The Different Paths for Ref Development

The United States is such a large and pluralistic society so it makes sense that there are different paths for a soccer ref to develop, unlike in many other countries.

I became a college soccer referee in 1986 at the age of 24. I was the youngest ref in my chapter (New York Metro Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association) at the time as soccer officiating was truly the old-boy network back then. No female refs and very few young officials as they were not being encouraged and looked at for advancement like they are now. And still nowhere near enough female refs to proportionally match the large number of female players.

The great majority of refs in the college chapter were high school officials and not referees like me who were doing youth and adult games through U.S. Soccer. Many of the college refs were teachers who had no issues making those 4 p.m. games on Wednesdays, but I did as I worked in the Manhattan ad agency world. The assignors could only give me games on Saturdays and one gave me grief about this. I told him that I’d take days off to ref to accommodate him and I still do this even though he has long since retired and I left ad agency life in 2001.

College soccer changed as schools constructed soccer stadiums with lights so night games were being played much more and this partly explains why most college refs today come from the U.S. Soccer pathway rather than through high school soccer. Also, back in 1986, some college games used the antiquated two-ref system and that slowly changed over the course of the next three decades, another reason why the U.S. Soccer path today provides most college refs.

You grow as a ref, or with anything else in life, by leaving your comfort zone and the caliber of clinics improves significantly moving up levels from youth to college and the pros. The diverse levels of play are all different animals and there are different ways to officiate them.

One example: If a U-12 youth player tries to trap the ball a foot or so off the ground by using the bottom of the studs and with an opponent nearby, in blowing the whistle for the foul, everybody looks to me and wonder why I whistled. Yet that same play with U-19 players or adult players, particularly teams from different ethnic groups, if I don’t blow my whistle hard and at least caution the player, then the rest of the match is going to become much more difficult to ref. The older youth and adult players know that trying to trap the ball like that is very dangerous, but the younger player does not and must be taught this.

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For guidelines and best practices for WHEN AND IF your local authorities have deemed it safe to return to the play, check out U.S. Soccer's PLAY ON home page HERE.

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Here's another example: An experienced high school referee and I were helping an inexperienced ref get his feet wet by officiating preseason scrimmages with him. The only goal of the three games occurred when an attacker on the ground kicked the ball to a teammate who scored. When that attacker had kicked the ball, a defender was nearby. Traditionally, in youth and high school soccer, refs whistle dangerous play when a player on the ground plays a ball anywhere near an opponent but there was nothing dangerous about this play in my opinion. The experienced high school ref said to me, “Not whistling a foul there was a real college call.” Yet it would have been dangerous play if the attacker had lodged the ball between his legs, which did not occur.

What often happens with refs is they learn a lot by moving on to different levels and this certainly occurred with me. Youth refs moving on to college soccer as I did can often ref a Division III NCAA women’s game like they would a girls U-19 game. But they would generally call fewer fouls in Division 1 play, both men and women, as those players are used to the increased contact at that level and I had to learn that. In doing one such game in the Ivy League, a coach made a huge impression on me by not dissenting but approaching me at halftime smiling and nicely saying, “The players of both teams are fine with you allowing a bit more contact so could you please do that in the second half?”

Yet refs moving down a level or two learn stuff as well and they are often surprised by this. I’ve seen high school refs start doing youth games and learn fundamentals of officiating, especially with being an AR, positioning and even foul recognition. I’ve also seen college refs exposed to refereeing the youth game for the first time and not know how to deal with the bizarre dissent that sometimes occurs in youth soccer. Rather than ignoring it or, worse yet, speaking about your vast experience at the higher levels, a simple explanation of the rules can work fine and if it does, you avoid having to sanction.

(Randy Vogt, the author of "Preventive Officiating," has officiated more than 10,000 games.)

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