Commentary

Coaches should learn the rules -- and here's how

It was an early-season game, my first as a center ref with the new "Laws of the Game 2019-20" in effect. I spent a considerable amount of time explaining drop balls to the players.

But it was an existing rule that posed the problem.

The attacking team made enough progress that the keeper had to make a play. A brief melee ensued and ended with the ball in the back of the net.

But my AR had the flag up. I went over to confer -- I didn’t think the play was offside, and I didn’t see a foul from my angle. He said the keeper had the ball pinned between his hand and the ground when the ball was kicked away.

OK, no goal, I ruled.

The attacking team’s coach calmly asked me what I called. I said the goalkeeper had possession.

He still didn’t put up a major fuss, but he did mutter, “Gotta have TWO hands on the ball last time I checked.”

At halftime, I made a screenshot from the IFAB app just in case he wanted to check again ...

“A goalkeeper is considered to be in control of the ball with the hand(s) when ... the ball is between the hands or between the hand and any surface (e.g. ground, own body) or by touching it with any part of the hands or arms, except if the ball rebounds from the goalkeeper or the goalkeeper has made a save.”

The last phrase of that sentence is clear as mud, but the common interpretation is that a goalkeeper can’t say “well, it bounced away, but I still had possession.” And in any case, I don’t see the words “two hands” anywhere in Law 12.

I’ve seen worse this season. In one game, a parent assistant coach was behind one goal giving instructions to the goalkeeper (yes, I could’ve asked him to move, but it was the U-9s’ second game using goalkeepers, so I allowed some leeway). Whenever the keeper made a save or collected the ball, the coach told him to put the ball down right away so he could take a “goal kick.” No, coach. That ball’s in play as soon as it’s on the ground, and I had a chat with him at halftime so I didn’t end up with a pile of injured U-9s.

The USA is not a country that understands refereeing. The TV series The Unicorn actually has its lead character wear a yellow referee shirt with a whistle and a flag. Maybe some small rec league for little kids wants its refs to use overkill to signal which team has a throw-in, but that would just shift the blame from the TV producers to the rec league.

We referees can’t expect coaches to be familiar with every strange scenario that comes up on a test but never happens in real life (unless your league is beset by players trying to take throw-ins while sitting down or goalkeepers casually lighting a cigarette while the ball is in play), but maybe learning the basics wouldn’t hurt.

Listening to TV commentators won’t help, in part because they’re often trying to drag out controversies about VAR and handball, the latter of which they think can only be understood by Joe Machnik and Stephen Hawking.

Granted, a lot of things won’t help. Referee quizzes you find online tend to be out of date (drop balls, etc.) or irrelevant to 99.9% of games (VAR, advertising). They also might be some combination of arcane, poorly worded or intentionally deceptive, along the lines of “If a player doesn’t refuse to enter the field after the referee awards the opponent an indirect free kick while a plague of locusts descends on the player’s goalkeeper …”

One exception to the bevy of bad quizzes is at Dutch Referee Blog, which offers a weekly quiz with five questions. Some of the questions are intentionally challenging, but the goal is to teach, not to give readers an ego boost.

A few other resources for learning:

The FIFA rulebook, "Laws of the Game," itself isn't particularly well-written, but IFAB, the makers and keepers of the rules (no, it’s not FIFA), has an informative Twitter feed.

You can eavesdrop on referee discussions at BigSoccer or on Reddit, where refs have thoroughly debunked the notion that shoulder-to-shoulder charges are always legal.

Some blogs are still active and have incorporated the 2019-20 changes. See AskTheRef.com.

You can also find some videos such as a helpful and hilarious series from Minnesota’s State Referee Committee.

Link to FIFA rulebook.

Link to IFAB new rule explanations.

Link to IFAB app.

(Got any other helpful resources? Leave them in the comments.)

Then remember something very simple: The rulebook allows referees to use their own judgment, and with good reason. We call it Law 18 -- common sense -- and this judgment is sometimes specifically written into the rules themselves. The Minnesota video has an example of a ref using the “safety/security” exemption to the new rule on substitutes leaving at the closest point of the field -- in that example, the ref shepherds a player away from an angry nest of opposing parents. Good call.

Other parts of the rulebook simply leave room for referees to fill in what isn’t explicitly stated. Persistent infringement is not clearly defined as a set number of fouls. The definitions of “careless” (just a foul), “reckless” (yellow card) and “excessive force” (bye-bye) are going to vary depending on game situations, the age of the players, etc.

And yes, a referee needs to use some judgment on handball. If a ball is blasted at 80 mph into the tucked-in arm of a defender two yards away, that’s not going to be called. If it’s a gentle lob from 20 yards away, and the defender does a Kerri Walsh Jennings spike, that’s handball. In between? We’re not going to get out a radar gun, a tape measure and an anatomy textbook.

So learn the rules. Respect Law 18. And if you come across an unusual situation and don’t know exactly what happens next, just assume the referee got it right.

(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)

7 comments about "Coaches should learn the rules -- and here's how".
  1. Ben Myers, October 8, 2019 at 1:04 p.m.

    Beau Dure's article is the tip of the iceberg.  Being mostly at the grassroots level as I have for a number of years, I've seen that it's not just the LOTG that baffle youth coaches.  The large majority of coaches are drafted into coaching and they have little or no knowledge of the techniques and rudimentary tactics needed to develop players properly.  All too often, a player with some potential emerges from U9 or U10 with woefully inadequate knowhow of what to do, how to do it, when and where to do it.  So we start all over again with the basics, as the kid has to unlearn almost everything to begin playing the game more like it needs to be played.

  2. Beau Dure replied, October 9, 2019 at 12:04 p.m.

    I did a U9 game recently in which I was lenient about letting coaches stand behind the goal to instruct goalkeepers -- it was their second game with goalkeepers, it's rec league, they've only had 2-3 practices on the season, etc. 

    Then I noticed one of those coaches was telling a kid who had just made a save to *immediately* put the ball down for a "goal kick." 


    Using Law 18, I went over at halftime to inform him that the keeper has the right to hold the ball until the other team has retreated to the buildout line, and that if he puts the ball down from a save or other situation in which he's picked it up, it's a live ball.


    I also spent a miserable U12 season with a coach who yelled at players if they didn't dribble in a straight line at all times. Kinda easy to play defense if you know a kid is going straight at you.

  3. frank schoon replied, October 9, 2019 at 4:21 p.m.

    Beau, played soccer all my and I don't why's of a direct and indirect kick...I mean I never was good in knowing all the rules and as matter fact the slight changes on the rules like the off-sides these days and when to call it further messes me up. I let the ref call the game and I tell my players don't yell at the ref or criticize him for you will ten times the mistakes he makes in a game.
     A quick word on this coach giving extra tips to the goalie behind the goal...just let it go, these are 8 year olds and  the important thing here is the experience of all of them playing, although you're right in your  criticism....;
    In Holland at stage we don't even use refs at that level, it's all about the playing

  4. Bob Ashpole, October 8, 2019 at 11:33 p.m.

    Great article. I believe about half of adult amateur soccer players do not know Law 11, in particular with regards to restarts.

    I have read the LOTG many times over the years, and there is still stuff I get wrong too. I remember I was about 50 years old when I learned how the lines were called. In particular I was wrong about how the half line was called. 

    Beau isn't asking for everyone to be able to score 100 on a referee test, but coaches could do a lot better. I remember one coach was outraged because he confused goal kick with penalty kick. Zero playing experience apparently.



  5. Kent James, October 9, 2019 at 9:45 a.m.

    My criteria for a fair shoulder charge was that it was fair if the player was going straight to the ball (and was not from behind).  If the player deviates from the path of the ball to hit the opponent ("clears space"), that is a foul (unless the contact is so minor its trifling). If both players are going to the ball, and there is contact at the shoulders, even if they are going at speed, it should not be a problem because their energy is going on parallel tracks.  

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, October 9, 2019 at 2:34 p.m.

    "Shoulder" charges are not well understood by coaches. Many teach it wrong. Charging is contact while attempting to play the ball. The actual requirement is that charging must be done safely within playing distance of the ball. Law 18 gets a lot of use here.

    If you think of "shielding" the ball rather than thinking about a "shoulder" charge in isolation, you probably will get a better idea of how thinks work. 

    When an opponent is shielding the ball, it is okay to have safe contact with the opponent's shoulder blade area, but putting a shoulder near the spine is considered unsafe.

    Having said all that, I haven't looked for any changes in the law, but I cannot image any significant change, just perhaps some more "improvements" in the wording. 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, October 9, 2019 at 2:50 p.m.

    I want to add that many officials will call contact differently for women than for me. Women generally have narrower shoulders and wider hips than men. Women also have different tolerances for upper body contact than men. It isn't that the law changes, it is more like what contact is judged trivial may be different. 

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