In the Line of Fire
This past weekend, I was asked to be the Assistant Referee (AR) for my son's 2003 travel game. I'm not a referee, but on this day I had just come from a game and was wearing my coaching uniform. We look like race cars on the field and stand out from a mile away - especially since our club colored are red, black, and white. I was hard to miss.
One of the AR's didn't show for the game and the Center Referee (CR) caught me before the game. My son's coach, bless his heart, pointed me out to him before the game as a possible substitute for the missing AR. I came to enjoy my son's game and ended up holding a flag and running up and down the field. Time to make the most of it, I thought.
You need to know that I'm not a licensed referee. I have taken a course in officiating games, but that makes me a coach with a course in officiating. It doesn't make me a licensed referee and it certainly doesn't give me the right to make official calls at a soccer game.
This last point is one that I'm glad to say the CR emphasized when he handed me the flag. I was to help him to see when the ball goes out of play, but calls like the offside call - one that has many moving parts (See episode #18 - The Offside Rule Explained) - was a call that he would make.
This pre-game substitute AR speech is something I've heard before when I've been volunteered to do this job & I'm grateful for it. Watching a game with referee eyes is hard enough. This speech takes the pressure off a little, but as you'll learn in a minute, doesn't stop parents from throwing criticism.
During our initial conversation, I could see that the CR got the sense that I might understand the calls well enough to help out, but he didn't know or trust me yet - so, as I would have done myself, he put some restrictions on. He did, however, tell me that if I think there MIGHT be an offside infraction, that I was allowed to hold my flag 45 degrees down as a HINT for him. He would make the call.
The first half went by pretty well. I could see he was supporting what I was telling him about what I saw. He called me over for the second half, corrected my flag signals, and gave me a little more freedom to signal him with things I was seeing on the field.
My head hurt when I was done. In my head, I was watching every touch of the ball - saying to myself "Out on white... out on blue... out on white. Out on blue..." with every touch - just in case the ball went out of bounds. I was terrified of raising my flag in the wrong direction when I saw it fully cross the line - or missing who it went out on all together when I did raise my flag.
As a point of reference, I keep stats on my own games. In yesterday's game - the one that we played just before I came to watch my son's second game, we recorded 340 first touches in the first half, 409 first touches in the second half - for a total of 749 first touches in that game. My stats keeper had an emergency call during the first half, so some of our first touch stats were missing and I know that not all first touches get recorded properly even in the best case scenarios.
What I was watching as a proxy AR wasn't just first touches. I was seeing first, second, third, knees, bumps, side-swipes, and ricochets off of shin guards. Whomever touches the ball last before a ball goes out of bounds on the touchline (sidelines) loses the chance to play it back in, so every little touch counts. Then I was watching the offside line - running up and down the sideline - staying even with the second to last defender (not including the goal keeper), watching and/or listening for the kick/pass and checking player positioning to determine whether or not a player was in an offside position at the time the pass was made - and if they materially impacted the play.
I was a volunteer. I was intently watching as many details as I could manage. And I was missing out on watching my son play. But I was there.
Enter - THAT Parent
"What game are YOU watching, Ref?!""We should be able to Yellow Card the Ref.... Where's the Yellow Card for the Ref?!""You're Missing a good game, Ref!"
Oh my God... It wasn't one parent either. One dad was definitely louder than the others, but he set off a chain reaction down the parent line. I got to hear more than I ever want to hear at a soccer game. Most of the time, I was running up and down the line - typically between the CR and the cat-calling parent line. I felt like they were yelling at me sometimes.
In one play, I was intently watching a scrum of feet between two players on opposing teams argue over who was going to get the ball. They struggled back and forth while I was counting off in my head: "out on blue, out on white, out on blue, white, bl..whit...whi...blue... white... OUT!" I saw out on white. I raised my flag in the direction of the white team indicating out on white and blue had the ball.
"Awe c'mon, Ref!!""That was our ball!!""Wake up out there Ref!"
To say I felt under fire, awkward, unwelcome, and utterly unsupported by the parents sitting behind me would be accurate. What the heck am I doing here? I was thinking to myself. These referees take this kind of treatment every day they show up? I wondered. This was brutal.
Keeping track of the stuff I needed to keep track of - a light version of what a REAL referee keeps track of - was hard enough. To keep track of this stuff with heckling going on behind me took the level of difficulty to a whole new level.
I'm a 6'2" guy who's pretty fit (especially when compared to those heckling parents sitting in chairs behind me). I was standing there trying to imagine what this experience must be like for the high school kids I hire every season to ref games for our club. I've coached many of those kids for years and know them pretty well. I've seen how difficult it is for some of them to be confident as a player and use their voice to communicate with peers. The idea of those kids standing up to the barrage of loud, stupid, uninformed nonsense coming out of full grown adults mouths behind me set me back. When I got home, I immediately sent a note out to the young referees I bring in every Saturday. I told them that I just AR'd a game and quipped "Respect for what you boys do every week."
I should clarify that my club is not like the place I was refereeing at yesterday. For the most part, our Club has a great culture. Our in-house league is tame by comparison and parents are generally supportive. We get our occasional knucklehead, but those are rare, and I am usually walking the sidelines - ready to intervene if our refs start taking fire. But some of my young refs ALSO ref in the complex I was reffing at yesterday. One of them told me "Coach... you were right about that one coach. He was loud and obnoxious and said some really mean and ugly things." Yes... I knew this guy and would not wish him on my enemy.
What Can We Do About This?
I think we're just at the beginning stages of figuring out what can be done about this. Step one is Awareness.
With activities driven by Positive Coaching Alliance lead by Jim Thompson , Soccer parenting Association, lead by Skye Eddie Bruce, Changing the Game Project lead by John O'Sullivan, recently on the scene Offside, lead by Brian Barlow, and of course, this Podcast The Soccer Sidelines; I think we're well on our way to identifying and giving voice to the problem.
Solutions have been aimed as coaching education, parent education, and even a shame campaign exposing the crazy sideline behavior we're seeing these days. All of it has contributed to raising awareness and helping us to know what not to do on the sidelines. And the behaviors still happen. And referees are still leaving youth sports in huge numbers. And we still have work to do!
I was chatting with Brian Barlow yesterday and asked him what he thought might be a good idea for dealing with bad sideline behavior. He suggested hiring some retired or former referees who can wear a vest, walk the sidelines, and provide mentorship / policing. I really like this idea.
I personally walk the sidelines of as many games as I can get to each weekend as the President of my Club. If I ever caught a parent being abusive to the referees or to players or coaches, I would have them removed from the field - else the game would be over until they left.
As a coach, policing parents is a more challenging thing to do. 1. we have our hands full with the game 2. parents are on the opposite side of the field. I always make my way over to the opposing team coach and to the referees and make sure everyone feels welcome and in good spirits.
As a parent, I would suggest making introductions and being friendly early - like before the game. This is the same technique I use as a coach before the game starts.
Making contact as a parent with other parents and being friendly on the sidelines sets the tone. It isn't going to stop every yahoo from yelling and acting like a fool, but it will give you some bankable relationship points that you might use later if a parent gets out of control.
Speaking of getting out of control, I think the solutions are evolving here. We might come up with a better way, but for now, if you don't think you can reason with another rabid fan, then find a field marshal or another official and alert them to what's going on. Someone with authority can have that parent ejected or at the very least, stop play until the offending parent departs the area.
Take a Reffie!
In Brian's Offside program, he encourages us to take "Reffie's" - a selfie with a referee who agrees to having one taken. Post these "Reffies" to social media and share the love for our referee community. These people are out on the field making soccer games possible. They keep the games safe and make sure that it stays as fair as possible. It's fair to say that we owe our referees a debt of gratitude for donning the yellow uniform each week and walking out on the field in the face of whatever comes their way.
Even if you don't take a reffie, thank a referee the next time you see one. Maybe if we appreciate them a little more, they might stick around for a while. Who knows... they may even be able to enjoy the game they already loved before earning their license.
Record Bad Behavior
Brian is so passionate about what he's doing that he is offering a $100 bounty for video clips that he posts on his social media channel. Cell phones are everywhere and terrible behavior can find it's way into the hands of someone like Brian who also puts relevant commentary around each example he uses.
Be The Change
Probably my all-time favorite way to deal with issues I see in the world is to take a page from Gandhi and Be the Change you want to see. By being the parents or coach who allows (or even encourages) mistakes to be made and shows respect for officials, you set the example. It may not be immediately obvious the effect that you're having on the environment, but be confident that you are making a difference. Your actions are speaking louder than the loudest words on the field.
If you're one of those positive example parents or coaches... thank you. I noticed you on the sidelines behind me when I was acting as the AR. I was grateful that you were there. You reminded me that I was in a good place regardless of the noise coming from that soccer dad and his yelling crew. I feel confident in saying on behalf of officials everywhere - thank you for the positive example you set. You're the ones we're here in partnership with, and your kids are noticing you too.
- Barlow, Brian. “Offside.” Offside - Home | Facebook, www.facebook.com/youreoffside/.
- Bruce, Skye Eddy. “Www.SoccerParenting.com.” Www.SoccerParenting.com, www.soccerparenting.com/.
- Thompson, Jim. “Positive Coaching Alliance.” Positive Coaching Alliance - PCA, www.positivecoach.org/.
- O'Sullivan, John. “John O'Sullivan.” Changing the Game Project, changingthegameproject.com/.