In Defense of the Volunteer Referee . . .

30 03 2011

Before Spring Break, our 14-year old son went to an all day Soccer Referee Clinic in our hometown. Caleb had been talking about this for quite some time and after exploring the opportunity, we encouraged him to “go for it”. From an early age, his mom and I discovered his passion for knowing and sticking to the rules, (you should see him in action at a Monopoly game!) and it seemed like this was a natural fit for him. Much to his delight, he became certified and proudly showed us his patch that demonstrated he was now among an elite group of people that could ref mini-ball, micro-ball and other soccer matches for kids under 10.

One of our destinations in Southern California last week became a soccer store in MountainView to purchase a referee jersey for his new occupation. We sought out an impressive retail outlet and  by the time we left, he had procured flags, a whistle with a wrist lanyard, a referee’s wallet complete with yellow and red cards, socks, shorts and of course a very official black with white pinstriped jersey. Caleb was all set!

Just yesterday, his brother participated in a Gr. 6 basketball game against a neighboring school. I ended up catching the latter half in this tight affair with my son’s team winning by a single basket. What struck me most though, was the tough job our ref had in officiating the game and as I observed the proceedings, a bunch of thoughts came to mind. Having been in that fellas’ shoes as a basketball ref of Elementary Schoolers, there was too many post-it-notes in my brain to ignore and so I thought I would storyboard the works in this blog. Here’s what I have come up with In Defence of the Volunteer Referee:

a) I’m doing the best that I can. Anyone who has competed at a high level of sports will tell you that it’s much easier to play the game than to coach or officiate it. As a ref, I’m not trying to be biased, I’m trying to be fair.

b) I’m not doing this to become popular, I’m doing this for the kids. I’m responding to a need that has arisen and I want the kids to enjoy the game that they’re playing in a safe and competitive manner. Part of the structure of inter-school sports includes having a ref to oversee the game and that’s what I signed on to do. Without me, there would be no game or competition. You need me.

c) I’ve only got one set of eyes and I cannot possibly see everything. Imagine you were at an intersection where a car accident just occurred. Your perspective would be limited and may in fact be quite different from the bystander across the street. It’s the same in sports. Simply put, as an official I am going to miss calls and I am going to make mistakes. Even the makers of pencils have figured that one out – that’s why they put erasers on the ends of them.

d) I’m the one with the whistle, which makes me the one who gets to control the flow of the game. In yesterday’s match, the ref certainly could have been blowing the whistle more with all of the double-dribbles and traveling that was going on. On several occasions he intentionally chose not to acknowledge those. When kids are learning a sport, I have taken the approach of calling the blatant fouls and using those ones as teachable moment for both teams by explaining the infraction and why I whistled it down. I’ve also used the “Play On!” phrase to acknowledge that I’ve seen what went on and yet kept the play moving. I want the kids to know what is wrong and what is fair, but I also understand that it’s hard for any team to gain a sense of momentum when the whistle is always blowing.

e) Every game I ref gives me more experience and more experience will make me a better ref. Do we expect our kids to stand and walk fresh out of the womb? Is it fair to expect excellence from the first day driver before he’s had the chance to go out on the highway or navigate winter conditions? It’s the same in the officiating world. With practice comes improvement. In the amateur sport’s arena or the even in the classroom, it’s not about perfection, it’s about progress.

f) Learning for me (and you) occurs when split-second judgement calls are made. Even though I have some skill and I have a whistle, I’m learning too! One piece of advice I’ve given less experienced refs is to blow the whistle hard. Right or wrong, your whistle needs to indicate to everyone that you’re in charge. You can’t project that image with a soft whistle.

g) I need encouragement too. In an NHL game, there are 4 officals on the ice and several more beyond the glass (and even at a control center in Toronto) to make sure the right calls are made. They are paid and have hundreds (thousands?) of games of experience to make sure the game is called in a fair manner. As volunteers, we do not have the luxury of other eyes, video review and several camera angles. This is not our full time occupation. A bit of encouragement (specific encouragement rather than “good job!”) every once in a while will do much to affirm the developing gifts that refs have. We are people too and deserve the respect that our striped jersey affords us. Parent shouts and player cursing does nothing to enhance our experience either.

I’m sure there are more. These are the ones on the front burner for now.




3 responses

30 03 2011
Carolyn Bartel

Brad this was a great article and should be part of every parent “consent form” package when their child signs up for an elementary interschool sport.

30 03 2011
Chris Wejr

Well said, my friend. As a coach, referee, player, teacher… I have been on both ends of the criticism. I think reffing hockey growing up helped me as a player and as a person but there were many times when some parent was hanging over the glass yelling that I thought, why am I here at 6am to ref your kid (and I was even paid about $6 a game!). You summed it up so well. I agree with Carolyn, this needs to be sent out to all parents but for more than just elementary school sports.

31 03 2011

Thanks for the comments Carolyn and Chris. Referee’s, timekeepers, scorekeepers and others who are in the shadows to make amateur sports happen are (in my opinion) so underappreciated. One of my friends who is a sound tech for worship concerts says,”If you don’t hear anything from the people about what you’ve done, then you know you’ve done a great job”. Isn’t it too bad that has to be the case? As is in these cases, I feel that everyone who has a role in ‘behind the scenes’ situations needs to be recognized for their part and appreciated for the job they do. We all need encouragement, don’t we?

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