The Right Way to Talk to Refs

We’ve all heard that Aretha Franklin song about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But our young athletes should be thinking always about showing respect to the officials refereeing their soccer games.

As our society becomes more obsessed with winning, is it any surprise really that many youth organizations around the country are facing a referee shortage? In fact, the Washington Post reports, “perhaps no sport suffers from the shortage more than soccer.”

Why? Referees have a tough job, but they are also increasingly facing:

•       Spectator profanity

•       Escalating verbal abuse

•       Threats of violence

•       Sexism


The Guardian reported a Ref Support helpline in the UK received 70 calls in its first month, including two physical assaults and a referee who had been told he would be killed.

Yet, just as young athletes can learn to play better and develop sportsmanship and teamwork, they can also be taught to be respectful. Youth sport advocacy organization Play by the Rules noted several different ways yelling at refs hurts actually hurts the young players too as it:

•       Communicates mistakes are not acceptable

•       Undermines personal accountability (you can always blame others!)

•       Demonstrates it’s OK to disrespect authority if you disagree

•       Suggests being rude, disruptive, and distracting to others or yelling are acceptable behaviors.


Teaching Respect for Refs 

Coaches and parents acting as role models for respecting referees is an obvious first step. But what else can be done?

Remind players referees are specifically trained in the rules of the game, observing the game, and making difficult calls. No matter whether the player has been on the field for a decade, or the adult played in college, the referee on the field is the one with the most recent exposure to the rules and best practices in officiating.

Encourage players to focus on the game and the parts of it that they can control. The player, coach, or spectator cannot control the officiating. Focusing on the ref’s calls only takes attention from the game itself. When players focus on playing to the best of their abilities, they can make a positive impact on the game.

Suggest the captains of the team introduce themselves to the referee at the coin toss. This helps humanize the official in the athlete’s eyes. Requiring that the players always say “thank you” to the refs after the game (regardless of the result) also helps establish the ref as an objective authority.

“Just think of [frustrating refereeing] as bad weather,” says Positive Coaching Alliance founder Jim Thompson. “You still have to play in it, and it doesn't do you much good to complain.”

Point out that everyone makes mistakes. Referees do their best to objectively call the game, but they are human too. When a call could go either way, they may make a decision that doesn’t favor your team. This doesn’t mean they are out to get your team. But, you can be sure that if your team responds with rude abuse, they are less likely to award the next close call in your favor.

Introduce a self-control routine. Even just counting back from 100 could help a young player calm himself in a stressful situation. This practice of self-soothing may also lessen their frustration in the wake of an aggressive tackle and help the player steer clear of retributive action (which brings the ref right back into it again).

Give young players a crack at officiating. Even just refereeing a scrimmage in practice can help foster more empathy toward referees. 

Ultimately, one bad call or even several questionable calls in a single game are not going to destroy an athlete’s future soccer career. Remove the focus from the referee. Instead encouraging individual effort, willingness to learn from mistakes, and being respectful to everyone involved in this great, beautiful game.

Meanwhile, for a good laugh at refs, check out this balletic official.

chris williams