How do you tell an experienced referee from a fresh recruit? Some say
it’s in their confident nature or superior fitness. Maybe it’s because of the
way the know everybody in the referee tent or at your association meetings? I
say that one way to tell is to rummage through their referee kit. A new referee
will often carry the bare minimum of items and often not what is really needed,
while an experienced referee sometimes seems to need a Sherpa to carry their
bag. What’s the difference between the two referee’s kits? What’s important and
what’s just a personal luxury?
The 10 Essentials:
- Whistles – I carry two whistles in my bag. My favorite one
that I use in most situations and my spare that is in my other shorts pocket
during the game in case I drop my favorite one. The spare also has a
different tone in case the referee in the next pitch has the same favorite
- Watches – I also carry two watches. I wear both of them
when I am the referee and only one when I am an assistant referee.
One typically is set to count down and
the other to count up. If I decide to stop one watch, I always let
the other run. I do this since about a third of time I either forget to restart
the watch or accidentally reset it. This way I still have at least one watch
with the right time. Also, I think every referee who has been working games for
more than two seasons has had a watch battery die in the closing moments of a
- Cards – I carry a couple of spare set of cards. Like the
watch and whistle, I carry an extra set on the pitch in case I drop one. The
other ones in my kit are for those rare opportunities when you find an
up-and-coming referee who is using the fact that he or she doesn’t have any
cards so they can’t work the middle of this game.
Another kind of card I carry is a set of 3x5 cards. I use this as game cards.
Even when I am at a tournament where they supply game cards, I use my cards then
transfer the information onto the official game card. This helps the tournament
officials read the cards since it should be clean and clear versus my sweaty or
- Pen, Pencil, Marker
– You guessed it. I carry two writing tools and have some spares in my bag. It
is a good idea to have both a pen and a pencil since pens don’t like to work in
the rain and may freeze in the late fall and early spring. For those of you that
like the cards that you can write on, a spare marker is a good idea.
- Flipping Coin –
It is always handy to have a flipping coin in your kit since you may not have
any change on you when it comes time for captains. In a pinch, I have had used
the old “which hand is my whistle in” routine but it seems a little
- Duct Tape – As
a young man, my father taught me that almost anything could be fixed with duct
tape. This seems especially true as a referee. I have added numbers to jerseys,
fixed poorly hung nets, kept the socks up, fixed my overstressed referee bag,
and a million other things with a simple roll of duct tape
- Alternate Jersey(s)
– It is always a good practice to include at least one of the alternate jerseys
in your referee kit. Invariably, one of the teams will have chosen a club color
that is the same color as your jersey. If the rest of the team has an alternate
but you do not, this can be embarrassing and make life difficult for all
involved. If you are just starting out and don’t want to spend the money, then
see if you can buy an old one of a referee with big bag or check with your
association to see if they have a collection of used jerseys that you can use.
Once you make some money and decide that you are going to stick with refereeing,
reinvest some of it and buy some alternate colors.
- Money – You
never know when you may need a few bucks. Maybe the tournament does not pay
until the end of the day and you need some lunch. Maybe the coaches don’t have
the correct change or you need to figure out how to split the money up with the
referees when you don’t have the right combination of smaller bills.
- Eyewear & accessories
– Early in my career, I was working a heated youth match when the ball and my
face had an unexpected meeting. This contact broke my glasses. After a stoppage
of play, I ran off the field and found my nerdy back-ups and continued the
match. Now I where contacts, but during a windy tournament I was working next to
a baseball diamond and got some dirt under my contact. I was forced to remove my
contacts and put on my nerdy glasses again to finish the match. Contacts are
great but don’t forget to bring some spares, some solution, a small mirror and
never forget those nerdy back-up glasses
- Garbage Bag – OK.
Now you have all the bare essentials crammed into that tiny gym bag. You are
about to run the middle of a great match confident that you have any items that
you may need, when the rains come. All my goodies, getting soaked by this rain.
Don’t forget to take a long a full sized garbage bag. Stick your bag, and your
assistants stuff too, into the garbage bag and tie off the end. Life is good.
During a recreational game some years ago, I found a very different use for my
garbage bag. During warm-ups on these fields behind a local elementary school,
one team of girls suddenly began squealing. Upon closer inspection, I discovered
that there was a dead, half-composed animal in front of the goalmouth. I was
able to remove the carcass with the help of my trusty garbage bag and the game
continued without incident.
The Nice to Haves:
Now that you have the ten essentials items for your referee kit, lets
consider some items that are nice to have but not essential.
- Bag – Like most
everyone else, I started off with the classic cloth gym bag with one big zipper
that opens the entire bag. Now, I have a nice, sturdy, leather-like bag with my
name on it. It has multiple zippered sections. Each thing has its rightful place
and when I need it, I know where it is. My buddies jokingly call it “my body
bag” due to its size, but I am never at a loss for something I need.
- Medications –
As you get older and your body begins to creak, some medication taken
preventatively can help the day and your game go better. I carry a bottle of
Aleve and some sports cream in my bag. You may need to carry an inhaler or other
- Pump with needle and pressure
gauge – One of the tasks of the referee is to inspect and
approve the game ball(s). About 75% of time, they need some level of adjustment.
I have found it easier and simpler for me to pump the balls up rather than pass
them back and forth with the coaches until the right pressure is established. A
gauge is a good idea to get the pressure right. I have had players complain that
the ball is too soft or too hard but they can not argue with a gauge.
- Wet wipes – I
carry wet wipes for those hot days to help freshen up and wipe away the crusty
sweat off my hands and face. It is not a shower, but it is amazing how
refreshing it feels.
- Zip strips –
Carrying a few of these handy strips are great for fixing ill-hung nets. They
are quick and easy and save you from wasting large amounts of the precious duct
- Alternate Jerseys in long and
short sleeve versions – As you advance in the sport, you find
the need for more and more options for jerseys. College has 3 jerseys, NFHS has
at least two options, and the USSF has 3 options. With each of these options are
long and short-sleeved jerseys. It does not take long to have a large collection
- Alternate shoes
– Just as players often carry more than one style of shoes, referees may also
find this to be helpful. Cleats are great for muddy and wet conditions to assure
firm footing but they will absolute kill your poor feet on a hard sun-baked
pitch. Have a spare set of turf shoes or indoor shoes can allow you to change to
the right equipment for the job
- Spare socks –
Pretty early, I discovered the need for spare socks. After working a couple of
games in a local tournament with some veteran referees, we ventured to the
referee tent to relax until the afternoon session. My feet were cold and clammy
from the early morning rain which was now gone. As I looked at my experienced
teammates, they were changing into dry comfortable socks ready to take on the
afternoon in comfort.
- Sandals – On
the same day, I saw those same veterans reach into their large referee bags and
pull out some sandals. I, on the other hand, was gingerly tiptoeing around the
tent in my barefeet as my socks hung to dry.
- Foul weather clothing
– Since soccer is played in all kinds of weather, being prepared for foul
weather is important. A simple pair of gloves can make a tremendous difference
on a cool day. A warm hat is important for half-time and post-game. I own a rain
jersey. I seldom use it for rain but it works wonderfully under my regular
jersey as a windbreaker. I found that I can referee very comfortably in quite
cold weather with this combination.
- Candy Bar –
It’s half-time and the concession stand is nowhere to be found. You are tired
and need a little boost. For such situations, I keep Power-Bars in my bag. They
are full of sugar and carbohydrates yet are virtually indestructible. They don’t
get gooey in the heat and don’t shatter in the cold. They have even improved the
flavor. Don’t like them. Try something else that meets your needs. It can be the
difference between having fun and waiting for the minutes to pass.
- Warm-ups –
Beyond the warmth, a nice set of warm-ups can provide an impression of
professionalism. Entering a stadium dressed in your USSF or NISOA warm-up with
your teammates and inspecting the field, let all those watching that you take
your job seriously and professionally.
Finally, here are some items that are just plain luxuries.
- Shoe bag – Shoe
bags are great when your shoes are wet or muddy and you don’t want to put them
in your bag or even your car. A shoe bag allows you to get them home without
risk of making everything else dirty or stinky.
- Cell phone –
This luxury is very important if you have someone else waiting on you when you
pick up the last-minute game or you go into the second overtime period. A cell
phone could have been the difference between me coming home to a nice meal or to
- Clothing organizers
– I recently bought these and love them. I bought a set for short sleeve jerseys
and a set for long sleeve jerseys. They allow you to fold up the jerseys and
pack them neatly into your bag without them wadding up in the corner of your
- Pocketknife – I
carry a small Leatherman knife complete with a screwdriver and small pair of
scissors. These have done everything from fix glasses to cut medical tape, to
many other small jobs.
- Sewing kit –
The small sewing kits that are given out on overseas airline flights or are used
for camping can be helpful to repair tears in jerseys or more likely darn those
- Shoe polish & accessories
– Shoe polish is important to show a level of professionalism in your
appearance. Polishing or brushing your shoes is a common task during off-games
in the referee tent. Today, there are small polish saturated sponges that are
great for quick simple touch-ups without the mess or inconvenience.
- Game report forms, schedules,
maps, telephone numbers – I carry a small three-ring notebook
with blank game reports, my game schedule, maps to fields, telephone numbers,
and tournament rules.
- Rulebooks – In
the folder of the notebook, I have the rulebooks for the various leagues that I
referee. I try to never get them out on the pitch but I do like having them for
discussions before and after the game..
So the next time you see an experienced referee followed by a small mule train
laden with packs, he is not headed for the Grand Canyon. He is just headed to
the pitch to do his job. Who knows, he might let you ride out there on the back
of his favorite mule.