The Role of a Soccer Referee

There is an apocryphal story about three soccer referees discussing the different ways they officiate games. In humility, the first referee says, that he calls them as he sees them. Reflecting a little more confidence, the second referee says he calls them as they are. Possessed of even more epistemological certitude, the third referee claims that they are not anything until he calls them. Of course, the story is a way for referees to use humor to deal with the stresses of constantly making public decisions that are under constant critical review by passionate partisans. Any decision generally upsets at least half the spectators.

In many ways, being a children’s soccer coach is more conspicuously rewarding than being a referee. A coach meets the kids, learns their names, answers their questions, shares their joys, and wipes away their tears. Years later, kids will remember the names of their favorite coaches; much in the same way they might recall a teacher. Referees are like furniture. The best one can hope for is to go unnoticed. Few people remember games that are well-officiated, but everyone remembers the critical call that was missed or the game that got out of control.

The pleasures and rewards of soccer officiating are more subtle and sublime. Referees are responsible for maintaining a safe playing environment and enforcing the rules of the game. In the midst of parents, some of whom are living vicariously through their own children, and coaches who want to win, a referee is expected to maintain calm impartiality. Among children and sometimes childish adults, referees provide adult supervision.

Tentative new referees are sometimes confused about the appropriate persona to assume. Are soccer referees to be stern, formal, and judge-like, speaking only sparingly to create an air of authority or does formality unnecessarily increase tension? Should referees be gregarious and friendly to maintain a calm and soothing atmosphere or does pleasantness undermine authority?

The truth is that no one can referee outside of their essential character for very long. Reserved and technically oriented people are likely to appear to be stern referees. Naturally gregarious people cannot help but talk casually to both players and coaches. A person can best referee if he remains true both to his own personality and to the spirit of the game.

Most importantly, a children’s soccer referee has a pedagogical role, not only about soccer, but how to interact with others. How referees talk with and treat children, parents, and coaches with dignity and respect in stressful situations teaches more powerfully than words can. Since a referee is the senior authority at a game, his or her example is perhaps the most powerful. The fundamental responsibility of a children’s soccer referee is to help mold the character of the next generation, the same responsibility everyone else has.

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