Coaching young players to respect the ref

On Saturday I refereed a boys' U-19 league game. As usual, I researched the disciplinary record of the teams beforehand. The season's only a couple of weeks old, but both were already close to the bottom of the Fair Play standings. I also noticed that they had played against each other twice in the past month -- once in a friendly and once in a cup game. In those two encounters, just one yellow card had been shown, which is impressive for this age group in my home city.

I talked with the coaches before the game, and mentioned the two recent meetings. They laughed and said that they knew each other well, and that there was never any trouble when the two sides met. Both teams seemed in good humor prior to kickoff, and as we lined up to take the field, I asked who'd received the caution in the cup game. One player from the home team sheepishly raised his hand. "What was it for?" I asked. "You know, this and that," he answered vaguely, eliciting smiles from both sets of players.

The game was indeed mostly peaceful, except for a stocky midfielder on the away team. He was a good player, and scored his side's third goal as they breezed into an early lead, but he yelled excessively at one of his defenders for a minor error. His coach ordered him to calm down. Just before halftime, with his team now leading 5-0, the midfielder walked past me and made a sarcastic comment about a challenge on him that he thought had been a foul, but which I hadn't called. "So, we're allowed to break each others' knees now, are we?"

I showed him a yellow for dissent, more for the tone than for what he said. His coach immediately subbed him out, delivered a stern lecture, and then kept him on the sideline for the first 20 minutes of the second half. When he returned to the field, he didn't utter a sound. It was the only yellow card of the afternoon, and the only even vaguely unpleasant incident.

I thanked the coach at the end of the game for taking the player out when he did. On one level, it was clearly for the player's own good. It also prevented any nastiness creeping into a peaceful game, and was a perfect example of how responsible coaches can help referees regulate the temperature of the action. It sounds like a very obvious point, but it rarely happens.

Youth coaches need to train their players about the way they see referees and how they conduct themselves on the field from a very early age. With the youngest age groups, when players tend to accept referees' decisions, it should start with making sure that they shake the referee's hand and thank him or her directly after the final whistle. This is especially important after a defeat, when players may be upset or resentful about how the game has gone.

The next step is to teach players how to accept the referee's calls, even when they think that they've been hard done by. The nature of soccer is that referees will no more call a perfect game than the players around them will come through 90 minutes without making several errors. That means substituting out, talking to and, if necessary, sidelining or suspending players who are disrespectful or abusive to game officials. It should not be acceptable on any youth team, at any level.

The experienced coach Hans Meyer recently told German magazine 11 Freunde: "Well-seasoned observers can assess the merits of young players pretty quickly. But it's much more interesting to observe their conduct on the field for a longer period. How do they behave toward their fellow players, and what's their attitude to hard work? Do they moan about a misplaced pass? Are they the type to motivate their teammates? And: can they handle it, when the referee waves play on after a hard challenge?"

I printed this quote out and taped it up in the locker room of the club where I coach. It's still there two years later. It's a short but extremely apposite summary of how youth players need to behave if they are going to make progress -- both on the sports field and beyond. At our monthly referees' meeting in August we were told that the number of qualified match officials in Germany has declined in recent years from 80,000 to 58,000, "trending negative". The reason is simple -- the widespread lack of respect from players, coaches and spectators for a job that requires time, energy and devotion in return for almost no pay.

It's therefore imperative to educate young players right from the start about the importance of respecting the referee. It will improve the atmosphere on any team, and consequently hold the players together as a unit if they focus on the soccer, not on the official. It will improve them as players and as human beings. Quite simply, it's the right thing to do.

(Ian Plenderleith is a coach and referee in Germany's amateur and youth leagues. He holds the Uefa C-License and coached youth soccer in Maryland from 2004-2014. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

7 comments about "Coaching young players to respect the ref".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 9, 2019 at 6:11 p.m.

    Good topic, Ian.

  2. Kent James, September 9, 2019 at 7:36 p.m.

    Respecting the ref is also an example of player discipline; doing something for the good of the team that you may not feel like doing.  If you're not disciplined in your behavior towards the ref, you probably lack discipline in other areas (defending, working off the ball, etc.).

    Also, when players start to harp at the ref, the ref becomes the focus.  Instead of playing, players focus on getting away with a foul, retaliating, assessing (out loud) every referee call, so they lose focus.  If your team is weak, maybe that will give you a chance if you can get the other team to join you (but if they're disciplined, you won't).  Though that's a pretty unethical way to win. I would hope most coaches would want their players playing their best, which would mean not criticizing the officiating.  So not only is being respectful of the official the right thing to do morally (and for the good of the game), if you do that, your team will also play better.  Win, win (and the games are much more enjoyable to watch and be a part of).

  3. Paul Cox, September 9, 2019 at 7:46 p.m.

    So, so true. I reffed a U19 boys game yesterday, and their coach was a complainer. Not surprisingly, the team was full of complainers, too, and like Ian says it wound up taking them out of their game.

    I wound up having to issue two cautions; a YC to a player for dissent and a YC to the coach for dissent. He kept up a lower level of complaining the whole game and sulked through the postgame stuff (though at least he did come out and shake hands with the ref crew).

    The thing is, his team was better. They were. They played better tactically, they played more intelligently, they had a better idea where they were going with the ball... but they lost, 4-1. Two goals were dumb luck against them, just typical scrums on corner kicks that didn't really get cleared well and wound up getting knocked in at random; one goal was from a brain fart by their GK (who otherwise played pretty well) and one was a wondergoal on a pretty gorgeous curling shot from just outside the corner of the area.

    If those two teams played 10 times, I think the side that lost would probably pick up 17, 18, 19 of the 30 points available. But that day, they lost- and by the end of the game, several players were whining and complaining that we (referees) were terrible and blowing calls and screwing them over.

    Coaches need to lead by example. I'm positive we were not perfect, but none of the calls we made and messed up led to goals; dumb luck, a howler, and a wondergoal beat them... as well as their own mindset, because they spent way more time worrying about the refs than they did worrying about buckling down and playing their game the way they wanted.

  4. James Madison, September 9, 2019 at 7:52 p.m.

    Two thoughts to share with players:  (1) Officials are there to enjoy the game just as you are.  The more they enjoy the game the better they will officiate.  You can help them enjoy the game by respecting their decisions; (2) Some officials are better than others, just as some playing fields and conditions are better than others; accept the officials as you find them and not let them affect your play, just as you accept the fields and conditions.

  5. Kent James replied, September 9, 2019 at 9:43 p.m.

    James, you've reminded me of my other argument for not screaming at the refs.  If you want the refs to do a better job, screaming at them won't help.  Young refs may fall apart and go back into a shell and stop calling anything (which, if you're the better team, that levels the playing field, which theoretically you should not want).  Or you may piss a ref off, and then they punish you (unprofoessional, but human nature).  Or, with a good ref, your screaming will be dealt with (or ignored), but regardless, it won't help.  If the coach directs an occasional comment, respectfully to the center or the AR, they will probably be heard (no guarantee the ref will agree or change anything, but that sort of feedback is usually registered).  

  6. Ron Frechette, September 10, 2019 at 8:49 a.m.

    It amazes me when a Coach who is whinning and complaining but really does not really underestand that they are not coaching thier players with how to handle adversity. These types of coaches wonder why they always get what they see as "bad" referees, assigned to thier games. They just don't get it. Many of those complainers-coaches have never been in a situation where thier every call/decission has been scrutinized to the nth degree. I wonder if those types of coaches have ever tried to pick up a whistle and call an impartial and fair game. Or if thier boses at work would micro-manage them all of the time and see how long they want to be in that job. 
    I teach my players to get used to bad calls - not because the referees are trying to do a bad job, but there will be bad calls at the worst times. Teaching the player to ask what the referee called and trying to figure out what they see/saw is trying to learn how to play the game and how to handle life.
    I am now seeing a regular shift of the better referees assigned/selecting to work my teams games even though we are not a good team. Iattribute this to the way we play and respect the game and the officals.
    Whinning about a bad call is like complaining about the weather - you can't change the weather and what are the chances that you can get the call changed???

  7. David Kilpatrick, September 14, 2019 at 5:34 p.m.

    When youth coaches don’t pull players after a yellow, I always question their motives. Coaches and referees need to collaborate as teachers of the game. Great stuff as always, Ian!

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