By Sandra Hunt
In 2003, U.S. Soccer's Referee Department began an initiative within the Assessment Program known as the "Coach/Mentor Program." The goal of the Coach/Mentor Program is to help the development of referees by preparing assessors to act more as coaches and mentors in their interaction with referees.
While the development of referees has always been the mission of the assessment program, sometimes that mission is lost in the need to pass critical judgment on a referee's performance and issue a pass or fail score. A coach/mentor or assessor still issues a pass or fail score, but there is a greater emphasis on developing the referee ? examining what went wrong in the game, how it went wrong, how things could be done different and how to improve.
There are currently 21 Coach/ Mentors within the assessment program, all of whom had distinguished careers at the highest level while active referees. Coach/Mentors often attend Referee Academies, clinics, tournaments and other events to work with less experienced officials during the earlier stages of their career.
The program is currently being used in professional league games with a small group of National Assessors and the referees who are working those games. One of the most noticeable differences is the pre-game ?coaching? which takes place between the officiating crew and the Coach/Mentor. Another job of a Coach/Mentor is to identify referees they feel have potential to participate at the highest levels of the sport in the United States.
Often for MLS games, Coach/Mentors arrive into the city early enough to join the referee crew for a pre-game lunch where information is exchanged to ensure the proper pre-game homework has been accomplished. It is expected that the lunches will improve the crew?s teamwork during the match. For games where the Coach/Mentor is not in the city, phone contact is made between the referee and C/M prior to the match. For these games, an In-Stadium Observer (ISO) is used to compile an on-site report of the match. ISO?s are also experienced National Assessors. The ISO and Coach/Mentor are in contact with each other following the game, sharing information before the formal assessment is completed.
At the end of each match the Coach/Mentor talks with the crew and provides feedback and suggestions. The Coach/Mentors also complete an online assessment including a score for the referee and the assistant referees in the same format as all other referee assessments within U.S. Soccer.
Fair Play asked Robert Sabella, Ali Saheli and Mohammad Zarrabi, three of the newest National Assessors trained with the Coach/Mentor concept, a few questions about their new role. When not acting as a National Assessor, Sabella, of Antioch, Calif, is a pilot for Japan Airlines. Saheli, who lives in Columbia, Mo., is a computer programmer and analyst at the University of Missiouri, Columbia, and Zarrabi, who lives in Woodinville, Wash., is a procurement planner with Boeing Company.
Q. What is most difficult in transitioning from active referee to the role of Coach/Mentor?
RS: ?Switching from player to ref was hard, to assessor was harder, especially after spending 16 years as a referee. I was still thinking and feeling like a referee until I was invited by my very patient, and current, Coach/Mentor, Farhad Mansourian, to every game he was assessing. He makes sure I am learning and transforming slowly but surely.?
AS: ?The challenge, in my opinion, is in the re-definition of relationships and roles. We have to build on old and new relationships and convey the message that only working towards the same goals guarantees our success. As long as each party keeps this goal as one of the main and most important goals and there is mutual respect, the rest will fall in place smoothly.?
MZ: ?The most difficult part, for me, in transitioning from referee to assessor is the change from judging players? conduct and performance to judging the conduct and performance of my fellow referees. Another challenge is learning to communicate with fellow referees most effectively so they learn something useful from each game.?
Q. Your observations in the first year of being a Coach/Mentor?
RS: ?I would like to assure everyone concerned that the response from the referees I have worked with so far is that this Coach/Mentor program supersedes the old hammering style. I believe our future results will show that we are developing better Referees with the Coach/Mentor program.?
AS: ?The key issue, which is individual coaching, is emphasized. It is fundamental and the backbone of this program. It requires patience and full participation from all individuals: Coach/Mentors, referees and, especially, administrators to ensure our success.
?Referee to Coach/Mentor is similar to a soccer coach and his/her players in the way they combine forces to tackle their obstacles and pursue solutions. It requires openness and trust between all parties.?
MZ: ?To do this job right there are many responsibilities. Meeting with the Referees, watching the matches, writing the reports and assessments all take a lot of time. I like that Coach/Mentor?s form more of a relationship with the Referees they work with locally and often nationally. This program allows us to be more involved in the long-term development of referees. I am glad I was given the opportunity. I am working to become better at the job as I gain more experience.?
Q. Since ?Mentor? is part of your designation, were there people who mentored to you as you were gaining experience as a referee?
RS: ?Just a couple of years into my referee career I fell into the ?brutal hands? of a great mentor/FIFA assistant referee, George Noujaim. He taught me that a very good job was simply not good enough. Additional special thanks to Fernando Alvarez, Dave Jones, Farhad Mansourian and Esse Baharmast, for believing in my ability and their support during the different stages of my career.?
AS: ?There were many people who helped coach me throughout my referee career. People like Dr. Richard Warder, Dr. Jim McCartney and Gebe Egigu in the early stages. Casey Frankewicz, Dr. Holly Hollingsworth and Dr. Herb Silva gave me a chance in the professional games. Fernando Alvarez shared so much of his knowledge and experience as I moved from professional referee to international referee. Dr. Mort Sajadian, Farhad Mansourian and Dr. Moz Rahmatpanah. Of course my brother Amir - we spent hours on the phone about my games. Aside from all those mentioned, there was one more that helped shape me more than anyone else. His patience, dedication, work ethic and high standards were a big force and guiding light: Esse Baharmast.?
MZ: ?There are so many people to whom I am grateful. Without their help I would not have been successful on the field. Of course the national and local programs were essential to my growth and development starting out and continuing through this day. At the national and international level, of course, I admired Esse Baharmast and what he stood for. He accomplished great things for all American referees. For many years locally, I was supported and advised by Mr. Bob Pettingill, retired SDA of Washington. Also, I enjoyed the support and camaraderie of a wonderful group of National Referees from Washington State for many years. Frank Gorog, Sandy Hunt, Oscar Myre III, Mohammad Saghakhaneh and myself worked, studied and trained together for many years.?
Q. Are you involved in other roles within USSF?
RS: ?I also mentor, instruct and assess with local up-and-coming referees in both Cal North and my adopted home state, Alaska.?
AS: ?I have been an instructor for nine years, an assignor for seven years, serve on the Missouri State Referee Committee and assist the Missouri State Referee Administrator as a District Administrator.?
MZ: ?I am still a registered referee but I only referee local youth and lower-level amateur games now. I am also a registered instructor.?
One of the goals of the Coach/Mentor Program is to utilize top level experience as a National or FIFA Referee to train and develop the next generation of referees hoping to move into those top assignments. The U.S. Soccer National Program for Referee Development will also utilize many of these same individuals as the instructional and assessment support assigned to the regional and national events of U.S. Soccer?s affiliated members.