The Memories & Spirit of the Game, as only Ken Aston could teach it...
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-= Dealing with Coaches and Spectators ... =-
Dealing with Coaches and Spectators
by Mike "Skipper" Goblet
"Cogito ergo Arbitro - I think therefore Umpire"
Member of the Masters of Mayhem

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Without question, there are times when each of us come into contact with some coaches who lack focus, some coaches who do not know the game, some who attempt gamesmanship, and some who are hostile for financial reasons.

While there are some who would be adversarial for the sake of being adversarial, the greatest portion are well meaning, caring, and really want to do a good job. They don't begin their day by planning the ways and means to annoy referees or create the game from hell. They have enough to do managing players, parents, and the occasional dog.

Although I have good friends who occasionally take exception with my beliefs, I hold that the referee himself is responsible for the creation of many if not most adversarial situations.

I cannot count the number of referees I have observed who are delivering anything but the service they were hired or volunteered to perform. Players, team officials and spectators (who commonly provide the money used to pay us, be it in cash or in kind) have every right to expect that referees will:

  • Know the Laws
  • Be physically fit/run/remain close to play
  • Understand the game/adjust to match demands
  • Respect players, team officials, and spectators
  • Communicate expectations to players and team officials
  • Be physically fit/run/remain close to play
  • Protect players from injury
  • Deal with players who consistently foul
  • Refrain from argumentative and/or vindictive behavior

Let's look at these individually:

Know the Laws

There is no excuse - none whatsoever - that can explain a lack of up to date knowledge of the Laws of the Game, the interpretations of those Laws, the procedures (mechanics) they should employ, and the administrative policies of the Federation as they apply to referees. Let me add that truly minor subjects such as not having each and every circular from FIFA or memorandum from the Federation do not even figure into this equation - any material which is necessary to keep a referee updated is available on the USSF web site. There are few referees who cannot gain access to that web site, either directly through their own internet access, a visit to the library, or through assistance of a friend. We are indeed fortunate to have, easily accessible, the Laws of the Game, Advice to Referees on the Laws of the Game, Procedures for Referees, Assistant Referees, and Fourth Officials, and the Referee Administrative Handbook.

Beyond this, there are innumerable in-service training modules available, as well as an Intermediate Referee Course and a State Referee Course. If your state does not offer these courses, get a number of officials together and respectfully request that they be scheduled. It may also be possible to attend In-Service Training or either course in a neighboring State. I attended the Intermediate Referee Course in Connecticut while registered in another state.

There are a number of excellent books on the subject, as well as videotapes. In short, a referee must accept responsibility for their own development and do what is necessary to maintain and improve their skills.

Physical Fitness/Run/Remain Close to Play

Each of us is aware of what is expected of us in this matter. We must be physically fit enough to be where we need to be during the 50 to 90 minutes allotted to each match. We must operate by the Diagonal System of Control (even though we may be the only official assigned to the match), not the Diameter System of Control (remaining within the center circle for the entire match). Far too often referees simply do not have the fitness or display an inability or willingness to run and/or remain close to play. Even if their decisions are correct, they do not engender trust. MCI (Long

Distance) calls are never appreciated. (Note: There are some referees whose experience allows them to manage play from longer distances, and commonly their demeanor and consistency engenders great trust and comfort levels from all observers - even their assistant referees. This ability does not, however, excuse them from the need to be physically fit, to run, and to remain close enough to play).

A visit or call to a High School or College athletic trainer could provide you with a training plan to attain and maintain fitness.

Understand the Game/Adjust to Match Demands

Most referees have heard of the Spirit of the Laws, yet lack the understanding of the game necessary to apply it. Too often they officiate by the book - which they understand perhaps as poorly, completely stifling play, annoying all observers, and often encouraging the very behavior they complain about. They can not recognize changing frustration levels, nor can they read the players response to contact. They generally under- or over- officiate, and no one is happy.

It is also important that referees know and accept their own limitations. Some referees can not or will not accept that they are not able to adjust to older/higher skilled teams. When a referee does not adjust to the demands of faster play and/or highly developed skills, they do the game and themselves an injustice - and invite the troubles they complain about.

Respect Players, Team Officials, and Spectators

You reap what you sow, in the greatest majority of matches - well over 95% in my experience - respectful actions on the part of the referee will diffuse trouble. Taking comments personally, identifying with and validating comments of people who mean nothing to you, is YOUR problem. Far too many referees operate in a hair-trigger reaction mode; any comment, even mildly critical, can hurt, distract, or anger them. Something like road rage. Now, please understand that I do not advocate for the referee to ignore anything said to him. I recommend just the opposite - comments can be a useful barometer of feelings and emotions. They may tell us that we are in fact missing something - be it off the ball or over-enthusiastic contact, that we are too far away from play, that we are calling too tightly or loosely - and we should evaluate our match plan if such comments are continual. It is uncommon to experience continual "constructive criticism" if our employers (players, team officials, and spectators) form an opinion that we are doing our job.

As a whole, referees are far too sensitive and reactionary. Were referees to become more responsive, that is to say be attentive to comments and adjust to them without any display of rancor or annoyance, far less trouble from this source is likely. A quick self-analysis of mechanics and our observations of player actions/responses to contact or our calls can allow us to decide if we may be too far away from play, are attentive enough to off-the-ball contact, are reading play and players correctly. This is not a lengthy debate or discourse - constant comment on one or more subjects should engender a response of some form in our performance. Even if the comments are completely baseless, added energy, in the form of mechanics - moving closer to play, staying up with play, anticipating play, will normally reduce or eliminate any real "constructive criticism.

Additionally, the referee must learn to filter what they hear. The referee must realize that comments are often made entirely out of frustration and are (what was that word?) reactive and not thought out. In any case, the referee must be the mature one, regardless of the comments, and act professionally. In short, the referee must learn what not to "hear."

Does this mean the referee should ignore the truly unacceptable comments or threats to himself or any other person? No. Such behavior has no place in our game - and is especially unacceptable in the youth game. Many of us can deal with "industrial language" intelligently while maintaining personal control, and should do so. We are not given our powers to belittle or humiliate players, etc. When a player or team official acts in an unacceptable, stop the game when appropriate, isolate them from others, and do what is necessary. Do not threaten, browbeat or attempt to intimidate - these actions will backfire. Instead, take action - warn, caution (or report misconduct for team officials), or send off (or dismiss team officials) as is appropriate. If you warn or caution (report misconduct), tell them their action is inappropriate and you expect them to control their behavior, and that further inappropriate behavior may result in a caution (report of misconduct) or send off (dismissal). Note carefully that a specific action has not been specified - any inappropriate action can incur one of these responses from you.

As to comments from spectators, you have no real power over them. You do, however, have the power and duty to ensure the match is played in a safe manner and to protect players. This may seem a stretch, but inflammatory comments can indeed affect both. Should the comments distract you, then you cannot fulfill your duty. Should they distract players, they could indeed affect the safety and well-being of players. One may even extend that inflammatory comments can cause grave disorder. In any of these cases, the referee can stop play until the situation is corrected - but must be careful not to try to do this on his own. In most jurisdictions, the home team coach is responsible for spectator behavior and protection of the referee. In youth play, both coaches should be involved. Tell them that play will not restart, and the match may be terminated, if the situation is not corrected. Again, do not try to control a spectator yourself. (Don't try this in semi-pro or pro matches - it will be a cause for much warm-hearted hilarity and thoughtful observations regarding the referee's ability to function under such pressure).

Respect is vital in all aspects of the game.

The more respect you give in a controlled and almost dispassionate manner, the more you will receive.

Communicate Expectations

As noted just above, communicating expectations is far preferable to threats and confrontations. The referee must be clear in demonstrating what he expects in behavior through actions more than words. In a recent amateur match there was no way that my limited command of Spanish could explain how I would call the match. They quickly learned where the go/no go line was drawn. There are times when communication is "individually universal," comments ostensibly directed at one player but clearly seen by all players, most if not all of whom are fully aware of what the individual player did. Silence kills match control almost as surely as lecturing. The referee's actions often speak for louder than words, and are far more effective.

Protect Players from Injury

It's our duty. Period. Protecting players is important in all levels, but is much more important in youth play. When Momma Bear decides the referee has not protected Baby Bear, the referee is in deep trouble. When players decide that the referee has not protected their buddy, they will take this duty as their responsibility, and the referee is again in deep trouble. This commonly happens when referees either attempt to model skilled, perhaps professional referee's responses to contact - or they simply cannot identify injuries when they happen. Sensitivity toward apparent injuries should be far higher at the lowest ages - any injury should bring up the whistle. This sensitivity, however, should not disappear at any given age group - buy immediate stoppages should greatly decrease unless the injured player is in grave danger.

When players, team officials, and spectators form an opinion that the referee will not protect players, there will be very real match control problems.

Deal with Players Who Consistently Foul

I believe that persistent infringement is the least called - and most in need of being called - form of misconduct in the game. While many referees have reasonable foul identification skills, they are not good at maintaining a consciousness of who has committed them. As when the referee is not seen to protect players from injuries, failure to properly deal with players who consistently foul will lead to opposing players taking matters into their own hands. Simply put, referees don't concentrate on this subject near enough.

I need help in this, so I borrowed a method from another referee. I will write the number of players who attract my attention on my left palm, right side for light color shirts, left for dark. When a player has committed two, at most 3 fouls, I will hold up the restart until I can "communicate my expectations" to him. No threats, but I am mentally ready to display yellow at the next offense.

The effect of dealing with only one player who has persistently infringed is truly amazing on the rest of the players. The calming effect and trust it engenders in the referee is very great.

Refrain from Argumentative and/or Vindictive Behavior

While this has been addressed above in a number of ways, it is important enough to make a final pass at the subject. The referee must appear to be in full control of his reactions, regardless of inner turmoil. Arguing does nothing to improve your position, and only plays into their adversaries hands. The referee's attention is now away from the game, his objectivity is damaged, and he is likely to give a questionable call to that team in a subconscious recoil from another argument. Communicate expectations, and get on with the match.

Getting even through vindictive behavior is, to my knowledge, very rare but does exist. I have seen it, and it is very ugly.

This very long message is in no way the end all, tell all compilation of thoughts on this important subject. I know, however, that referees who religiously apply the methods will rarely have match problems beyond momentary incidents - because actions meet the needs of the players, team officials, and spectators, or have adjusted their actions/performance as needed to meet those needs.

The individual referee is indeed responsible for most of their success or failure. Knowledge and application of the methods noted here can make success far more likely.

You may have noticed that I made a point of saying the suggestions I offered were not for professional or semi-professional matches - normally played in a stadium. Yet, I must suggest that we can indeed influence a stadium full of people - if we use the methods I offered. I am not the world's finest referee by a half, yet I promise you that I am able, using these methods, to influence a goodly crowd. I've never worked Giant Stadium or a similar venue, yet they would likely have an impact there, also.

In regards to spectators...

The referee most certainly does not have direct power over spectators. It isn't his field. It isn't his team. Hopefully, he is not related to the spectators who are causing problems. The referee's responsibility is to the game and it's constituent parts as defined in the Laws. Personally controlling spectators is neither a duty or a power of the referee, especially if controlling spectators involves verbal sparing. The referee may, however, stop play when outside interference is such that it is not appropriate or possible to continue play. If you disagree, could you kindly specify where in the Laws there is any direction to the referee that he should directly intervene with a spectator?

In most if not all venues we normally play it is the home team that assumes responsibility for the fields, control of spectators, and safety of the referee and his property. The referee suspends play and informs the home team coach, and I recommended including the visiting coach in the discussion, when spectator interference of any notable level occurs. As to a situation where a coach cannot control the situation, then the referee has a very simple next step. Terminate the match, submit the report, and move on.

The referee determines when conditions are appropriate for a match to be played, and does the game no service by either joining swords with spectators or by ignoring that which may not be ignored. It is, in my opinion, unfortunate when a referee, for whatever reason, performs or fails to perform an action that leads to unnecessary conflict. I hope folks who take the time to study this whole posting see some wisdom in this position, and are able to use some of the suggestions to improve their man- and match- management skills.

Many folks suggest, or even demand, that the referee should never talk to spectators. There are indeed times when you can talk with spectators, but I suggest verbal one-upsmanship or ridicule are not the correct tools. I talk with spectators all of the time -unless- there is serious concern. I enjoy very good relations. I can remember defusing a potentially hot situation through a definitely non-adversarial method - the crowd screamed for a tripping call, and as I passed, I said "I'm sorry, but we disagree one that one." As I moved further upfield I heard one of them say, "I don't agree with him, but he sure is polite..."

You give credence to complaints when you attempt to defend your decisions with partisan spectators, rarely stop the comments, and often create enemies where none need exist. In most cases my recommendation as to learn to ignore them for what they are - attempts to take you out of your game or ignorance.

There were eight specific items I presented in my posting. I suggest that any referee who studiously applies them will experience very few problems with their customers. I should think that referees that focus on only one or a few of the items will not experience anything like the success that is possible through attention to all of them.

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