Sometimes, a really good referee just stands out in the crowd. It's more than the calls. There is a comfort and synergy on the field, a connection with players and coaches, a message that carries on the wind that says to everyone: "we're in good hands."
I met a set of referees this weekend that I take great pride in introducing. This team earned a "reffie" from me this weekend & reminded me how important it is for us to see and recognize referees when we meet them on the field. They really do make a difference.
What's a Reffie?
A "Reffie" is a selfie taken with referees. The term was first coined, to my knowledge, by Brian Barlow of Offside. You can find his Brian on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/youreoffside/.
Brian started a campaign to bring awareness to bad sideline behavior, obnoxious parents and coaches, and the plight of referees. Having reffed as a guest Assistant Referee (AR) on a few occasions and having coached hundreds of games, I agree with Brian on this point: We owe our referees some love and respect. For me, this weekend was an excellent example of why.
Why the Reffie?
This weekend, we took our 03 travel boys into Virginia for the Mid-County Fall Classic Tournament hosted by the Northern Virginia Soccer Club. The tournament was fun. The teams were pretty evenly matched. And we did pretty well - finishing second overall in a 1:0 loss in the final match this afternoon.
Of course, our boys were superstars and players and parents both went home feeling pretty good. Everybody is going to be sore on Monday after 4 games this weekend, but I think I'm safe in saying we all had fun.
Travel tournament situations bring teams together from all over the country. We co-own two tournaments ourselves and we see teams form up and down the East Coast from Canada to Florida. Imagine seeing all the different license plates int he parking lots. Hearing the Northern and Southern accents as you walk to the field. There is a sense of excitement at these tournaments that you just have to experience to understand. There is also a tendency for some parents to act out. People are a long way from home. They can yell and be noisy & they know they'll go home the next day and possibly never see whomever they yelled at today.
I heard some whoppers this weekend. Parents ripping into referees. Yelling coaching instructions - most of it nonsense - on the field. People just acting like they didn't care very much about how they looked to the rest of us. I know some of the referees this weekend took beating.
But every so often, you see something really special. I did not know the referees who's photos I posted above. I had no reason to believe the game they were about to officiate was going to any different than any other game I've seen. I zipped up my jacket against the 30 degree temperatures, checked my stopwatch, and settled in for 2 35 minute halves - fully expecting to to be annoyed by yelling parents and hoping that our players would find their rhythm and have a good game.
Enter Debbie O'Connor - the Center Ref. The AR's, Juan Suarez, and Zemery Dennis had already put their stuff down, had their huddle, and taken up their positions on either end of the field. I heard Debbie's voice for the first time. I didn't catch every word she said, but there was no mistake that every player on the field and the parents along the sideline could hear her. "Boys... this is a playoff tournament game and I expect to start and stop this game on time." She began.
It wasn't so much what she said. It was the fact that she said anything at all. She had clearly communicated to everyone on that field that she was in charge, that she would clearly communicate expectations, and that this game was in good hands. Her attitude was confident, playful, and no nonsense - all at the same time. I could tell immediately that there wasn't going to be any shenanigans today. I smiled in the cold and felt a little warmer all of a sudden.
The game got started and the boys were the focus. During stoppages of play or whenever she needed to blow her whistle, everyone involved in that play and any parent close enough to hear her knew exactly what was going on and why. The boys didn't fuss. There was a dad on the sidelines who threw his usual challenge or two on the field, but it rolled off of Debbie like water rolls off a duck.
I could tell that the boys respected her. I could tell that the AR's respected her. Both Zemery and Juan were every bit on top of their game as Debbie and the boys were. Watching the three of them was like watching a well choreographed play. They moved and communicated. Center Ref relying on and backing up Assistant Ref calls. It looked to me like they were telepathic. I saw in them a team that was clicking the way I love to see our players clicking.
As the game played out, a player got a little aggressive. "Oh no... Number 7, come over here." "You come over here to me so I can talk to you." Man... If she ever talked to me like that, I'd be standing tall in front of her too. She was not embarrassing to the young man. She explained where the line was, how and when he crossed it, and what the consequence would be. Boys who I know can be a little mouthy sometimes fell right in line.
At another point in the game, one player accidentally hit another player from behind. It wasn't intentional, but it was pretty hard. He drew a foul. Debbie first checked on the player who had been fouled. He was a little shaken up, but he was fine. Her assessment was quick and to the point.
Her next stop was to the player who committed the foul. He had walked away from the scene, but somehow she found him exchanged a little joke between the three players, and everyone was smiling and back in the game. After the penalty kick, of course.
It seemed to me and to the players on the field that playing soccer and having fun were the real focus of those 70 minutes. I watched at least 3 other full games and 8 more partial games this weekend. I saw tempers flare, aggression peak, frustration bellow from parent's mouths, but not this game.
This referee team clearly made a difference on that pitch. Without saying a word to him, my son said - those referees were really good today. They may have been the best referees I've ever had.
That's why the Reffie.
Some Important Back Story and Take Away
Here's the thing. Other than Zemery, today's referees were no strangers to this game. Debbie raised two boys to be referees. Her youngest is 6'4" and 210 pounds. He takes no nonsense on the field. Both Debbie and Juan told stories of how they've had to stop games in the past and wait for offensive parents to leave the pitch. Talk about the walk of shame...
A young referee like Zemery is lucky enough to be learning from some more experienced referees like Juan and Debbie. I know he's in good hands in Virginia, but what about all those other High School students who are learning to make the hard calls?
Imagine what it must be like for them to don the yellow shirt for first time and take to the field. Imagine some Cheesburger soccer parent yelling at them. Referees are leaving the game in alarming numbers. Experienced referees like Juan and Debbie get fed up. They go back to their families and their other jobs and they disappear. Young referees will sometimes quit after a week or two - totally taken by surprise and unwilling to be humiliated by a full grown adult in front of their peers.
Referees need backup. They need our love and respect. They need some time to grow and mature in their craft so that they can one day take the field like Debbie did today and put our kids at ease. Let them have fun and play the game.
You can help to keep referees in the game - both experienced refs and those who are in the early stages of learning. You can make the time to show some gratitude. You can take a Reffie with a referee. Have your player take a Reffie with a referee. Say thank you after a game - even if you didn't agree calls they made.
This weekend was a lot of fun for a lot of kids. That was made possible in no small measure to some really good referees.
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