The following article was written for WHISTLE STOP Newsletter published by AYSO.
My first game ever as a referee, I was 14 years old center reffing a BU13 championship game with NO assistant refs. That's right, I was all by myself. I was barely older than the players, many of whom were taller than me, and I had coaches and parents yelling at me the entire time. If I weren't required to referee and entire season as part of my club team obligations, I would have quit on the spot. But I'm glad I didn't.
At 14 years old, I learned that being a referee was hard. Coaches, parents, and players were mean. They felt like it was their duty to argue every call I made. It didn't help that it was a championship game, so naturally pressure and emotions were running high. It also didn't help that I hadn't yet found my confidence as a ref.
The rest of that season, my experience got a little better. Coaches and parents were still mean, but I luckily didn't have to ref alone again. I gained confidence with each experience, and did my best to trust my knowledge and training. However, it was until much later in life that I decided to try my luck at being a referee once more.
Because of personal experiences, along with other encounters with refs as a coach, I wanted to touch on the dynamic that exists between coaches and refs. I'm sure you can relate and maybe even agree, but the relationship can be complicated. Competitiveness often runs high, opinions vary, and views on fairness often differ. Referees are unfortunately often the target of displeasure and blame for simply doing their job.
It's also necessary to point out that referees (and coaches) can have a wide range of experience: some have less, some have more, some volunteer, some coach or ref as a profession, etc. The reason to highlight this is that experience can play an important role in the dynamic between coaches and referees, meaning when one party feels the other is less experienced, it can lead to more frustration.
How many times in a game have you heard a coach yell "HEY REF!" (or occasionally something worse). Too many to count I'm sure. We've reached a point in the sport where there are less volunteer refs, possibly due to the grief they get and the hardships they face from coaches. It's time to start a conversation about how we can better the system to ensure respect and sportsmanship, so I've tried to sum up the perspective from each party to gain insights and show how coaches and refs aren't really that different after all.
From a coaches viewpoint:
Coaches want the game to flow freely, fairly, and to be officiated consistently. They want their players to thrive and not be impeded by (in their opinion) unfair calls or unsportsmanlike opponents. When this is the case, it allows coaches to focus solely on putting their players in a position to be their best.
Other times, when the game is filled with (in their opinion) unfair calls and lack of control, their frustration levels rise and their concern shifts from helping players thrive to arguing for safety and fairness. Or in disagreement with that offsides call.
The latter is probably why coaches become more vocal and yell at refs. From their vantage point, they don't agree with certain calls and therefore feel the need to let the refs know. I'm not saying that it's right, but they can get caught up in the moment for sure, and that's when frustrations can escalate.
From a referees perspective:
Refs want the game to go smoothly, for players and coaches to abide by the rules, and to be respected be ALL those involved. They want to do their jobs without interference or ridicule. They know the game and have committed to upholding the rules through fairness and objectivity; the latter they recognize can be hard to do at times. Calls are made based on their view of what happened; either they saw it or they didn't. Sometimes coaches agree, sometimes they don't. They are doing the best they can.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but refs are tired of being yelled at by coaches for doing their jobs. They are human; they're not perfect and are supposed to make mistakes just like coaches do.
Believe it or not, there are similarities. Both coaches and refs want to do their best. Both coaches and refs understand the game of soccer and want the rules upheld fairly and appropriately. Both coaches and refs are human and make mistakes. If one group can recognize the perspective of the other, then maybe we can create a better environment for both, and more importantly, for the players.
Below are some ideas on what refs can do with coaches when things are getting intense:
Demand respect. I've said it before and I'll say it again. You deserve respect just as much as anyone else out there. Set the stage early before the game even starts and have a no tolerance policy for those that are disrespectful: players, coaches, and fans alike.
Communicate with coaches. Seems simple, but sometimes communicating with coaches from the get go can help. Be up front and honest about expectations, rules, and calls.
Try to leave ego in the parking lot. It's easy to get caught up in the moment and take things personally. It's okay to admit you've made a mistake. It's okay to stand by the call you've made. Either way, remember you are an important, yet small part, of the big picture.
Have a game plan as a referee crew on how to handle issues when they arise. For example, if a coach, player, or fan is getting out of hand, have a warning system in place to keep you in control of the situation to give them an opportunity to change their behavior before they're potentially asked to leave. Sometimes the three strikes and your out rule works, other times more stern tactics are necessary.
Breathe. It's easy to get defensive and emotional out there. I'm a victim of that too. But one thing that helps before I react positively or negatively is to breathe. A great exercise that helps is called Box Breathing. Here's how it works. Visualize a square. Each side of the square represents 4 seconds. Start with a 4 second inhale, hold it for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds. Do this as many times as necessary (works great in other areas of life too!).
Why do coaches yell at refs? Is it for technical or tactical reasons? Frustration over rules or calls? Or is it simply because coaches are competitive and want to win? All of these reasons are possible and there isn't one right answer, but regardless of reasons, it's an unfortunate part of the job a referee has to deal with. Not all refs are the same, nor are coaches, but if refs can prepare themselves the best they can and keep calm in the heat of the moment, maybe each game will get a little easier and a little more enjoyable.
Katie (McKee) Lovallo
Hey! I'm Katie, and I specialize in Mental Performance. I believe greatly in mindset and the role it plays in life.