Commentary

A Ref's View: Playing styles clash amid the screams of coaches and parents

The tournament final started in pleasant conditions, a nice respite from two days of refereeing in a broiler.

Within a few minutes, one team’s parents were yelling at the other team’s coaches. In the second half, that other team’s coaches were yelling at the refs, a conversation that continued after the game. Meanwhile, the result had been a triumph of negative tactics (and a goalkeeper who had gone into full-blown “Tim Howard vs. Belgium” mode) over free-flowing possession soccer.

I forgot the punchline: This was an Under-10 boys tournament final. U-10.

In looking back after the turf pellets were kicked out of everyone’s shoes, I’m not really sure how to apportion blame.

The refs, of course, were perfect. I was one of them. Well, maybe not perfect. No one is. But as an AR in a U-10 game, I didn’t have much to do as I moseyed between the buildout line and the end line.

(In that game, anyway. In another U-10 final the same day, I put up the flag when I clearly saw a defender grab an attacker who was one step away from a five-yard shot against a wide-eyed goalkeeper. The attackers converted the penalty and went on to win 3-2. Yet when the losing coach came up and berated us after the game, he said my calls -- that one and a close offside call -- were correct. Yay?)

In the game in question, the one in which the winning team’s coaches made Jose Mourinho look like Juergen Klopp, those coaches decided to protect their lead by stepping out on the field and yelling at the center ref over some meaningless call. I did my AR duties and asked them to move back off the field. They informed me that they were speaking with the center ref and it was none of my business.

After the game, the center ref suggested the head coach should control himself a bit better. The coaches responded with various insults of our soccer acumen and accused me of being too focused on their sideline behavior to call fouls in their team’s favor. I responded by saying they need to listen when an official is telling them to step off the field, and what sort of fouls should I call when my half of the field consisted of bunch of frustrated kids trying to pass, not push, through a bunkered bunch of destroyers playing kickball?

Yeah, they didn’t like that. But we all did the smart thing and went our separate ways at that point

I have a tendency to look back on my actions with a mix of reasonable second-guessing and unreasonable self-flagellation. It’s a mix of residual guilt from a conservative upbringing and the decision to go into journalism.

In this case, I’ve settled upon the notion that referees can always expand the tools at their disposal for defusing toxic situations such as when a couple of guys want to start comparing soccer knowledge like Peter Griffin and the naked guy going head-to-head in a trivia contest to prove who’s the bigger Kiss fan. I’ve seen my travel kid’s coach get tossed after the ref claimed to know more about the game than said coach. In my coaching shoes, I’ve had a patronizing referee tell me I’ll understand why he didn’t call shoves from behind when I had a bit more experience. Maybe I should start taking my resume to the field.

But well before the coach-ref debate, back when the score was still 0-0, the non-kickball team’s parents were yelling across the field at the opposing coaches even when the score was 0-0. “Is this what you’re teaching these kids?” they asked rhetorically. I did tell their coach he might want to chat with those parents about yelling at another team’s coach. I didn’t tell him they had a point.

Here’s what I learned the next day ...

Those two teams had faced off earlier in the tournament. And the team that was all Sam Allardyce in this final tried to play actual soccer in that game and lost. The team that won that game and lost the final is from a club that is renowned for getting kids to pass as much as possible at an early age, even to the point of tracking their U-9 teams’ passing stats as if they’re seeking an endorsement deal with the SoccerMeter app, so it’s no surprise when they win a battle of possession.

So it’s apparently not the case that this style of play is what the trophy-winning coaches are teaching the kids -- at least, not exclusively. And perhaps I’m a hypocrite for being dismayed here, having argued a couple of months ago that we need to acknowledge that direct play is sometimes the best option. Also, if bunkering wasn’t part of the game at the highest level, Sweden wouldn’t have beaten the U.S. women in the Olympics.

But at U-10?

I don’t know. On one hand, a team learned to be adaptable to win. On the other hand, a team that played brilliantly but couldn’t beat the bunker left the field in tears.

So the parents’ question is valid, and it applies to everyone at that field. What are we teaching these kids?

12 comments about "A Ref's View: Playing styles clash amid the screams of coaches and parents".
  1. Bob Ashpole, June 7, 2019 at 3:02 p.m.

    Exactly. In an obsession with youth match results, somehow too many youth coaches overlook teaching fundamentals and ignore their ethical obligation to develop all the players they coach.

    The match you described is why I say that for pre-teens training sessions are more important to development than playing matches. 

  2. Philip Carragher, June 7, 2019 at 3:31 p.m.

    I would like to see Youth Soccer empower referrees to stop contests when coaches or parents are yelling negative stuff. A couple of years ago I saw that while watching kids play baseball in the Cooperstown tournament; umpires stopped games, walked over to the stands, and told parents to calm down. It worked. When I coach youngsters, one of my main objectives is to gradually give more and more control of the game to the players and this is best accomplished by helping to remove confusion from their minds because less confused players can think and communicate with each other, make intelligent decisions and, by doing so, continually increase their joy of playing. There is nothing kids love more than to see themselves as a valued teammate. Plus I get to shut up and take notes. I never let my parents yell negative stuff. Years back I was reffing and one of the parents kept yelling negative stuff and it his attitude was being reflected by the players on that same team, so I stopped the game, called both coaches onto the field, and told the coach whose parent was tied to him that he needs to calm that parent down. It worked and the game improved. All that yelling just confuses the players and retards player development.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, June 8, 2019 at 3:11 a.m.

    In the 1980s back in the days when coaching from the sidelines was forbidden, the exception for youth allowed coaching from the sidelines as long as the comments were positive. 

    The changes allowing substitutions and allowing coaching from the sidelines has empowered coaches to control the matches. Matches used to be controlled by the players lead by the captain. (On-field coaching was allowed.) 

    Now people, at least coaches, believe that players should not be adjusting the tactics on the field. Used to be that was a major part of the game--controlling the game--and now it seems to be a forgotten part of the game in some circles.

  4. Tarek Khan, June 7, 2019 at 4:32 p.m.

    The Referees already have the authority needed to stop the game for irresponsible behavior by the coaches or interference in the match by others.  See Law 5, Section 3 on "Powers and Duties", specifically, "Disciplinary Action" and "Outside Interference."  The referee team should have followed US Soccer's "Ask-Tell-Remove" procedure to first warn and then remove the offending coach(es) for yelling at the referees.  As for parents, if they're yelling at the opposing players, that could be construed as "interference", which is grounds to stop the game and suspend the match if the behavior doesn't stop.  In this case, the Referee doesn't confront the parents, rather, the teams' coaches (both teams) are responsible for their parents' behavior.
    We have successfully implemented a "ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY" in tournaments and leagues involving thousands of players.  Is it easy?  NO!  Do you stop the abuse overnight?  NO!  But if you stick with it, teach the (mostly youth) referees how to use the Ask-Tell-Remove policy and teach the coaches that the referees mean it -- and that they will be suspended for the next 2 matches following a dismissal -- and that a second dismissal in one season will get them removed as a coach -- it's AMAZING how well they behave.  Discipline, discipline, discipline.

  5. R2 Dad replied, June 7, 2019 at 7:32 p.m.

    True, true, true, TK. As a side note, “ask-tell-remove” evolved to  “ask-tell-dismiss”, but I never got the explanation for the change. Any ideas?

  6. Ian Plenderleith replied, June 8, 2019 at 6:08 a.m.

    Completely agree. And since June 1st. the Laws have been re-written to make the task of dealing with irresposnible behavior more straightforward for referees - ask, tell (yellow card), remove (red card).  

  7. James Madison, June 7, 2019 at 7:47 p.m.

    1.  The lesson to be learned by the players, coach and parents of the team that played well but lost, is that fortune plays a role in determining wins and losses.  The team that plays the best may nevertheless lose.  When money is not on the line, as it is in professional soccer, winning doesn't really matter.

    2.  As for the ability of referees to deal with abusive coaches and parents, Tarek Khan is spot on. The Laws of the Game permit the referee to deal with "irresponsible behavior" by a coach.  That includes allowing abusive conduct by the parents of the coach's players.  There's nothing like stopping a game to tell a coach the coach's behavior is irresponsible and not restarting until the coach has agreed with the "ask" to cease such behavior.  The players, even at the U10 level, will influence the coach to comply, because they 

  8. James Madison, June 7, 2019 at 7:47 p.m.

    1.  The lesson to be learned by the players, coach and parents of the team that played well but lost, is that fortune plays a role in determining wins and losses.  The team that plays the best may nevertheless lose.  When money is not on the line, as it is in professional soccer, winning doesn't really matter.

    2.  As for the ability of referees to deal with abusive coaches and parents, Tarek Khan is spot on. The Laws of the Game permit the referee to deal with "irresponsible behavior" by a coach.  That includes allowing abusive conduct by the parents of the coach's players.  There's nothing like stopping a game to tell a coach the coach's behavior is irresponsible and not restarting until the coach has agreed with the "ask" to cease such behavior.  The players, even at the U10 level, will influence the coach to comply, because they 

  9. R2 Dad, June 7, 2019 at 8:51 p.m.

    Part of the battle is that coaches do such a poor job communicating with parents. With the side note that Direct Play does not always = Kickball, parents need to understand what they are seeing and what the coach has instructed the players to do. Coach wants to do a 180 and Counterattack for this match? Fair enough, as long as the kids understand the what and why. But the coach has to assume the kids and parents have a modicum of Soccer IQ, and to be fair to coaches so many do not so why try to educate an entire family? I think clubs should have this onus in that regard but they can’t be bothered. Before we can have a US Soccer Culture, we need a US Soccer Federation interested in educating us huddled masses yearning to play freely.

  10. Philip Carragher, June 8, 2019 at 12:55 p.m.

    Thank you TK and others for educating me about the rule. Hopefully referrees will put it to good use. Here is a practical question: how should an (inexperienced maybe?) AR handle abusive behavior because some of that bad behavior may not get picked up by the center referree? Should that AR raise her/his flag and signal the center ref to stop that game?

  11. Nick Wagner, June 12, 2019 at 1:54 p.m.

    As one of the parents of the crying kids team, I think the coach of the other team did what they needed to do to win.  Whether or not its sacrificing short term wins versus long term development of the player is the debate that many seem to be having on the different forums. I just saw it as switching tactics to win the championship game. The coaches antics were ridiculous, though. 

  12. Don Neske, June 18, 2019 at 3:13 p.m.

    Somewhere along our US Soccer timeline, teaching well organized defense has become anathema to the game here. You can see it in every USMNT game. We have a collective disdain for well organized. zonal defense that presurizes every ball, shuts down passing lanes and takes away all meaningful scoring opportunities.

    Possession for the sale of possession, without meaningful penetration and the creation of dynamic scoring opportunities, is a trend we can do without.

    When a team puts up a staunch defense to stymy a possession centric team. they create a problem that it is incumbant on the possession team to solve. If the possession team cannot solve it and they leave themselves vulnerable in transition and/or counter-attacks at pace, then they have as much to learn as the team that cannot defend and beat their possession tactics. 

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