Iowa Soccer innovates approach to training young refs

Nearly every soccer organization in the United States faces a crisis: Referees are leaving in alarming numbers.

Most groups think the solution is money. If we pay them more, the thinking goes, we’ll attract more.

Iowa Soccer takes a different approach. Administrators are making it easier for young officials to begin in the first place. Then they give them the tools they really need: not instruction in the “Laws of the Game,” but resources to handle coaches, parents and players.

There’s money involved, of course. But in this case, it’s a grant from U.S. Soccer to help train the referee trainers.

Iowa Soccer – the governing body of both youth and adult soccer in the Hawkeye State – recently received funding to expand a pilot program that grows the base of the referee pyramid. It targets youngsters ages 12 to 14, minimizing barriers to entry while helping them manage small-sided games.

The grant is one of 19 awarded through U.S. Soccer’s “Innovate to Grow” program. The total of over $3 million focuses on increasing participation and retention, and encouraging a variety of play.

Sparked by a nearly 50 percent decline in youth officials in a five-year period, Iowa Soccer CEO Dan Cataldi and referee and sportsmanship director Hidajet Tica zeroed in on the base of the pyramid.

“I always thought introductory courses were too law-heavy,” says Cataldi. “They didn’t prepare new referees for the actual experience.” He speaks from experience: a national referee, Cataldi worked NCAA Division I and MLS preseason matches before getting injured.

He and Tica – also a national referee with MLS experience – created a pilot program. There is no cost for the training, which prepares participants to officiate 6- and 7-year-old games. Rather than instruction on the nuances of fouls, it explores “What ifs.” What should you do, for example, if a ball goes out of bounds and a player from the wrong team throws it in? Or a mom runs onto the field in the middle of a game, because her child is crying?

The pilot program rolled out last spring, with 60 youngsters in four clubs. This year it expanded to eight clubs – large and small organizations, in metropolitan and rural areas. Besides free access to the training, and every new referee is given a shirt.

So far, Cataldi and Tica have conducted all of the training. Moving forward, they will train others to lead the courses. The U.S. Soccer grant will enable Iowa Soccer to push the program out to 40 clubs – half of the organization.

It will also pay for the first year of referee certification, and a uniform, for every youngster who wants to continue beyond the initial program.

“Some kids enjoy refereeing. Some hate it. But now, you don’t have to pay $80 for a course, and buy a uniform, to realize it’s not for you,” Cataldi notes.

His 12-year-old daughter loves it (and the $45 per game she earns).

The goal is that the young officials, who begin with age-appropriate training, will want to move up the ranks, and take a certification class. When they do, Cataldi says, “they’ll already know how to blow the whistle, and introduce themselves to coaches. At that point, they can concentrate on the Laws of the Game.”

The project also involves sportsmanship.

“Kids – and adults – leave officiating because of the way they’re treated by coaches and parents,” Cataldi explains.

Iowa Soccer will provide “Respect 4 All” signage for their fields, and literature for everyone who is at those fields. The “4” refers to four stakeholders: players, parents, coaches and referees.

The program’s third prong is mentorship. “It doesn’t matter whether you want to do U-14 recreation or become a national referee,” Cataldi says. “We’ll help you.”

Feedback has been positive. The pilot clubs have asked for more training. The young referees who continued enjoy it; some have even taken the next grassroots course. Coaches and parents appreciate Iowa Soccer’s commitment to young officials.

“We’ll really know the impact three years from now,” Cataldi says. “Traditionally, that retention rate is very, very low.”

So far, the effort contributes to exactly what he and Tica envision: “a great environment in which parents enjoy watching their kids, coaches are doing their job, and referees are able to do theirs, too. All for the good of the game.”

6 comments about "Iowa Soccer innovates approach to training young refs".
  1. humble 1, May 24, 2023 at 12:17 p.m.

    Great program.  My son did a training in Utah one summer long ago - he was not a resident - so never ref'd a gaem - and he is a full-on player now.  Back then - it was all fun.  He was very enthusiastic about learning.  They made it so easy in Utah.  A number of his friends did the program there and went on to referee games.  Here in my major met, nothing.  Crickets.  Please more of this!  Parents - take your kiddos - go for it - for some kids - this is their ticket to future enjoyment.  Great job Iowa!   

  2. Mike Lynch, May 24, 2023 at 12:53 p.m.

    Thanks Dan! Well done Iowa! We need more refs ... not just in Iowa but everywhere! 

  3. James Madison, May 24, 2023 at 4:08 p.m.

    You don't need to know offisde or much about fouls and misconduct to referee U8.  Offside doesn't apply in their small-sided games and, if there is a foul, it usually is the result of clumsiness.  The "4 all" signs are good.  AYSO makes "It's for the Kids" buttons available, and "Kids Zone" signs. Parents can often also be recruited. Officiating is (a) good exercise and (b) diverts parents from any anxiety over the play of their children.  Reffing with thier kids when they are young can get parents "hooked" into refereeing as a years-long hobby.

  4. R2 Dad, May 25, 2023 at 3:24 p.m.

    This sounds like a good jumpstart on the refereeing pool every state needs. But at the end of the day, coaches are still abusing referees and until leagues get serious about discipling these coaches nothing will change. Suspend these bad actors for 3 matches, and have league administrators follow up with referees every week, after every club match for that team to make sure those coaches aren't trying to sneak back--because they do. Coaches violating the suspension are blackballed for the spring or fall season and club fined $10K per violation. Referee abuse will dissappear. But no, it's an enigma wrapped in a mystery, all this referee abuse. Too bad USSF doesn't care, clubs don't care, leagues don't care, we just get more hand-wringing.

  5. humble 1 replied, May 25, 2023 at 6:09 p.m.

    You would think that with video evidence coaches abusing referees in youth soccer would be dealt with.  My player plays 80-100 games a year for the past 3 years for club and HS and I've never seen referee abuse by players or coaches in that period.  Parents have yelled stupid stuff - nothing serious.  I video tape all games - with old fashion camera and shotgun mic with booster - were it to happen - I would have gotten it.  Just before HS, my son was furious with a referee -  after the game - he insisted on speaking with the ref on by himself - his mum and I observed from afar - he gave his opinion ref - who was a little surprised to have a middle school kid look him up after the game - gave his - it was done cordially and the boy got it off his chest.  Our youth system - Clubs, Leagues (USYS, AYSO, US Club), these are for me money collectors, not real clubs or academies.  USSF has the power to change this - but they have their first ever president that actually played soccer - and she had to clean up several messes left by her predecesors.  Maybe now that things are settling down and we have more soccer people coming onboard like Crocker, and others, USSF starts managing our upside down youth framework, including our referee pool, pipeline and operations.  We surely need it.  We don't have to wait - it can be instagated locally, as they are in Iowa - this is sometimes the best way.  Thank you SA for sharing this.  Keep it going!  

  6. R2 Dad replied, May 25, 2023 at 8:20 p.m.

    Humble, I will say the more people think they are being watched, the better they behave. I watched a few MLS Academy matches pre-covid and players/coaches were on their best behavior because they knew 1) lots of cameras recording and 2) every match was reported and pubished on the national website for all to see. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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