Refereeing: Be Nice To Your Referees

I love football. It is my favourite thing in the whole world. I love every aspect, from watching high performers on the field, to seeing the culture of different clubs around the world. The finance, the law, the psychology, the coaching, the tactics. It all fascinates me. Yet despite how much I love football, it has never driven me to want to harm another human being. I have left my family, my wife, my home, in order to pursue my football dreams. I still get excited over new shirts and trips to see (what are to me, at least) interesting teams. Every time I go on holiday, if I haven't already booked the holiday to line up with a football match, I find something somewhere, even if it is simply a stadium tour. Of course I want to win, and of course I want to see people I care about do well, but I will never cross that line.

Who was it that said football is the most important of all the unimportant things?

I have been a referee since 2006, and a coach since 2008. I have been fortunate enough to only really do coaching for work since 2012. Even when I take jobs abroad, I still try to squeeze in some refereeing. It's a good way to keep fit, earn a bit of cash, network, see the various levels of football, and to just be around the game. Somebody's got to do it, right? It's not like there's an abundance of referees, and we have to beat them off with a stick. In fact, did you know that in England, we are suffering a national referee shortage? Some teams are so desperate that they are offering £60 to tempt grassroots referees. There was even an FA Vase game asking for an assistant referee on Twitter.

I frequently hear from participants within football that we need more referees who know the game. This is also something that will be uttered from time to time on television, by ex-players not pundits, on silly money to pontificate about the game from the comfort of their lush studio chairs. Why not you? If you played at the highest level and are now retired, why not help out with your vast knowledge of football? We could really do with the help. It turns out that many don't know the rules, and that is across the board, from grassroots to pro. I had to explain to a coach who played college soccer in the US that you can't be offside from a throw-in. Maybe referees do need to know the game better, but lets start with everyone else knowing the rules first.

I got told to "piss off" by a thirteen year old this morning, before he then called me a "fucking dickhead." All I did was award the other team a free-kick for him lashing out at an opponent. And I thought with my vast coaching experience in six countries and my high level qualifications that I knew the game. Apparently not.

Pundits do get it wrong a lot. Of course they do. They are human. But when you're paid those sums of money, and you become the face of football for a nation, we need to see a little due diligence. There are always examples of people not knowing stuff, like Alan Shearer on Match of the Day saying "nobody knows much about this Hatem Ben Arfa" despite being a fully capped French international, tearing up Ligue 1, and playing games in European competitions. Maybe the man on the street could be forgiven for not knowing Ben Arfa, but for an ex-pro who is paid to watch football and be knowledgeable on television? It's pretty bad. Anyone who had played FIFA or Football Manager knew exactly who Ben Arfa was.

I digress. Pundits don't know the rules, or the current application of those rules, and become really angry on television. Even worse when it's one of their old teams. Kids and parents hear this stuff. I've lost count at the amount of times I've shouted at my television because somebody on there was wrong about the rules, and then hearing it shortly after in a game from a player, coach, or parent. It's lazy, it's lowest common denominator television, and it does a huge disservice to those trying to grow the game. We're all in this together, right? If our nation succeeds, it's because we all played our part. And making sure we have enough referees at our games is a big part of that.

So what can we do? I'll try and break down some ideas. For years, I have refereed in my spare time when I didn't have any games to coach. I had no games today, so picked up two matches. Both boys 11v11, one U14 and one U18.

Abuse Per Minute

You might think at £30 a game now for 11v11 grassroots football that it's quite good. It is, when it doesn't rain, the pitch isn't far from where I live, and nobody gives me any "feedback." Honestly, the abuse wears you down. The first one or two comments, I can shrug off, but when it's deep into the second half and a team hasn't stopped their incessant whining, it's enough to make you want to walk off the pitch.

The games were 2x35 and 2x45. £60 for 160 minutes worth of work. That is around two and a half minutes of refereeing to earn a quid. Now let's add on five minutes for stoppages, ten minutes for half time, fifteen minutes pre-game, and ten minutes post-game. That takes us to 220 minutes. Today my total driving to and from games was 50 minutes. That's a total of 270 minutes that I gave to refereeing today. Four and a half hours. So we're really looking at £60 for 4.5 hours worth of work. That's £13.33 per hour. I think minimum wage in England is £8.91 now for over twenty-five year-olds.

Today I would imagine I had about sixty comments off people, roughly, in both games. And that's only those that I heard. Meaning we're looking at about 50p per "feedback."

How does that old saying go? Don't accept feedback from people you wouldn't go to for advice?

Would you accept coaching advice?

The reason why I have stayed refereeing for so long is because I have developed thicker skin and some quick retorts. Many referees aren't lucky enough to develop that. How many referees do you see in the age range of 25-45? I have quit refereeing several times though, and have been assaulted physically twice. The verbal assaults come several times per game. I refuse to referee adult men's football now, because, and you can quote me on this, it's mainly small dicked aggressive men trying to recapture their failed dreams. They're angry at life, use the referee as a scapegoat, and it means that you become the focus point for all their pent-up aggression.

One of my go-to responses, however, is to ask the coach or the player if they would accept advice or feedback from me. "Would you like me to grade your coaching?" And of course we see some shocking coaching. Much of it crossing the line into child abuse under the guise of "toughening them up." When presented with this option, coaches usually stutter their way through a "well, no, but..." So don't tell the referee anything. Even if what you have to say is genuinely of use, think of how it would be perceived. Often scared and lonely referees being bellowed at by aggressive coaches, observing the game through their rose-tinted glasses. Your helpful refereeing advice is never going to ever look like it's coming from a genuine and kind place.

Could you imagine a referee harassing a player for missing a shot or giving away possession? That's how ridiculous you look.

This morning I had a dad try to remonstrate with me. He was unhappy that I hadn't given a foul for his son's team, and apparently gave a foul for the opposition when the player "barely touched him." Just before the free-kick was taken, I blew the whistle and said "Hold on boys, I'm getting some advice." I then went to the dad and said "What would you like to say?" I let him moan for ten seconds, and when he finished said "Thanks for that. Let's go! Free-kick purple" and got on with the game. He was flanked by his two mates who, from that moment on, decided to sarcastically clap any decision I gave their way. The height of maturity, and obviously a great example to children everywhere.

Remember that Referees Don't Train

How many times and for how many hours will you see your teams this week? Between today's game and next week's game, referees will not train. Most will do general fitness activities. Some even play football. But we don't train. Not until you get very high up will there be any training. There's the odd clinic and workshop, which are inconveniently timed and only a couple times per year. Nobody is getting out the Veo camera and showing referees some clips. Nobody is breaking down moments of the game and working with referees on their positioning. There's no analysis, no training, and no feedback. How will referees get better?

Many will say we need more assessors at games, but where will these come from when we don't have enough referees to cover all matches? We had a similar problem when I was in the US. We were able to get three officials per game, so at least a middle had some help from two assistants. The only feedback I ever got was about wearing the wrong colour trainers. In Missouri, we'd referee in teams of three, doing three games, taking it in turns to do a middle each. Unless someone was too young or inexperienced. There were plenty of times I would be the middle for two or three games on the bounce. And then pick up extra games too, because we were always struggling for numbers. There was one weekend I think I only had one game to coach, so did about eight or nine games of refereeing across a Saturday and a Sunday. My Fitbit had never seen so many steps.

Much like with players though, this impacts performance. I was good in the middle for about a game and a half. This was not fair on the teams in my second, third, or fourth games, as they now had a mentally and physically tired referee. Even when trying my best, my tired best will be less than good enough. Especially when it's boring and hot. Your mind goes long before the legs. I swear one game I was hallucinating. Either that, or one team had dressed up as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Even more so in the US than in England, the bar is so low for referee entry. They will take absolutely anyone they can. The only requirement is to pass the test, getting 45/50 right. Even if you fail, the assessors tell you the right answers, so you can go back and fill in the incorrect responses. These referees go into the games under prepared, lacking a full grasp of the rules and their application, without the training to deal with idiots and their comments. The level of refereeing was terrible. Of course it was. Much like how the driving is terrible in countries with low license requirements. Naturally, these referees would soon quit, and would have to be replaced by the next cohort six to twelve months later. The turnover is incredibly high. But how do we stop it? Fundamentally, the message is to stop being dicks to referees.

At fourteen, one of my own players decided to get here referee license. I was at the fields anyway, so went to watch a bit of her game when mine finished. By the time I had turned up, she was already in tears. Shivering, snivelling mess on the sidelines, because a group of middle-aged men chose to give her some in-game feedback. She continued the game through the tears, and I made sure I was seen quite close to her in an attempt to deter the idiots.

Just like your young players on the pitch, the referees are also learning the game. They need respect, patience, tolerance, just like your players do. And much like how we as coaches hate parents interfering with the kids we coach, that's what you're doing as a coach trying to advise the referee. Keep it to yourself. It will not be appreciated nor will it be well received.

There's Little to No On Field Support

The US, in my experience, is an outlier when it comes to getting three officials at games. In England, we can rely on parents as assistant referees (to an extent) because on the whole, they know what the offsides law is. The vast majority of American parents honestly don't know their arse from their elbow in footballing terms. So there would genuinely be very few people in attendance of a game that could actually wave a flag at the right moments. Until we get to a good level, referees are often on their own. No assistants, no fourth official to get the coaches to shut up, nobody in their ear with advice, no VAR, no mentor or assessor, and no videos to watch after the game.

It is completely ridiculous to expect that a referee would get everything right. Even before you apply subjective bias, that a referee would agree with you on every decision being made. There's the truth, there's what the referee gave, there's what the home team thinks, and what the away team thinks. Very rarely are all four aligned. But if referees don't give what coaches and players feel the decision should have been, then they're having a bad game and are a terrible referee.

What do you say to your players when they make a mistake? Head up? Keep going? You'll get the next one? In the eyes of coaches and players, players are able to redeem themselves. Think of Fernando Torres scoring the important goal for Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. He had a terrible game. Likely 2/10 rating. But he scored the goal that sealed the win, and all was forgiven. If a referee gives a throw-in you don't like on the halfway line, they're often given no chance to redeem themselves. Quite likely, anything from then on becomes "he's only giving that to make up for the one from earlier." So how do referees win? They can't. They're trapped.

How can you expect someone to be 100% effective as a one-man team? I would love for some help from club linesman. But as we know, they can't be trusted. Some will raise the flag for any forward pass. Some genuinely don't know the rules. And some, I kid you not, have run down the line either on their phones, smoking, or drinking a coffee.

With a team of assistant referees, the centre ref would run a diagonal like this. It means that you have two people looking at the play from two different angles, and a third from further away for any incidents out of sight. This morning, one team claimed an opponent punched their player. I believed them. It happened behind my back, as I turned my body to track the ball on a switch of play. But I couldn't send the player off based solely on testimony. I have to see it. With assistant referees that are qualified and impartial, I can do that.

Many club linesman also love to chat to their parent mates behind them. They miss a lot of decisions. Without qualified assistant referees, the referee has to now cover the whole pitch by themselves, without a second pair of eyes, without help, without advice, without another impartial voice. It's an incredibly difficult task.

You're Alone and Exposed

Referees cannot hide. You're out there by yourself, as the sole arbitrator of the game. Everyone looks to you whenever anything happens. Bad players can avoid the ball. They can take a breather. Players can sub in and out of the game. Players can blame other players. "I only gave the free-kick away because I was outnumbered because you didn't track back." As part of a team, there is shared responsibility. Like how it's never the goalkeeper's fault (unless, of course, they throw it into their own goal) as there were ten other players on the pitch to get past first.

The players that I dealt with this morning got to go off and have a little cry. Could I do that? Sub out for another ref while I go and calm down on the sidelines? What if I could come off for ten minutes, get a hug from my mum and some Lucozade, before going back in? Referees are being watched by large groups of people, from all angles, who all know they could be doing a better job, but are just too busy to be wasting their time refereeing.

The Refereeing Matches the Level of Play

You think the refs are bad in your league? They're at your level for a reason. Unless you're in the Premier League, you can't expect Premier League referees. This really hit home to me during a U10 girls game in Missouri. The team were losing 4-0 in the first half and I had to eject the coach, despite several warnings. He just wouldn't shut up, challenging me with every decision. His team were playing at around the sixth of eight divisions. His players missed open goals. They couldn't trap a bag of sand. One even fell over when she tried to kick the ball into the empty net, missing the ball completely. I don't say that to rip on the kids. Football is for everyone, regardless of ability. I say that to show the absolute nerve of the guy to pester me for throws and offside calls when his own players lack many of the basic fundamental movement skills required for sport.

Nowadays, I often say to players in my pre-game chat that "I'm just some wanker from down the road, I'm not a Premier League ref." It gets a chuckle and buys me some sympathy, which quickly evaporates when I don't give that first "Ref! Push in the back!" Maybe I didn't see it from my angle? Maybe the assistant had the better view but isn't qualified and couldn't give it? Maybe there was contact but not a foul? Maybe it was a foul, but it didn't interfere with the play? Nope. That's it. I'm now forever condemned as an idiot, undeserving of empathy, with no path to redemption.

Next time you coach your U8s and the fourteen year-old referee gives a goal kick instead of a corner, before you unleash your wrath to relieve the tension inside of you that accompanies the fast-paced high-stakes U8 league, just pause for a moment and reflect. Ask yourself if anyone will benefit from what you're about to say. If not, keep it to yourself. Let it go.

Greater Internet Dickwad Theory

This brings me onto a little known theory talked about within cognitive psychology. It suggests that any normal person, when provided with anonymity and an audience, can turn into a dick. I believe this theory applies to parents and comments they make towards referees. The formula is practically the same. Until that moment, until half past ten on a Sunday morning, they have lived their day just like the rest of us. They woke up, had breakfast, put on some clothes, brushed their teeth, got in their car, likely listened to music, arrived at the game, made small talk with other attendees. For all intents and purposes, up until this point, they have behaved as a normal person,

Now we add in the anonymity provided by crowds. When do referees get the most comments from parents and coaches? During live play. At a moment when the referee's focus is on the game. Referees will typically be looking at the ball and the players around it, not scanning the parents forty yards away. So it's kind of like a sucker punch, really. A cowardly act. How is the referee to know which parent suggested they go to Specsavers? It usually takes me around five shouts before I get who the parent is. And it may sound judgemental, but I'm never surprised when I match the face to the feedback. What is the referee supposed to do, anyway? Referees cannot fight back. We cannot stop the game to remonstrate with a self-appointed referee assessor (unless there's a break in play, or it really becomes a problem).

Sucker punch, plus the referee can't fight back, and often the referee doesn't know who said it. There's your anonymity. They know that they'll likely get away with it. But why do they do it? Because they have an audience. Many coach and parent educators who advocate for the same change I do, but who are perhaps nicer about it than me, will try to defend parents by saying the accusation about parents living vicariously through their kids is not true. Sure. It doesn't apply to the majority, but there are definitely some parents who view their kid as an accessory, much like a while fluffy dog in a handbag, rather than their own independent human being with agency over their life. If a parent has made an Instagram page for their kid's football journey, this applies to them.

While many aren't living vicariously through their kids, I would suggest that many are attempting to score points, or achieve what is known as social currency. For many parents, going to their kids' games becomes their entertainment and their social life. They're now with their mates, feel aggrieved by a refereeing decision, and think they can obtain some social currency by aiming some "banter" in the direction of the referee. I would estimate that only around 1% are actually funny. And even being funny doesn't justify the anonymous comments made to someone trying their best, who can't fight back.

It really is the behaviour of a bully. A bully "seeks to harm, intimidate or coerce (someone seen as vulnerable." Referees are definitely vulnerable. And sideline comments definitely carry the intention of wanting to harm, intimidate or coerce into decisions. It is repeated behaviour which is intended to hurt someone emotionally.

Bad Faith Conversations

"Ref, can I just have a word?" It's a trap. 99% of these are people trying to frame the conversation in a way to back the referee into a corner before unleashing a "gotcha!"

"Bad faith is a concept in negotiation theory whereby parties pretend to reason to reach settlement, but have no intention to do so, for example, one political party may pretend to negotiate, with no intention to compromise, for political effect." They pretend they want to understand why a decision was given, but have had half a game to think of the best way to trap the referee into admission of failure. I have regularly fallen for it and taken the bait. "I just want to know why X..." and then you, in good faith, proceed to explain what you saw, what the rule is, and how you interpreted it in that situation. You think the parent or coach really wants to know the answer, and is just curious. You say your piece, thinking you've done a good deed, and then you're hit by ten counterpoints, mostly irrelevant to what happened, and a whole bunch of emotional nonsense.

These people often have important jobs and families, but the best part of their weekend was to outwit an exhausted, lonely, unsuspecting, unprepared referee. If they hit you with the "gotcha!" they will dine out on it for weeks. Sometimes even years. I've never heard such a conversation about myself, but have had countless stories regaled to me by parents and coaching colleagues over the years about the time they accosted the referee after the game, and defeated them in a rigged battle of wits.

This morning, I gave a free-kick and a yellow card. The player exclaimed that it was his first one. Honestly, that doesn't matter one bit. If your first foul all game is a foul that warrants a yellow card, you don't get a second chance. You don't get a freebie. "First foul is free" like it's a football version of The Purge. This incident was only ten yards inside the field, right in front of the dugout. Of course, Coach wanted to say something. Come on, mate, there's a game going on, and people want to enjoy their weekends. He "just wanted to know..." No he didn't. All the signs were there. I could tell he had an argument ready, and nothing I said to him would have sufficed. Probably less than 10% of the time do I find coaches accept an explanation - which you're not actually entitled to by the way. He was ready to tell me that if this was that, and that was this, then why wasn't that one over there blah blah blah. I had a go back, told him all he wanted to do was bitch, and then walked away. "After the game then?" he asked. "No. I need to go home and eat my dinner."

You're not entitled to an explanation, and you do not deserve the referee's time. Perhaps I misread it, and this guy was coming at me with good faith. But can you see why referees may perceive inquisitions as hostile? As Walt Disney used to say; "We teach people how to treat us." If you bad faith a referee, don't expect them to trust you a second time. And if you need to gotcha! the ref, consider how sad your life must be.

Referees Don't Care Who Wins

I've got my own teams to worry about. There's also the team I support. Half the time, I hardly even know who's playing. Referees have no vested interest in the outcome of any game. But it's easier to perceive referees as the enemy, when you twist it as such in your mind. It's a defence mechanism. We didn't win today because weather/luck/referee. It's not me who sucked and lost the game, it's that evil referee who cheated! If that's what you need to tell yourself to be able to sleep at night, go ahead. It won't make it any more true. You may think your division four U12 game is serious business. Rest assured that the referees don't. You've been thinking about this game all week, working on it in training, and running different scenarios through your mind. Not me. I checked my phone on Thursday to see what time I was given a game. I then checked my phone Sunday morning to read what the address was. Beyond that, your game takes up no more of my head space.

I get it. As coaches, we live for the games. It's when we get to see the fruits of our labour come out on the pitch, and assess if players have worked well against our learning objectives. But in order to be a good coach, you have to be a good people person with a lot of empathy. Understanding that the referee doesn't care about the outcome of your game, and that your game isn't the most important thing in the universe, is very important to long term player development. Back in Missouri, referees wouldn't even get our name right. "And you guys are... Global Missouri?"