Ref shortage solutions: Straight red to abusive coaches, swifter response to parents, teach conveying authority

News flash: We have a ref shortage.

Recruitment, in most areas, isn’t the issue. Retention is. In conversations with several ref assignors and league staff from several regions, I’ve found that a lot of refs simply re-evaluated their priorities after the COVID shutdown and decided that it wasn’t worth it to come back. In my area, we’ve had desperate last-minute pleas to get refs not just for U-11 rec games but for MLS Next, ECNL and UPSL games.

Adding a few more bucks won’t hurt, but as in many jobs that people are refusing to take up again, the working conditions are the stumbling block. In warehouses, it might be the back-breaking, break-less shifts that aren’t ameliorated with a pizza party. On soccer fields, it’s abuse.

And when it comes to stopping referee abuse, the nice approach isn’t working.

It’s time to be the bad cop.

The Laws of the Game clearly give referees the authority to put a stop to misbehavior on and off the field. Warn. Caution. Dismiss. If it’s what refs call OFFINABUS (offensive, insulting or abusive language), go straight to dismiss. Do not pass Go and collect $200. Go directly to the parking lot.

Sure, this approach introduces some complications. Younger refs may overreact and show red every time a coach so much as grimaces. And it’s often the parents, not the coaches, who need to watch the game from a remote location.

But we can address those.

First, as difficult as this may be for assignors in a time of severe ref shortages, bring along new refs slowly. One of my first assignments was an AR shift at a U-13 WAGS Tournament game between two nationally ranked teams, and I had to chuckle when the parents behind me complained about the center ref (recently removed from being an All-ACC player herself) by saying, “And it’s such an important game!” “Can’t be all that important if I’m here,” I thought.

I kept up with play and avoided confrontations with the parents right behind me, but I should’ve been an AR at a lower-level U-11 game. (Sadly, given the current shortages, a lot of U-11 and U-12 games are going with just one ref, which means parents will have a far better view of a lot of possession and offside calls than the ref will, and they’ll moan about every possession call as if it’ll decide their children’s chances at getting a scholarship at Virginia or admission to MIT.) I should’ve had more experience in laid-back rec leagues.

The ideal progression: AR at low-level short-sided games. Progress to AR at mid-level short-sided and low-level full-field games. Center low-level U-9 and U-10. Then keep moving up in level of play and age group as appropriate.

Hopefully, the higher the stakes, the more experienced the ref. As refs gain experience, they get better at game management. They know when to let the immediate reaction slide, either ignoring it or saying a couple of calming words. I still have a lot to learn in this aspect of reffing (time to read Randy Vogt’s book!), but I’m better than I was when I first started and was put into games I shouldn’t have been doing. At the very least, I won’t be caught unaware the next time I ref a game in which a U-10 coach doesn’t care if her players are fouling others to the point of injury, all egged on by foul-mouthed parents.

If a younger ref is too quick to go to the cards to quell adults, is that such a bad thing? The younger ref will be working in younger age groups, where it’s that much more important to make the adults shut up and watch. The occasional overreaction will be worth it when the coaches and parents realize they’d better not risk an early departure from the sideline.

Dealing with parents (or relatives or boyfriends or whoever has gathered uncomfortably close to the sideline) can be trickier. Refs are taught to avoid direct interaction with parents. Instead, we’re supposed to trot across the field to chat with the coach, who can then trot across the field to chat with the parents. But by the time the coach trots back across the field, we’ve lost a couple of minutes of playing time. For many refs, it’s not worth the bother.

If the miscreants continue, the ref can send off the coach, but that just gives the parents one more thing to complain about, and the ref literally has no more cards to play other than stopping the game. And if the ref stops the game, he or she has to explain why. Then the ref has to address the parents anyway, and there’s no coach on the field to act as a buffer.

So we need a more creative solution.

One possibility: Show yellow to the coach from across the field and point to the offending fan(s). The coach then has the option to come across and chat, but if we’re proactive and tell clubs what we’re doing at the beginning of a season or tournament, they can tell their parents what that yellow card means.

Another: Train refs to tell parents, “Look, if this continues, I have to bring over your coach, and if it continues beyond that, your coach will be sent off.” That’s the only thing that needs to be said.

But we also may need to accept that there are situations in which a ref can’t wait.

We don’t continue games in unsafe conditions, whether it be from lightning, unweighted goals or a pack of wild dogs. Why continue games if two parents are about to throw down? Or if a parent is directly abusing a player on the other team? Or if a parent has ventured into OFFINABUS territory?

Finally, teach game management. Ref certification shouldn’t be limited to questions about what happens if a goalkeeper leaves the field to smoke while a substitute throws a shoe at a dog that ran onto the field and a coach uses abusive language at a player. (That said, I highly recommend Jan ter Harmsel’s online quizzes on bizarre situations, fun for fans and educational for refs.) Young refs in particular need to learn how to convey authority without being overbearing ogres.

Then, at last, refs will find they’re not dealing with abuse with both hands tied behind their backs. They’ll have a toolkit for defusing (side note: it’s not diffusing, folks) situations.

Then more refs will stick around. Fewer games will be canceled or proceed with no refs. Some refs may even graduate to higher levels, increasing the talent pool for PRO. And your games, from U-9 to the World Cup, will be better.

18 comments about "Ref shortage solutions: Straight red to abusive coaches, swifter response to parents, teach conveying authority".
  1. stan kull, December 2, 2021 at 2:12 p.m.

    Thank you for the online quiz link.  Some unusual scenarios.

  2. Bob Ashpole, December 2, 2021 at 2:14 p.m.

    Good article Beau. I suspect that everyone posting here would agree with you. 

  3. stewart hayes, December 2, 2021 at 3:36 p.m.

    Idea:  have parents, or better yet, non playing substitutes from each team required to serve as ref's for a half, at all age levels.  The paid ref can monitor their decisions and correct them if necessary.  This exposes for young players to the role and will help teach the rules as well as cut down on the crticiism from the sideline.

    This also provides another set of eyes when linesmen are not available.  

  4. Beau Dure replied, December 2, 2021 at 6:41 p.m.

    Some leagues require clubs to provide ARs for lower age groups. It's cool when it's enforced, which is my experience is "not."

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, December 3, 2021 at 1:42 a.m.

    Stewart, club linesmen are a custom that precedes my birth and I am 70 years old. The custom is that club linesmen signal out of play, but not which team restarts play. Even licensed ARs do not make "decisions". They communicate what they see, but the actual decision is left to the center official. In my long experience, licensed referees do not want to use club linesmen.

    Experience as an official is a great idea for everyone, coaches, players, and parents. My own limited experience as an official was when my children first played AYSO soccer. I didn't have the time to coach a team, but I did have the time to ref some matches on Saturdays. The experience opened my eyes to a perspective I had not considered as a player. It significantly affected my coaching philosophy and how I interacted with officials in later years. 

  6. R2 Dad, December 2, 2021 at 6:53 p.m.

    I still am of the opinion that every new U8 club parent needs as much training as their kid. New U8 parents should learn how to behave from U18 parents, who understand the routine, the expectations and priorities. When new parents who know nothing about the game get wound up about all the sideshows (scholarships, refereeing, coach behavior, appropriate snacks etc) their clubs fail to improve our soccer culture. USSF should have a hand in this process, but judging from their track record I'm afraid they would only make things worse. 

  7. stewart hayes replied, December 2, 2021 at 7:07 p.m.

    Agreed.  USSF etc probably are afraid of asking too much of the parents. 

    The game is for the kids.  That is why I wanted soccer camps at the league level all done by older players with minimum F license paid for by the league as well as first aid for those serving those roles.  All under the direction of the coaching director. 

    I don't know why having athletes serve as unpaid AR's or refs while their teams play is not done routinley.  Everyone cannot play every minute nor do they like sitting on the bench so it gives the high energy kids something to do as well as being a great learning and leadership experience.  What better way to model future refs etc...  The leagues are really missing out on a great talent pool.    

  8. Tarek Khan, December 3, 2021 at 1:07 p.m.

    Working with the former CYSAN director of coaching, the refere group created a 30-minute session on 'coach-referee cooperation'.  If you tell me how to get the powerpoint to you, I'd be happy to send it.  The more people that use it the better.  There are good speaker or facilitator notes.  It can be jammed into a 15-minute window or can be extended to 45 or 60 minutes if the coaches participate.  It contains useful 'how-to' info for coaches, which extends to parents.
    Tarek Khan, Sacramento, CA

  9. Ben Myers, December 3, 2021 at 1:11 p.m.

    Beau,  The shortage is exactly what we are seeing here in Massachusetts, worse with high school 2-person officiating but also in club soccer.  Yes, it is difficult for a young referee to assert herself to a bellowing male coach, but it has to start.  Ask-tell-dismiss is a handy protocol for a referee to have in dealing with coaches.  Hmm, maybe we need leagues to educate coaches, too?

  10. Matt Cardillo, December 3, 2021 at 1:17 p.m.

    Lots of great stuff here. R2DAD is spot on when he talks about educating the parents at a young age. When i coached youngsters (U-9...10...etc). i would send out an email at the beginning of the season making it clear (among other things). 1. No coaching from the side lines. 2. Do not talk to or harass the refs or other players. No-go. Don't do it. I'd emphasize it at team meeting. 

    Side note. I live in Florida, and perhaps other states' high school athletic assocations have similiar strict rules that apply to high school soccer. The refs do not have to put up with ANY bs from the sidelines or the coaches or the players. I've witnessed two parent-sending-offs ..and some student fans. It's just made clear to the schools and ADs that it will not be tolerated.  I love it. 

  11. Kevin Alexander, December 3, 2021 at 1:18 p.m.

    My 16 year old son has been reffing since he was 13. I joined him this past season. Over theyears,I have been surprised at what comes out of both coaches and parents mouths. It takes a lot to phase me, but some of these things are wild. Spoiler alert: Yelling at a 12 year old that they're "ruining everything" is a terrible coaching startegy. 

    I've also been surprisaed at which lines in the dsand parents choose to draw. The biggest argument I keep seeing is parents refusing to move from behind the goals. It usually only ends when threatened with costing their team a forfeit. 

    Our area league is seeing the same ref shortage as everyone else. There is a proposal to boost pay rates across the board. Ideally, that ahould help with recruitment-especially with U9 & U10 games- but unless some of these other issues are addressed, retention will remain an ongoing issue.

  12. stewart hayes replied, December 5, 2021 at 10:50 a.m.

    Why do we need adults refereeing children?  With exception of the U6 divisioin, if one can play at an age group they can ref as well.  We need to make reffing and playing what players do.  In street or pick games players can ref themselves.  Why not on Saturday?  Those that show an aptitude can serve as paid ref superviosors or referees as they mature.

  13. Mike Lynch, December 3, 2021 at 1:43 p.m.


    Sure, refs can be "card happy" but all I ever wanted from refs when I was a player and now as a coach is consistency. Call it as you want but just be consistent, because then the players (and the coaches) will adjust (and shouldn't complain). When calls are applied inconsistently (example, arm out for protection is ok then starts calling only shoulder to shoulder ok), this is what also puts players, spectators, coaches into a tizzy and makes the day longer for a ref. So I say be consistent and if you want to have a low tolerance for certain  foulable offenses, then enforce it. Everyone will quickly fall in line (or be out of the game shortly). 
    I also want to comment on the fallout of the refs that allow play to go on too long without consequences. The players will quickly become the necessary enforcers and I hope we can agree that rarely ends well. This is not what most coaches aspire to teach their players but often will become the result in the absence of the ref being the enforcer.

    Lastly, refs should be aware the coach and the players of the team getting beat up and not retaliating nor dissenting, they will continue to get slaughtered, they will be accussed of not being competitive or caring, etc. etc. This is actually quite common in the women's game where refs will often not card a play that will automatically draw a card in a men's game. And when the team getting beat on do not dissent, complain, etc, they just keep getting beat on all game long. Hopefully refs see this situation as necessary to pull the cards out earlier and more aggressively. 

  14. Paul Cox replied, December 3, 2021 at 3:55 p.m.

    The article is about abuse.

    You're complaining about bad referees.

    You realize that it sounds like you're justifying referees getting abuse, right? If that's what you meant to do, excusing it, well... you're the problem.

    If it's NOT what you meant to do, then did you have any comment about the article itself, and how competent referees can handle the situation with abusive coaches or parents?

  15. Paul Cox, December 3, 2021 at 4:04 p.m.

    Beau, I think you've hit it on the money with the core of the issue- referees have a pretty limited toolkit for dealing with abusive coaches and/or fans.

    To me, that's where the answers need to lie. A couple of my local (greater Seattle-Tacoma area) associations had a "score the sportsmanship" section on the web site when doing your post-game reports; that was an underutilitized tool (as in, basically never) for finding trouble clubs/teams/coaches and doing something about it.

    We (ref associations) need to work with clubs... but also find other ways to reward/punish them for not getting and keeping their sidelines in check. I'm of the opinion that we should have a training course for every parent, and they need to sit on their butts for a couple of hours and learn from actual refs and have a good discussion about it.

    Coaches need it too; they're even more important, because the tone they set (particularly at the younger age groups) carries into the parents. I coached gridiron football with a buddy of mine at the pee-wee level, and he had a required parent meeting before every season. Mandatory. Kid didn't play until the parents attended.

    And his words were this: Nobody, nobody yells at the refs. Nobody. If a parent yells at the ref, the kid won't be playing, and if it continues to be a problem, the kid's off the team. (There was other stuff, about keeping their grades up and dealing with coaching/playing questions, and he took a similarly firm line.)

    It worked like magic. We consistently won the sportsmanship award in the league, and won the league a couple of times, too.

    In addition to training the sidelines, we need to do a better job training the refs. My *fourth* assigment ever was a BU15 state cup center! That's ridiculous but they literally figured "well, better to throw a 40-something dude in there than have nobody." (I got lucky, it was a well-played game and I didn't have to do anything.)

    With better training and a better experience for the refs, the retention will improve. I'm sure of it. Without the abuse, it's a great job for kids and a fun time for us old guys. How fun? I'm reffing in two weeks in some tournament finals in Lisbon, Portugal, mostly on my own dime. (I have a soccer problem...)

  16. Kent James replied, December 5, 2021 at 1:26 p.m.

    Paul Cox's example where the club strictly enforces no yelling at the refs is a great idea.  And I think the way you get clubs to adopt that attitude is you charge them less if they adopt (and enforce) it.  I agree that more money may not make up for the abuse for the referees, but if clubs can save 25% of the ref fees by strictly policing their sidelines, I'd bet they come on board.

  17. James Madison, December 3, 2021 at 6:41 p.m.

    Thgere's nothing like stopping play, going to the disrupting coach or the coach of disrupting fans and saying, "Coach, in orderto continue, I need you to stop disrupting play or to stop your fans from disrupting play.  Do I have your promise to do so?" And not resuming play until the coach has given an unequivocal yesl..  It puts the coach squarely on the spot, because the players want to play, and they will get on the coach's case unless he or she cooperates.

  18. Philip Larkin, December 4, 2021 at 9:02 a.m.

    Put the players and spectators in separate area on from the same team on opposite sides of the field. Ref will know for sure who are the offenders are, allow for communication between coach and spectators and prevent confrontations between opposing team spectators.

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