How to Retain Referees (Part 1)

We lose most refs in their first two years of refereeing with verbal abuse by the so-called adults in youth soccer, the coaches and parents, being the No. 1 reason for refs quitting. Following are ideas on how to retain more refs:

Start a Big Brother/Big Sister Program
In the Long Island Soccer Referee Association (LISRA), I’ve been a Big Brother to several refs who were just starting out. I went to a few games, offered some advice and listened to their complaints and questions when they phoned me after a weekend of refereeing. This program is helpful to help retain refs but, particularly as refs are overstretched as it is during busy weekends, it’s hard to get referees to volunteer to help new refs when they could be earning money reffing instead. One solution is to have a new ref be the AR for the experienced ref and the experienced ref to serve as AR for the new ref for a younger age group that would hopefully be a less challenging game. Or to fund the program so experienced refs earn some money by watching new refs. But this is only one piece of the puzzle to retain refs as leagues are very important in ref retention as well. Some ideas for leagues are below.

Start a Sportsmanship Program
I started refereeing travel team soccer in the Long Island Junior Soccer League (LIJSL) in 1980, the same year that Rocco Amoroso started the LIJSL’s Sportsmanship Program as he was concerned about the poor behavior at youth soccer games. So this was perfect timing for me as I was getting my feet wet in a league with a Sportsmanship Program. For every LIJSL regular season game ever since, the match referee grades each team on the conduct of players, coaches and spectators, overall game conduct and player appearance. The teams accumulating the most points in each division receive the LIJSL Sportsmanship Award in a ceremony after the season and they proudly wear the Sportsmanship Patch they receive on their shirt sleeves. This program is now so ingrained in Long Island youth soccer that many teams put as much energy into being sporting as in winning the game. Rocco, a U.S. Soccer Life Member, became like a Johnny Appleseed for sportsmanship, preaching its values across the USA and some leagues in the USA and even China and Ireland adopted the program. But most leagues still don’t have a sportsmanship program. Consequently, I would still much rather ref a LIJSL match than a game in other leagues as LIJSL teams generally are more sporting than other squads because of this great program.

Start a Scout Program
The East Hudson Youth Soccer League (EHYSL) had a different idea to control behavior and retain refs. In 2014, they sent out the Scouts! Every weekend, four to six Scouts are assigned to visit selected venues and observe plus “be a presence” at all the games at that venue. The Scouts are jointly selected by EHYSL and the Hudson Valley Soccer Referee Association (HVSRA) from longtime (10 years or more) referees, coaches and administrators active in youth soccer, and knowledgeable about its goals and procedures. The Scouts bring knowledge, of course, but also a fresh, objective view of the venue and the operations there, from coach organization to touchline behavior to referee performance. In their mandatory weekly reports, the Scouts give the EHYSL an excellent sampling at what is occurring at every field complex.

I was in the Hudson Valley for the State Cup finals when I observed a ref making basic mistakes during a small-sided EHYSL game as he missed obvious offside decisions and did not utilize club linesmen. Rich Ceonzo, an experienced ref wearing an EHYSL polo shirt, was the Scout at the field complex that day so I asked him to observe the ref at that field before people start complaining about what the ref is missing. Right after that, a mother came to Rich to complain that the opposing coach who her daughter’s team was playing intimidated the young ref their previous game so Rich had a full-plate to deal with and worked everything out by observing, advising and helping control what was happening on both fields. The Scout Program is funded by the EHYSL.

With the three successful programs above, is it any wonder that LISRA in the largest ref organization in Eastern New York plus the LIJSL and EHYSL are Eastern New York’s two largest leagues? I’m a New Yorker so these are the programs that I’m most familiar with that work but Soccer Americans can chime in below for what has worked in their area.

In my next article, I will write about other ideas for leagues on how to retain refs such as holding preseason meetings having refs and coaches in the same room, a marketing campaign to parents, formally thanking the refs after the season, and a firm arbitration program.

How to Retain Referees (Part 2): Start by getting coaches and refs in same room

(Randy Vogt, the author of "Preventive Officiating," has officiated more than 10,000 games. Go HERE for the archive of Vogt's referee Soccer America referee articles.)

13 comments about "How to Retain Referees (Part 1)".
  1. Richard Crow, April 6, 2018 at 10:53 a.m.

    Do we really need referees at, say the U8 level? Why not pay the coaches to referee the games and work together to develop players instead of against each other to win? This would work well in a local rec league where everyone knows each other. After the game the coaches could meet to evaluate players from both teams and assess individual needs that players can work on in practice. The cooperative and nurturing aspects of a paid-coach/ref job would be especially appealing to adolescents looling for a part-time job. If we really care about teaching boys and girls how to play soccer in their most sensitve years for learning, why spend millions of dollars each year on referees when referees don't teach skills or develop players? 

  2. Kent James replied, April 6, 2018 at 9:24 p.m.

    We did this in our skills program, and it worked like a charm.  One coach ran each field, the two teams were distinguished by pinnies (everyone had the same game shirt).  The coach's job was to manage the game, keeping it competitive by putting players of similar skills on the field at the same time (sometimes even switching players between teams, if necessary).  The focus was on fair competition (kids wanted to "win", but since players were not on permanent teams, they were essentially trying to win the little battles they were personally involved in).  We never many disciplinary problems (if kids misbehaved the coach would warn them, and if they persisted, they'd have to sit out), and the parents were all relaxed, enjoying the good plays of players on either team.  Worked great for U8 & U6, but U10, the players started to be ready for outside competition (just to expand who they played against).  I wanted to have another club bring some players at the U10 level, but it would have been too disruptive to their game schedules (in retrospect, I should have arranged it on a practice night...).  But I highly recommend the structure for it's flexiblity, ability to coordinate learning skills, and the atmosphere it engendered.

  3. R2 Dad replied, April 6, 2018 at 10:12 p.m.

    This sounds good on paper, but all it takes is one coach who approves of "getting stuck in" and you've got a cluster on your hands. We used to have friendlies where the coaches refereed but then were partial to their own players. Yes, would love to avoid paying refs, but that only works in a homogeneous culture.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, April 7, 2018 at 4:48 p.m.

    I suspect the bigger problem is that most coaches don't know the Laws to the standard of referees and foul recognition is a skill.

  5. R2 Dad replied, April 7, 2018 at 5:50 p.m.

    Even among qualified referees, there are wide variances in their application of the LOTG--there isn't one standard we all agree to. Yes foul recognition is a skill, but every referee has a different bar, especially given the level of competitiion; this applies to professional referees as well as amateur ones. I like Randy's idea of having a meeting with referees and coaches, because there is a prevalent condition in the working world whereby managers assume what other people do in the organization is useless unless they can prove otherwise. It's nonsense, but I learned this firsthand in Silicon Valley.

    I have to admit that as a referee I have little regard for most coaches, and it's evident coaches believe the same about referees. The difference is coaches get to yell at referees while referees are supposed to be the grownups in the room. So developing mutual respect would be a good step in the right direction, given the very low regard each group has for the other.

  6. Ahmet Guvener, April 6, 2018 at 4:30 p.m.

    Very good suggestions.The question to ask is why do these problems only occur in the US Youth Soccer scene? The solution is in the answer. 

  7. s fatschel, April 7, 2018 at 11:05 a.m.

    Issue cards to coaches for parent's behavior. Once both coaches are dismissed game is over.

  8. R2 Dad replied, April 7, 2018 at 5:57 p.m.

    Coaches are routinely sent off for their bad behavior. But the leagues will only sanction a 1 match penalty. Until leagues get serious about curtailing referee abuse--and from everything I've seen leagues are run by coaches and thus leagues continue to go easy on repeat offenders--nothing will change.

  9. Bob Ashpole, April 7, 2018 at 5:02 p.m.

    Too many coaches and parents expect grade 8s to have the experience and ability of a grade 5. They should realize that referees need time to develop just like the coaches and players do. In my experience over 90% of dissent results from the dissenters not knowing the finer points of the Laws. 

  10. R2 Dad replied, April 10, 2018 at 12:26 p.m.

    Agreed, Bob, but mastering the LOTG is just the beginning. Much of the man management and match managment comes from assignors and older referees who help younger refs with useful tactics: how to talk a coach out of getting ejected from a match, how to defuse contentious player match-ups, why carding for persistent infringement can be a smart thing to do, DOGSO, etc, etc.

    Being a grade 5 state ref would ensure a level of experience and maturity, but the majority of 8s out there (most referees are 8s) are able to ensure matches are safe, fair and fun.

    My primary complaint about referees (young and old), is that a few of them cannot sense when a match is heating up. When you hear referees claim that a brawl "came out of nowhere", it's because they were oblivous to the contact that lead up to the fight (or the history of the two teams/players). All I can do is flag that referee to the assignor, but it's hard to train out the obliviousness if it's in that official as it's a personal trait and not a LOTG issue.

  11. Ben Myers, April 7, 2018 at 5:39 p.m.

    Several rec leagues in Massachusetts have implemented a zero tolerance policy, which, in summary, says that coaches are not to address a referee with few exceptions and parents not at all.  It sort of works.  When all is said and done, the coach is the role model for both players and fans.  If the coach is yelling and screaming at the refs, you can bet that the fans will too.

    I would lobby to make it mandatory for all coaches and assistant coaches to read and re-read the LOTG at least once a year, and to certify that they have done so.  Ignorance of the LOTG among coaches, especially at the low rec levels, is rampant.

  12. Kent James, April 8, 2018 at 11:27 a.m.

    R2, one of the key aspects of our program was that the "team" kids played on varied, so while they cared about their side on the field winning, there was no long term loyalty (which some might criticize as an important component of a team sport, but I would argue will come naturally, but later in their career).  To continue with this spirit (the game being more important than the players or the teams involved), in inviting teams from other clubs in, what I would have done was to have the first half played conventionally (their team v. our team) and the 2nd half mixed the players up (so some of their players coming to our side and vice versa).  Playing with kids from the other team lets you get to know them in a positive way, and lessens the "they must be our enemy and we must destroy them" mentality that leads to conflict.  I've done this on a few occasions in special circumstances (scrimmages, e.g.), and it works pretty well.  Builds the idea that what is important is everyone on the field playing to their full potential, not who wins this particular game.  

  13. Richard Crow, April 11, 2018 at 10:53 a.m.

    As in the first article, I question the idea of pushing teens and preteen players into officiating at such an early age. And I also question why in the world referees at any age are needed at lower-level games. Our U6, U8 and even U10 players need skills coaches, not referees. Clubs can pay coaches in a recreational environment to work together to develop all players in their cohort and officiate the games together. I have used this approach of developing players and coaches for years and I have never heard one complaint at a game. Parents and spectators know that the coaches are working with each other and not against each other to develop all players.


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