Ending ref abuse starts with the coaches

More than 70% of referees in American youth soccer are teenagers.

Years ago, in my area, a coach screamed so much at the teenage girl refereeing a U-10 game that she ended up in tears and the game was abandoned. I wasn't there but tried to get as much information about the incident as possible.

Googling the coach's name revealed that he was a professor at a prestigious university. I was reminded of this a few years later while watching a high school game from the stands at which a couple of parents screamed at the referee for calling a foul against their kids' team.

A third parent asked me what I thought of the call. "We're 60 yards away," I said. "The ref was 10 yards away."

I knew those who screamed at the ref were intelligent people, had very well-paying jobs, were caring parents -- friendly and well-mannered people. The anger in their voices was out of character.

Obviously, there's something about the sports environment that unleashes emotions powerful enough to destroy a reasonable person's sense of decorum -- emotions that erase any of the intelligence they would use in other facets of their lives to assess a situation.

The parents who screamed had never read the soccer rulebook. No one ever explained to them “careless, reckless, using excessive force.” I imagine their reactions were prompted by the instinct to be their children's allies.

I spoke to the girl who got screamed at by the professor a few months after the incident. It was after I had reffed a game with her as AR. I told her I write about refereeing, wanted to hear about her experience, and I wouldn't use her name, as I agreed to with her parents.

I told her how impressed I was that she had continued to referee. Most referees quit within a couple of years, citing verbal abuse. But she still fought back tears as she described the game with an account that was the same as someone else I spoke with who had witnessed it. It had to do with a penalty-kick call. The kind of call or no-call that we see debated all the time at every level, if we're watching the World Cup, MLS, Bundesliga, EPL, Champions League, etc.

It continues to boggle my mind that any one expects perfect reffing at the grassroots when never a few days go by that there's not a refereeing controversy at the highest levels, with highly trained professional referees, and in some cases even after the use of Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

But it's worse than that, because so often the refs are getting yelled at when they make the right call.

Frequently, the ref abuse comes from coaches and parents who are much farther away from the action than the refs. Sometimes the ref abusers’ language reveals that they’re unfamiliar with the rules. (The rulebook does not say that if “he got the ball” it can’t be a foul.)

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported on a ref shortage in youth sports: “Abuse by parents and coaches alike has led in part to a shortage of referees and umpires in youth and high school leagues across the country.”

The Guardian’s "No end in sight to youth referee abuse" article relayed the stats from a National Association of Sports Officials survey of 17,000 referees, 87% of whom said that they had suffered from verbal abuse and 13% had been physically assaulted.

I remind you, much of this abuse is directed at teenagers.

Reports of ref shortages and pleas for basic good manners should be enough to stifle the screams at referees. But obviously it’s not.

Those in the best position to create a civil atmosphere at our soccer fields are the coaches.

When coaches scream at the referees, they’re sending a message to the parents that it’s OK to abuse the ref. In most of the cases in grassroots soccer when I – as coach, ref or observer – have seen parents get out of hand it’s obvious they’re influenced by the coach’s behavior on the other sideline.

Here’s what I’d like to see from coaches:

Read the rulebook! I would wager most youth coaches have not taken the time. You’ll find it HERE.

Referee a few games. That might give you a better comprehension of the challenges faced by the teenager reffing your game.

If you have issues with the refereeing, address them civilly. There are cases, when you have concerns for your players’ safety, you feel an obligation to address the referee. This can be done without screaming. FURTHER READING: Ref, Can we talk?

If you’re blaming the referee for losses, ask yourself if you’re doing that because you’re worried that the parents will think you’re a bad coach because of the results. If you are a good youth coach, you should be able to explain to the parents that your main task is the players’ long-term development – and the scoreline at the young ages isn’t an indicator of whether you’re on the right track.

Consider that when you criticize or blame the ref, you’re handing your players an excuse for why they’re not succeeding.

When the final whistle blows, walk to the middle of the field and shake the ref’s hand and thank him or her. That demonstrates to the players and parents, that no matter how intense and dramatic sports can become at any level, you have respect for the role of the referees. And they should, too.

9 comments about "Ending ref abuse starts with the coaches".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 28, 2018 at 5:31 p.m.

    Very good advice, Mike. Reffing a few matches will put the game, parents and coaches in an entirely new perspective. 

  2. Wooden Ships, September 28, 2018 at 7:44 p.m.

    Good article Mike and yes Bob, actually reffing a game would change people. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to not. Sooo easy to be a player or coach. Major tip of the hat to all that officiate. 

  3. James Madison, September 28, 2018 at 7:45 p.m.

    Adult referees can confront abusive coaches with the alternaives of the coach agreeing to cease acting "irresponsibly" and then living up to the agreement or being dismissed.  This is far too much to expect of a youth referee.  Youth leagues should adopt a rule providing for an adult "field marshal" to attend games officiated by youth with the authority to act in managing coaching behavior as if the adult were the CR.

  4. uffe gustafsson, September 28, 2018 at 9:17 p.m.

    James we don’t have enough referees to cover all games then also add a field marshal.
    a better solution is every team have a parent in charge of its team parents behavior. And that parent report to the coach of any bad behavior and the coach can address it with the parent that can’t behave.
    i don’t ref anymore club games because of the abuse mostly from coaches that either don’t know the rules/and loosing the game.
    it came to the point why am I having my weekend destroyed because of a youth soccer game.
    im the most critic of my game but also know I can make a mistake, but some coaches think if you harassing the ref enough he will make calls in my favor. I know some of you are very guilty of that and in long term you are the looser, no one want to ref your game.

  5. R2 Dad replied, September 29, 2018 at 12:48 p.m.

    Crazy, right? When has an adult referee ever changed their mind, or cowered under the complaints of fans and coaches who don't know the LOTG and are miles from the infraction? I've never seen it in league or tournament play, but apparently coaches and parents haven't gotten that memo.

  6. John Richardson, September 28, 2018 at 11:33 p.m.

    Great article. Some of my greatest memories were running the sidelines with you and your dad in Hawaii !  We were a great team at Kapiolani Park. 

  7. R2 Dad, September 29, 2018 at 1:11 a.m.

    My pHd wife claims these raging loonie parents and coaches are all men over the age of 45 suffering from this disease:

  8. R2 Dad, September 29, 2018 at 6:22 p.m.

    "When the final whistle blows, walk to the middle of the field and shake the ref’s hand and thank him or her. That demonstrates to the players and parents, have respect for the role of the referees."
    I'm-Too-Important coaches send their kids to the handshake afterwards but won't do it themselves.
    "Coaches" that can't even send their team to the lineup afterwards are a bad influence on young players and should be reprimanded by the leagues for their poor sportsmanship and misunderstanding of the goals of youth soccer.

  9. R2 Dad, September 29, 2018 at 10:04 p.m.

    Uffe, there is a club called Jamestown that has a coveyor belt of abusive coaches--i refuse to ref their matches.

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