Commentary

Youth soccer's Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle is an urban legend focused on a loosely-defined region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean where a number of aircraft and ships are said to have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Bermuda Triangle in our beautiful game of youth soccer is composed of three elements: Parents, Coaches and Referees. It sucks up the beauty and fairness of the game, creates a toxic environment and causes an immense shortage of referees and it is not an urban legend.

I left out the most important element of youth soccer from the Bermuda Triangle: The players.

All other elements of the Bermuda Triangle are there to serve the players. The players are the victims and not the villains of this toxic environment. Rarely in the older youth groups, some players might act like villains challenging the referee, but the referees are there to manage them and control the game. That is engrained in the art of refereeing. 

There is another triangle related with youth sports which has positive results unlike the Bermuda Triangle. “The athletic triangle consists of the coach, athlete, and parent and the relationships within this triad can have significant impact on the psychological development of the child.”  

Let us investigate all three vertices of the soccer Bermuda Triangle:

The Parents:  In our pay-to-play system of youth soccer, most Parents are customers to the club. In that context the players are the consumers. The exceptions are those Parents whose kids play either with a scholarship or for a free-to-play club. Since they pay some amount of money – in some cases a lot of money – they feel they are entitled. They are entitled to yell at the referee, to ask for their kids to have more playing time, to criticize the coach and the club. Unfortunately, most Parents are not very knowledgeable of the game since soccer culture has not infiltrated into our sports culture as much as in other “football” countries. They sometimes view the game from the lenses of other team sports.  

The most toxic product delivered by the Parents are the maltreatment of young referees. This maltreatment ranges from yelling at referees to bullying them after the game. Although very rare, Parents have been seen in physically altercations with the referees. This aggression in return causes a very low retention rate among young referees. 

There are some very remarkable individual efforts to metamorphize this toxic environment like Skye Eddy Bruce’s Soccer Parenting Association whose mission is “to elevate the game and enhance every child’s youth soccer experience by engaging, educating, empowering, supporting and advocating for Parents.” 

There are also organizational efforts by leagues and associations to curb this toxic environment against officials using disciplinary measures.

The issue between the Parents and the Coaches/the Club arises from the same entitlement feeling that is also being fueled by “to win the game at all costs” idea that is prevalent in all youth sports. Unfortunately, this is not unique to our country. You can observe similar approaches in other football countries. 

The Parent vertex can only be improved with the joint efforts of the Club and other organizations. For example, a good starting point for Clubs might be to educate the Parents with some of the basics of the Laws of the Game. 

The Coaches: In our youth soccer landscape, we have volunteer and professional coaches. Some of the coaches have licenses and certificates and some of them do not. They are in the limelights to develop the players. Whether all of them know all the intricacies of player development or if they know whether they can implement them properly is not the issue in this triangle. The issue is the pressure they receive either to win the games or give more playing time from the Parents and/or the Club. Being usually a non-profit organization, the elected Club Board might cave into the demands of the Parents.   

Coaches with a pressure to win might reflect their frustrations on the young referees who are their scapegoats. This also creates a toxic environment. Adults verbally criticizing and pressuring teenagers for their decisions. As long as the pressure to win exists, some of the Coaches will adhere to this sidetrack. The key thing is to redefine player development in the Club culture. If the Club can convince the Parents that player development is not there just to develop their ball skills but enhance their characters, then a new non-toxic environment can be created. The Clubs should create “Better citizens, better persons and better players” in that order. This will also release a lot of pressure from the Coaches. 

Does the Club have a Club culture? Does the Club have an age-based curriculum with a sound player development approach? Does the Club implement a Player Development Philosophy? 

Positive answers to the above questions or an effort to answer them affirmatively will improve the relations between the three vertices. 

The Referees The referees – especially the young ones - are usually seen as the victims of this triangle. But is there anything we can do to help them so that they are not sucked in by the Bermuda Triangle?

When I used to teach young referees in a face-to -ace setting some years ago, I always started the course asking them why they want to referee. All of them had the same answer: “I am in for the money.” Before they started refereeing, they did not realize the harassment, they might get doing their jobs for a few dollars. Most of them come from middle-class families. They can easily find another job that pays as well or less but without the harassment they face on the soccer field. Other young soccer referees in other football countries might have the ambition to referee in professional leagues as their driving force. I did not hear a single American teenager with that goal in life. We must create other “carrots” other than money for the teenagers to chose refereeing as a hobby. For example, character development things like “learn leadership.” “increase self-confidence,” “being assertive."

U.S. Soccer recently increased the starting age for referees to 13. This was a positive step because I personally believe any kid younger than 13 years can neither handle the stress nor comprehend the LOTG well. To boost new registrants, U.S. Soccer now has an online part to teach the LOTG and an on-the-field part for entry level referees. They made the process easier, shorter, and more suitable for young kids. The key component from there on are the assignors and the State Referee Committees.  After they complete their entry course, these young referees are thrown in front of the lions.

The system must provide them with mentorship and/or coaching in their first six months. This means the more experienced referees must be used in this process. Unfortunately, very few experienced referees will spend gratis time to help the referees. So the system must find resources to solve this problem. If not, typically most young referees will quit after a year.

The other problem are the assignors. They are under pressure to find referees for a big number of games. The demand is there, but the supply is not. Usually most of them do not spend too much time on how they can help young referees to develop their refereeing skills but focus on filling the gaps. One of the ways to solve this problem is to use single referees in most youth games, especially in non-competitive games and/or games of U14 and under. This is what is done in other football countries. Unfortunately, there is pressure from the Parents onto the Coaches and from the Coaches to the Club to demand a full crew as if they were playing a professional league.

The other solution is for the State Referee Committees to have more control over the Assignors, monitoring them on whether they are prioritizing the development of the referees over filling in the gaps. So there are several things where the third vertex can do a better job to avoid being sucked into the Bermuda Triangle. This time the responsibility is with the System.

To summarize, for the Bermuda Triangle not to suck up the beauty and fairness of the game, not to create a toxic environment and not cause an immense shortage of referees there are a lot of ways and means to address the problem. For the two vertices (Parents and the Coaches), the solution is developing and enhancing our Club environment, the last vertex -- the Referees- is the responsibility of our soccer system.

Ahmet Guvener (ahmet.g@thegameplanners.com) is a Partner with The Game Planners, LLC and the former Secretary General and Chief Soccer Officer of the Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as a Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Georgetown, TX.

11 comments about "Youth soccer's Bermuda Triangle".
  1. R2 Dad, June 28, 2022 at 4:19 a.m.

    Clubs are run by coaches. Coaches don't care about referees. Therefore, clubs don't care about referees. Until leagues really throttle coach abuse by blackballing serious offenders, nothing will change.

  2. Greedy Striker, June 28, 2022 at 12:48 p.m.

    A referee centric point of view, as usual. I see little that's insightful in this piece. How about an American coach or DOC writing about this instead of a Turkish ref with connections.

  3. Tom Tianich replied, June 28, 2022 at 1:19 p.m.

    @GreedyStriker - go ahead, write! (send me a copy tom@hollywoodfc.com)

    As a coach, DOC, Club President, referee assignor, referee, and parent I would love to hear where the "Turkish ref" got it wrong. Sure he forgot the poaching and cheating, but there is probably a word count limit.

    Eagerly awaiting your insight!

  4. Mark Landefeld replied, June 28, 2022 at 8:53 p.m.

    As a DoC, I'll tell you the single biggest change we could employ -- certainly in our area (San Jose, CA).

    Pay the referees amounts that are similar to what paid coaches get for their time.  A 11 v 11 youth coach is typically making upwards of $100 for a 80-90 minute game.  Get the referee pay at that level and you'll get more of the people who coach wanting to ref games as well -- and that cross-breeding will improve the youth situation as more people in role models have to work both sides of the touch line.

  5. R2 Dad replied, July 1, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.

    It's been building for the past 10 years, with no improvement in behavior from parents and coaches. One of the bigger assignors in CalN is calling it "covid rage" and is now advocating referees terminate matches, which was never recommended in the past. My interpretation is that leagues are not supporting officials and this is our last resort. Well-done, clubs. You're finally getting what you deserve.

  6. humble 1 replied, July 1, 2022 at 1:10 p.m.

    I for one find the prospectives of observers bringing soccer experience from abroad, especially great soccer nations like Turkey, to be refreshing and very much appreciate them!  Thank you Mr. Guvenor!  There are some very good and specific ideas in the peice for those working with referees.  I just returned from a trip abroad watching lots of youth soccer.  There is no pefect soccer nation, especially in the youth space, the key is to continue to improve what you have.  Do not shoot the messenger!  Please, keep writing! 

  7. Sean Guillory, June 28, 2022 at 2:34 p.m.

    Well at the ECNL playoff game just yesterday I had to watch my son get pummeled by a player who made no attempt to play thge ball and yes I got pissed and yelled at teh referee because they just waived it off like it was no big deal and let things play on while he laid there flattened.  I probably should not have done it and I actually like hard play and physical play.  However, its their job to help protect the players and that shoddily be enforced.

  8. Philip Carragher replied, June 29, 2022 at 12:03 p.m.

    Sean, I've been there. Very difficult especially when you're wondering whether speaking up will keep your son from having to go to the ER or just simply piss everyone off and embarrass your son. You'd like the ref to protect players but short of that the coach needs to speak up. Short of that you're in trouble. And if you're a coffee drinker, only decaf before games and at halftime.

  9. Mike Lynch, June 29, 2022 at 10:18 a.m.

    Coaches don't hold all the responsibility but they probably yield the greatest influence. Referee quantity and quality are issues that will not get better left to itself. Coaches are in the best position to change this dynamic. Coaching BOTH the Point AND Purpose of sport is a simple start. 

  10. Philip Carragher, June 29, 2022 at 12:09 p.m.

    Thanks Ahmet for this article. I'd like to see refs be more pro-active in controlling coaches and the crowd. I was watching the Cooperstown baseball tournament, the Little League World Series, and I believe this is what I witnessed: the ump stopped the game, walked down the third base line, pointed to someone in the stands and called out the troublemaker. Can't the refs be given the power to do just that? Young refs may be reluctant, however.

  11. R2 Dad replied, July 1, 2022 at 11:12 a.m.

    Referees these days are not recommended to speak to the parents/fans, as the crowds get confrontational and often follow the officials to their cars after the match. In baseball, the home plate umpire has the benefit of a fence between the hecklers and the playing field so the dynamics are different. We are supposed to work through the coaches, who are (nominally) supposed to control their own parents (though it doesn't always work out that way). Girls Rec, sure, we talk to the parents. BU14 competitive, probably not. Those parents still think their kids are going pro or getting a scholarship and can be confrontational and obnoxious.

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