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The Referee’s Role in Youth Soccer - Part Two

By Julie Ilacqua, Managing Director of Referee Programs

This is a continuation of the article featured in the last edition of Fair Play.  Part One of this article, which dealt with keeping the game safe and keeping the game fair, may be accessed by clicking here.  Part Two covers making the game fun, referees as role models and some of the complications a referee can bring to the game.

Making it Fun 
Enjoying what you do is important in all areas of life.  For a referee, having fun and enjoying the experience makes the game better for all involved – players, coaches and spectators.  If you are refereeing just for the game fees or feel like you are trapped in an obligation, chances are, being a referee will be a really tough job.  There are many positive things you learn from being a referee and two of the most important skills you can acquire as a referee are people management skills and learning how to manage the game itself.  Gaining experience in these areas can be beneficial to you throughout life, so let’s look and how you can make the most of your refereeing opportunity.

In order to make a game fun, there are a few things you can really focus on to get the most out of your experience: 1) Treating each assignment like it’s the best one you have ever had; 2) Being fair to all involved and 3) Portraying a positive attitude towards others at all times.

Referees should treat each game like it’s the best assignment they have ever had.  Players like having referees that enjoy what they do and players normally respond positively when they see a referee enjoying the way the players are playing the game.  The game is for the players and having a referee treat the game and the players with that kind of respect usually makes for a better experience for all involved.  So, what happens when you have been assigned a game that you don’t feel like doing?  Maybe you don’t feel like doing much of anything that day or you wanted to be off with your friends and now, because you made a commitment, you have to do what you said you would do, which is referee a game.  Grumpy referees are not allowed.  Put on a smile and make the best of it.  Did you ever hear the saying, “Some people bring happiness wherever they go and some people bring happiness whenever they go?”  Strive to be the first person in this quotation and not the last.  The game will be more pleasant for everyone involved, including you.

Making the game fair for everyone involved is an important part of making the game fun.  It’s hard to feel like you are having fun if you feel like you aren’t being treated fairly.  Sometimes there is nothing you can do as a referee to keep players or coaches from feeling that “it isn’t fair,” but there are things you can avoid doing that may give the impression that you favor one team over the other.  One way is in not talking to one coach or team in a more familiar way than you talk to the other coach or team.  You should never behave or referee in a manner that gives the impression you have a preference for one team over another.  A referee should not mistake teasing players or calling players by “cute nicknames” as having fun with the players.  This may work with some of the very little children when they first start playing, but it won’t be long before the players and their competitive natures will outgrow that behavior from a referee.

Finally, do you remember what it is that always improves one’s looks?  The answer is a smile.  This is especially important for referees – smile when you come to the field, smile while you are there and smile when you leave.  Remember – soccer plus children should equal fun and as a referee, you can help everyone enjoy the game and learn some valuable life lessons in the process.

Officials as Role Models
Role models come in all shapes, sizes and ways.  As an “authority figure” on the field, referees of all ages are role models for players, coaches, spectators and other referees, so referees should strive to set a good example of professional behavior.  Providing an atmosphere for soccer that is safe for the players, fair to all participants and fun for everyone is a good place to start when striving to be a role model for children.

When you are the referee assigned to do a game, you are one of the authority figures the players will deal with that day.  This applies to our young referees who are working games for even younger players.  When you are on the field and you have the whistle, you are the authority figure to all of those little boys and girls.  It is important that we leave them with a good feeling about dealing with people in authority.

The first thing that will be noticed about you when you approach the field is how you look.  Are you dressed like a referee who cares about the impression you make on others?  Your OSI official uniform should be a neat and clean. Your Nike shoes should be clean and polished with your socks pulled up and not slouched around your ankles.

For the older referees it should go without saying that alcohol should not be consumed before officiating a game or at the field where you have worked as a referee.  Referees should refrain from smoking as well.  These are activities that don’t belong in youth sports by participants in a game, and as a referee, you are a participant in the game.

Referees should be aware of what they are saying to players, coaches and spectators.  Sometimes we say things that we think are inconsequential, but we have to realize that statements we think are unimportant may be misinterpreted by others when they do not know our intent.  Sexual comments and innuendoes should not be made at the field – to anyone.  This is not part of the game, and using sexual innuendo or making comments is inappropriate and unprofessional.

Be courteous to everyone and treat everyone with the same courteous manner.  This isn’t always easy, especially when the people on the sidelines are going crazy and yelling at you.  But remember - it is really hard for someone to keep yelling at you if you don’t yell back.  If you speak softly and respectfully, the other person will normally respond in a like manner.  If they don’t respond in a respectful manner, but continue to rant and rave, then you would deal with the situation with the powers afforded you as a referee under the Laws of the Game. 

Role models share some qualities that are contagious to those with whom they have contact.  Being ethical is an important quality for role models.  Consider this definition of “ethics” from Webster’s Dictionary: “The system of moral values, the principle of right or good conduct.”  Another way to say the same thing - “Doing the right thing, even when it is difficult or could cost you.”  In a recent survey on ethics 56 percent of high school age boys and 45 percent of high school age girls think that successful people do whatever they have to do to win even if others consider it cheating. As a role model, you have the opportunity to show young soccer players that this is not the case and that people in a position of authority can be fair and professional.

Another quality that role models share is character.  Character is easily defined as doing the right thing even when no one is watching.  As a referee, you have a great deal of influence over how the game is played and how enjoyable it is.  You have the whistle and can stop and start play.  A good thing to do is to put yourself in the player’s shoes and ask yourself: “If I was playing this game, how would I like me as the referee?”

A third quality that role models have in common is a great attitude.  Attitude is just about the only thing in your control.  You can’t control the weather, the kind of field you are playing on, the skill level of the players, who the coaches are and what kind of people are on the sidelines.  But the one thing you can control is your attitude and that will determine how you handle all of those things that you cannot control.  Your attitude as a referee will be apparent to players and coaches in your body language, your tone of voice, how you treat your fellow referees, as well as all other participants in the game.

Remember – when you take the field as a referee, the players will watch what you do, how you behave and how you respond to difficult situations – what will they learn from you?

Referees Sometimes Complicate the Game
At times, referees, are our own worst enemy and when that is the case, the game on the field can be difficult and not much fun for anyone involved.  What are some of the ways in which a referee can complicate a game?  We can forget that the game is for the players and think that we are the center of attention.  This is ego involvement that doesn’t belong on the field.  The game is not about the referee.  There are children playing soccer in streets, at parks and on fields all over the world without a referee, but you will never see a referee working a game without the players.  The game is for the players and as referees, we provide a service to the game, but we are not the game.

Another way in which the ego of the referee becomes involved is to think that some assignments are beneath them.  How can that be if the game is not about the referee?  It shouldn’t matter what level of competition you are assigned or referee, or whether you are assigned as the referee, as the assistant referee or as the 4th official.  Your job remains the same – to serve the game.  If that is the case, then obviously there is no assignment that is beneath a referee, because for the players on that day, that is the most important game in the world.  A good referee treats every game that way regardless of the level of competition.

Have you ever worked with a referee that thought they had nothing to learn about soccer?  This is another complication that referees can bring to the game.  Referees who think they know it all will never be good referees.  Good referees are always learning – they learn from the games they work, they learn from working with more experienced referees, they learn from mentors and they learn from watching the game.  Learning is a never ending process and this is something that our very best referees know instinctively.

Another complication referees bring to the game abusing the authority they have been given as a referee.  Referees who relish the authority and use a heavy-handed approach are a nightmare for players and coaches.  Referees who do this tend to bully people with their authority.  Nobody likes being bullied.  There is an old adage to remember when it comes to authority – “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”  Authority and power should be viewed more as duties and responsibilities; this will help referees to keep the authority they have over a game in proper perspective.

Sometimes referees bring past baggage with them to a game.  You may cringe at the thought that you are once again going to have to see a specific player, coach or team at the field.  Maybe you had a difficult experience the last time you were the referee for one of their games and you feel you are going to be in for more of the same.  As difficult as it is, that past experience should be put aside – this is a new game on a new day and everyone should be able to expect fair treatment with no carryover from the previous game.  If you can let that past game go as a referee, perhaps it will help the coach and players to do the same.  Referees should gain experience and knowledge from past games, but they should not hold grudges.  Doing any job while holding a grudge about the people you are working with influences how you do your job.  Let it go and move on.  The ability not to hold grudges will be appreciated by all.

If you are having trouble with a particular part of the game as a referee, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Talk to someone more experienced at the field, call an instructor that you know and talk it over.  Maybe you have trouble managing a free kick close to the penalty area – maybe you have problems catching the flags from the assistant referees.  Whatever it is, you are not the first referee to have that problem – all referees struggle with different aspects of the game and need more training and more education.  Having a mentor who will work with you is very beneficial.  Every referee who earns a national badge has had at least one mentor in their career as a referee, and usually many more.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  You can also contact “Ask a Referee” at the Referee page and ask anything you want about the Laws of the Game or how to handle a specific part of the game and you will receive an answer.

Remember, as a referee you should be someone who makes a game run smoothly – part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Being a U.S. Soccer referee officiating youth soccer means:

  • Keeping the games safe for the players
  • Knowing and applying the Laws of the Game evenhandedly to keep the games fair for the players
  • Taking an active role in making soccer fun for children
  • Honoring the obligation to be a role model as a referee.  If you are a young referee, what kind of a referee do you want to see at your games?  If you are an adult, what kind of a referee do you want to see at your children’s games?
  • Taking an objective look at yourself and recognize what you can do to make your experience better as a referee and the children’s experience better as players – it’s about the players, not the referee!

There are many referee training materials available at

Please take advantage of these materials to help you to continue to develop as a referee.

Thank you for choosing to be a part of the game of soccer in a very challenging and demanding role – that of a referee.