 back then. And there was the coach of one of the teams who was around age 40 who had it out for me. I try not to dwell on the negative, yet nearly four decades later, I can still remember his name and a bit of what he did even though I don’t remember his team’s name or the color they wore.

Yes, I would be able to deal with him much better today with what I now know about managing situations and people but I was just starting out. So was he and he did not know much about soccer, even mistakenly calling a caution a “yellow ticket.” So with his complaints, the age group commissioner came to his team’s games. And that coach still complained about me after those games.

His coaching career soon ended and he did not affect me like too many adults affect new refs when they decide there are better ways to spend their weekends than being verbally abused. And you are reading this article right now because I continued refereeing.

Probably every new ref has a horror story about at least one adult who did not like the officiating, or even the ref personally, and was going to do what he or she could to get the point across.

So I believe we need to do more to support new referees and my idea is taken from Driver’s Ed. I know that when I am driving and see a Driver’s Ed sign on top of a car, I stay away from that car, knowing that it’s an inexperienced driver prone to mistakes. I believe other drivers do the same. And I can never recall a Driver’s Ed car ever being beeped at by another driver. Nor do I know of any Driver’s Ed student who has said, “Forget about getting a Driver’s License! The other drivers are absolutely crazy!”

Yet I routinely hear new refs say the adults in youth soccer are nuts! People at soccer fields would support new refs but these new officials need to be identified. So my proposal is in the first two years of officiating, the referee is given a gray shirt (as very few teams wear gray) with Referee Education written across the front of the shirt. They would wear this shirt to all games during the first two years of officiating.

Just as U.S. Soccer has gotten the word out about heading, concussions and build-out lines, it would get the word out that we need to support new referees. The rationale being that there is a shortage of soccer refs because too many refs quit and in order for your child’s game to continue to have a ref, we need to support all referees, particularly new refs who are just starting out just as your child probably is as a player.

Leagues would make it a point that any coach dismissed by a ref wearing a Referee Education shirt would face a penalty double that of the normal suspension. And those coaches cautioned (as coaches can be cautioned in recreational youth soccer games, contrary to the Laws of the Game) would get a phone call from the local club or league that the behavior is unacceptable with suspension to follow after another caution.

Coaches are responsible for the behavior of their team’s parents and would be cautioned or dismissed if the parents cannot be controlled as well.

I’ve found that the great majority of people at soccer games are very reasonable and believe they would support new referees when told but the refs need to be identified. I also think this is the way forward to get more new refs to continue officiating.

(Randy Vogt has officiated over 9,000 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

15 comments about "Should new refs be identified -- like in driver's ed?".
  1. Coach Referee, January 13, 2017 at 3:16 p.m.

    [two thumbs up]

    My story is this. I was once a coordinator of a group of referees at a particular location. This location was where all under 10 boys and girls played [recreation soccer]. My son was in his first year of reffing. He was a center. As a coordinator, I walked around the fields during the day, but especially my son's. This one day, a parent was giving my son an earful. I walked over and asked him which son was his. He quickly pointed him out. I then asked, "Hey, so is it okay for me to yell at your son like you're yelling at my son?" The dad asked, "Who is your son?" I proudly pointed and responded, "That referee." This dad looked at me, didn't apologize or say anything and just walked away from me.

    I think the difference between your idea and driver training is that people's lives are at stake on the road, not on the football pitch, despite how some parents behave as if someone's life is over at the end of the match.

    I like your idea.

  2. Steve Greene, January 13, 2017 at 4:12 p.m.

    Let me start with saying I greatly respect Mr. Vogt and his many contributions to the game. Only a few years ago new referees generally received a blue badge and while not as noticeable as Mr. Vogt's suggestions, it was different and in my experience (having worn one for a season) it invited more derision from those that knew it meant grade 9.

    A few things come to mind that have been bothering me for some time. The largest is the overall impression that at ANY level it is OK to speak to another human being the way referee's get spoken to, regardless of age. I have been called many names, and it is generally along the line of being terrible, useless, worthless, clueless and on a few occasions threatened with violence.

    The fact that we need to even consider identifying a referee as new so people can support them is appalling. Not the idea but that we need to consider it at all. If there is any word that needs to get out (by USSF or clubs or everyone) it is to be civil and support ALL referees. Period.

    If there is behavior that deserves a suspension, doubled or not, to a new referee, it should be afforded to all referees. But before that, we simply have to adjust the culture that brought on this suggestion. It is institutional in soccer (football) that is is perfectly OK to treat referees in this manner. At the highest professional levels we see it, a call is made and the referee is surrounded by players, often yelling at him as the camera cuts to the benches where we see the coach(s) up and yelling as well. We are taught how to deal with craziness, and it involves managing it or learning to deal with it.

    It never involves eliminating it.

    I can understand the spectacle that professional sports are, and part of that may be a higher tolerance for some of this. It has NO place at all in the levels 99%+ of referees work yet in my experience it is the very worst in the middle ages (U12-U16).

    At the select level there is a good deal of money involved, so I try to imagine one of these screaming spectators acting in any way similar in any other walk of their life. If a co-worker were to make an error, would they launch into a verbal tirade in the middle of the office, calling them terrible, clueless, yelling at them? Or worse, the THINK the co-worker made an error even though they didn't, and the same tirade resulted (shockingly referee decisions are not always wrong).

    Probably not, because it isn't accepted behavior in the office, or in any other walk of their life.

    Now, I guess it has to start somewhere so if the thinking is that by starting with new referees this will spread to all, then let's try it. I am still a bit hesitant to single these referees out and would rather see the behavior addressed on the whole but doing something is far better than "learning to deal with it" because as Mr. Vogt points out, we will continue to lose referees at an unsustainable pace.

    Maybe then behavior would improve.

  3. R2 Dad, January 13, 2017 at 4:17 p.m.

    I like the idea as it would be applied to youth referees. This might discourage new adult referees, though, since no adult wants to be identified as a newb before the match has even started. The flip side of that is, how can you tell if your referee has bothered to upgrade to a grade 7 or higher? The US Soccer badge colors are all the same. Shouldn't each grade be identified with it's own color? US Soccer hasn't really figured out how to incentivize referees to upgrade. Truth be told, those coaches who abuse referees are the same ones, year after year. Randy outlived that one coach, but in truth leagues just give a slap on the wrist every time, no matter how many referees those bad coaches abuse. Is it any wonder? League officials are mostly--that's right--coaches. Referees are viewed, at best, as a necessary inconvenience.

  4. BD Kern, January 13, 2017 at 4:35 p.m.

    I am certainly inclined to agree since all three of my boys have been referees and all had to occasionally endure rude comments. Since I had coached all of them and then watched them ref, I became very aware of my personal inclination to get mad at referees when I didn't like a call and that helped me be a better coach/parent/person.

    Whether there is a different badge or shirt, I think having a strong local association/group who trains and monitors new referees and who enforces strict rules on coaches and viewers (parents) on their behavior is the most important thing. Our local association was very careful to explain to coaches that their referee(s) were inexperienced and they also had a monitor on the sidelines until those newbies had displayed enough competence to be left alone. They also started them with the youngest kids so the pressure was low(er). They explained to all coaches that their goal was to keep kids from quitting because they were treated badly and it was mostly effective.

    My son, who was 15 at the time, once had to throw out a parent who was being verbally abusive (in a U7 game). The other coach was so mad he asked my son to do something about it. He ejected the parent and wrote it up. The parent was sent before the A&D Board and suspended for the season and warned that if caused any more problems, he'd be arrested for trespassing. It worked!

  5. Jay Wall, January 13, 2017 at 5:36 p.m.

    Coaches, players and referees all start out as rookies who have a lot to learn. What would be better for the game would be for all of the above to rate everyone else on the field in a game and to make just one suggestion that might help each, if appropriate. Have a coordinator review the ratings and scores to pass on positive feedback only to encoyrage all participants; and then have everything else summarized so that training can be improved, as necessary for coaches, players and referees.

  6. Brian Something, January 13, 2017 at 8:53 p.m.

    I fear more unscrupulous coaches would see such a marker as a bullseye rather than a caution sign. But it's worth a small scale try, I suppose.

  7. uffe gustafsson, January 14, 2017 at 12:32 a.m.

    Yes I think randy have a good idea.
    Mike Woitalla been writing articles about his experience of youth reffing.
    I myself decided to move to coaching instead of reffing partly because of the abuse from both coaches that think riding the ref he think he will get calls his way, but from parents as well.
    Finally I said why am I doing this and come home after a day of soccer feeling like I did something wrong. Not worth it.
    Coaching been so much more rewarding then listen to angry coaches/parent.

  8. Kent James, January 14, 2017 at 1:25 a.m.

    My initial thought was the same as Brian's, such a marker would be a bull's eye, not a caution flag, but that was when I thought the indicator was a badge, instead of a shirt (which is more obvious). It reminded me of a story my brother (a very experienced ref/assignor/assessor) about a parent complaining about a ref who had a different badge doing a U12 game. The parent said the ref must be not as good as the others because had that funny badge (it was a FIFA badge).

    On the other hand, if it were only for youth referees, people might be more sympathetic. The downside might be "why do we get the inexperienced ref?" But it's worth a try somewhere, to see if it works. Maybe in conjunction with "zero tolerance for yelling at the ref" when they wear such a shirt.

  9. frank schoon, January 14, 2017 at 9:08 a.m.

    I think players who lack good skills should also be identified, playing with a "TH" technically handicapped, on their back ,therefore making it easier for the ref to judge an infraction....

  10. R2 Dad replied, January 14, 2017 at 5:43 p.m.

    ...or coaches, required to wear a HRA Tee--Habitual Referee Abuser.

  11. Bob Ashpole, January 16, 2017 at 1:57 a.m.

    I think it is sad that we need to explain to any adult the need to develop officials and respect others. Ultimately control of players, coaches and spectators is a club and league responsibility. Too often everyone abrogates their responsibilities to the officials. My favorite story is the time a U6 coach lead his team off the field in protest against my "biased" call (The coach not only didn't understand what a goal kick was, but did not realize he was coaching one of my children. I still smile when I think of that coach.)

  12. Paul Cox, January 16, 2017 at 7:53 a.m.

    Yeah, I think this only makes it more "justified" in the crappy coach's mind to bitch, moan, and complain at/about/to the referee.

    I'd much rather see leagues take referee abuse more seriously, and ref assignors or coordinators for leagues get out to matches on a regular basis. Monitor new refs to give them advice... and crack down on their own league's coaches that are abusing refs, particularly the younger ones.

  13. Paul Cox replied, January 16, 2017 at 7:55 a.m.

    In my first few seasons as a ref, I have never seen a mentor or assignor out at my fields. The only feedback I get is when more experienced refs that happen to be assigned to my games on the lines, and even then I have to specifically ask for it from them. I'm in my 40s so I can only imagine how it is for new teenage refs thrown into the mix.

  14. Adam Siegel, May 1, 2017 at 11:20 a.m.

    A more critical, imo, is to assure appropriate mentoring.

    The old joke: what is the person who graduates with the lowest grade from medical school? Doctor.

    Same with refereeing: pass the test, barely, and you're a grade 8 official with 'rights' to referee pretty extensively across youth soccer, even into some pretty competitive situations.

    My area has some pretty decent assigners yet the guidance is pretty much (let's say to youth refs), 'do some AR work and center easier home matches' and then they're off to the races.

    How about -- rather than screaming gray shirts --

    1. New referees expected to do a certain number of AR positions before doing any center responsibilities. (At least five ...)
    2. Initial center roles (again at least five) should not be at the youngest situations, where the center is alone, but with "mentor AR".
    3. Mentor ARs should be somewhat experienced (how about at least 100 games ...), get a(n onfield) training session about mentoring, and get compensated (slightly -- enough to acknowledge role) for doing this. (Let's say, getting paid same as center when in the AR position as assigned as "AR".)
    4. Mentor AR should be part of introductions to coaches with responsibility to 'back up' center if/as required with escalating problems with coaches/spectators, have responsibility for discussing what is going on both at half and after game, and pass on to assignors recommendations as to whether the new referee is ready to do games without a mentor (or just do AR roles for the interim or ...).

    A 'lighter' version of evaluation requirements along with being clear 'back-up' for dealing with unruly/problem coaches/spectators.

    Recent experience: game where I required a parent to leave the area of the field, my AR's father came up to me after the game to thank me for having him on the team (not parent's) sideline: "they were incredibly rude, glad he didn't need to put up with it ..." Second game ... and both games this 13-year old was AR on there were rambunctiously rude parents with, evidently, parents required to leave. Right -- that 13-year old is really looking forward to refereeing alone. Honestly, if he had been AR in a gray shirt in front of those parents, I don't think it would play out well.

    I know numerous youth who I am really happy to have as AR -- whether doing a house league game or highly competitive match -- who I have confidence know the rules, pay serious attention, etc ... who 'don't want to do center'. (An example: perhaps 16-year old girl, competitive player, probably >50 AR slots under her belt, who I've had as AR for >5 games & have great confidence in ... two (low-level) U13 travel games back-to-back last weekend, I suggested she take center for the second & we could talk through game. Nope.) Not sure that 'gray shirt' would encourage them to do so ... perhaps having a 'formal' mentor system, which eases them into the center role with support, might get them into the roll.

  15. Adam Siegel replied, May 1, 2017 at 11:25 a.m.

    I tend to be pretty stern re abusive spectators with young(er) travel teams. I tell this to the team managers, Team Sideline Liaisons, and coaches prior to the match. Impressive how many coaches thank me for this. Just yesterday, after having to warn that the entire team's parents were at risk of being asked to leave the field, after the game the coach directly thanked me and (even strongly) encouraged me to make sure that this was in the game report.

    The weird ones are the rare coaches who seem to take the opposite tack. Game mentioned in comment above, the (professional, paid coach) evidently really wanted to be ejected as he argued (loudly enough, I think, that the parents on other side of the pitch could hear) that I could not stop the game to require a spectator (a parent) leave the field unless I had issued the parent a caution. ...

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