Pre-pandemic, the decline in soccer participation in the crucial 6-12 age bracket had finally stopped, with the rate nudging upward from 7.4% to 7.7%. That’s still a lot lower than 10.4% in 2008.
Over the weekend, I saw part of the reason why.
I also saw why retaining referees isn’t easy -- which, as Soccer America contributor Ian Plenderleith notes in his blog on refereeing in Germany, isn’t a problem limited to the United States -- but we’ll get to that in a minute.
I was assigned to be the ref for a tournament final. Don’t get too excited. This wasn’t the World Cup. This wasn’t even the A bracket final. And it was U-10 girls.
But it felt really important. To the parents and coaches, anyway. The kids didn’t seem to be having a blast.
Team A played a “physical” game. I had to blow my handy electronic whistle, which I might keep using even after the pandemic, quite a few times -- blatant shoves from behind, a hockey-style hip check, etc. Team B’s coach had to come onto the field several times to check on injured players.
The worst incident was when a Team B attacker had the ball in the box, and a Team A defender simply slid through her legs. Nowhere near the ball. That was the second PK I awarded to that point. Team B missed that one, which made Team A’s parents very happy.
Team A was leading 2-1 in the closing minutes, and the action was once again in their own box. Then the ball struck the arm of a Team A defender.
I ran through the rules in my head in a split-second. Her arm “made her body unnaturally bigger.” It had not come “directly from the head or body (including the foot) of another player who is close.”
Amid the general outcry from Team A’s parents, I heard one of George Carlin’s words you can’t say on television.
I’d never been in this situation before, and I didn’t handle it correctly. I should’ve gone to the coach and asked her to control her parents. I confronted the parents directly, and they each said, “Not me!” One of them was lying, but I couldn’t tell which one.
But no, I couldn’t get back to the game right away, because one of Team A’s parents’ complaints finally drew a response from a Team B parent standing nearby. And things escalated from there. I tried to make them stop, and when they wouldn’t, I didn’t think I had a choice. Get out. Both of you.
Oh yeah, we still had a game. Team B converted the PK. 2-2. Game goes to PKs. Team B wins.
It’s safe to say there were some postgame conversations, and I could’ve done a better job disengaging. But in a way, I’m glad I kept talking with the coach because I wound up eliciting a confession. Well, several. She admitted someone yelled a magic word because she told me I threw out the wrong parent, not realizing I’d thrown out her parent (and one from Team B) because they were about to re-create a scene from the classic Little League episode of South Park. She initially said all three PKs I awarded weren’t legit, but she eventually conceded that sliding through a player’s leg is indeed a violation of the rules of the game.
The biggest confession, though, was chilling. The conversation went roughly like this:
“I had to call all those fouls. Your team was fouling, and the other team was getting hurt.”
“Look, we play a tough game. If the other team can’t handle it, that’s on them.”
Did I mention these girls were U-10s? All the coaching licensing courses I’ve taken have told me to focus on skill development, even at the expense of winning. I guessed I missed the part about teaching kids to knock down their opponents until they can’t get up any more.
I had a long drive home, giving me all too much time to reflect on what had happened. It was tempting to add my name to the large number of referees who quit. The next day, I was able to take stock. I was still confident in all the crucial calls I made. (Aside to parents -- a throw-in at midfield isn’t “crucial.” If it was, we’d have assistant refs in these games.) You can read about "Laws of the Game" interpretations all you want, but we refs aren’t adequately prepared for an experience like this. Fortunately, other refs are happy to serve as mentors, and I’m learning a lot from talking with them. I’ll get back to nagging U.S. Soccer about the glitches in the online referee courses this week so I can keep going out on the field with my notebook and my whistle.
When I got home, I checked the tournament site to see who else that team had played, and I was able to get a report from an earlier game. It was no better -- worse, in some ways.
But I wasn’t alone in having a long drive home. Both teams had traveled several hours to get there.
So somewhere on a long interstate drive, a little girl was headed home with a father who had just been tossed out of a game for nearly getting in a fight with an opponent’s father.
Another little girl was riding with a mother who had yelled a dirty word at a referee. (Over a correct call, though the girl might not realize it.)
And they were all riding home thinking about their next practice with a coach who’s modeling a U-10 soccer team after the Al Davis-era Oakland Raiders.
The girls themselves weren’t monsters. I talked with a couple of them during the game, getting down on a knee so I’m not a scary tall guy with a black mask lecturing down to them. (Thank you, F-license coaching course, for teaching me to do that.) They all seemed like sweet kids.
And they all looked scared. And sad.
That brings us back to Project Play, and the alarm bells that have been ringing for a long time.
The concern over kids quitting sports is sometimes overstated. It’s perfectly natural to do several activities at age 7, narrow it down to a smaller list at age 10 and then focus on some particular passion at age 13. That passion might not be a sport. That’s OK.
But the thought of a 10-year-old girl sitting in the backseat of a car staring out at the autumn leaves and wondering if this is all worth it should haunt us all.