Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is it worth it?

I am very lucky. I was one of the generation of referees who was given the glorious opportunity to traverse the entire spectrum of matches in the United States from local youth matches, to professional (MLS) and international matches.

Those referees who came before this generation were not given the opportunity to experience the youth game in the US but largely came from the ranks of ethnic league matches, which in their own right served as excellent preparation for the professional (NASL) and international game.

Both routes have their merits and have produced exceptional referees such as David Socha, Angelo Bratsis, Jen Bennett, and Tom Supple. Currently however, there is a particular purgatory that every youth referee making their way through the ranks must endure. It is the often surreal dealings with the youth fan(atic).

This single topic alone would take up chapters of books I will write some day about my experience and those of my peers who had to struggle as a youth, and a youth referee, to find their way through the fog of youth sports.

Don't get me wrong, I don't believe soccer is unique in this respect as adults in all youth sports seem to loose their marbles at times. Nor do I believe that all adult participants are responsible for such behavior as I have had so many more positive experiences than very negative ones. The issue of course is that the very negative ones leave a much stronger and lasting impression.

Recently I was reintroduced to a long time friend of THE game, Paul Levy, who in his blog, Running A Hospital (now linked at right also), wrote an excellent article, entitled "Dear Coach", about just how wide an effect such conduct can have on the participants of a match, not just the referee. From the article:

Dear Coach,
I was refereeing your team's game yesterday afternoon in the Natick Columbus Day soccer tournament. (This was eleven-year-old boys.) You didn't like one of the calls I made, the one awarding a penalty kick to the other team. You demonstrated this, first, by throwing your clipboard energetically on the ground and yelling. Even after the kick was taken -- and missed -- you loudly yelled out to me across the field in complaint. ...

I implore you all to read this as it eloquently details the plight of the youth referee today and what they must endure for the sake of a group of children trying to have fun playing a game. The blog itself is excellent also, and provides a wealth of information on a variety of topics I am finding fascinating.

So from all of this I have one question to ask and answer for the youths growing up as youth soccer referees across the United States: Is it worth it?

My answer: An unequivocal Yes.

Your question: Why?

Well, that too could take up chapters of books I have yet to write, about how soccer can be transformative to life itself and provides such tremendous opportunities to learn some life lessons that so often are never realized without that spark to do so. THE game provides that spark.

To be sure, these are heady topics, and ones that were furthest from my mind as a teenager trying to do their best at managing a group of children playing a game, while reconciling the truly brutal affronts of some adults who were maligning all the participants for their efforts. I do not believe my teenage situation to be unique, this is happening all over the world.

This is the fog of the youth game today. This is the plight of the youth referee.

It is not the end of the story however. There are ways through the fog. Family, friends, and a host of communities such as the refereeing community itself. There are those out there who have been through the fog and want nothing more to help others do the same. I urge you to take advantage of those people. They can help.

For me I also found solace in a birthday card my dad gave to me. To this very day, it makes me stop and think about how to get through that fog. I offer it here for any in the fog of the youth game today.

If - Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!


  1. Man, oh man did you strike a raw nerve with me.
    I lament the loss of sportsmanship in the youth game. No matter what the sport.
    Suffice it to say I have game experience. I never reached the professional levels. I have refereed U-9 to the so called “veterans”; otherwise known as the over 58 crowd.
    In the last 5 years I have noticed a marked decrease in the fun that children (anyone under 17) have while playing sports. The emphasis has shifted from “providing a fun, learning and enriching experience” to “win at all cost”.
    I don’t know who to blame. Is it the parents who are trying to live their unfulfilled lives thru their children? Or is it the coaches who feel that their jobs depend on the win-loss record? I do understand that the job of coaches at the “elite levels” depends upon that coach’s success rate. In our sport, at the youth levels, those are the Super Y, Regional and the US Soccer Academy leagues. Paradoxically, I have found that the elite league coaches are the most aware of their affect on their charges. Thus their actions are measured and tempered. That leaves the vast majority of youth level coaches as instructors. Yet I am willing to wager that at least 75% of them have never read TLOG.
    Paul Levy’s words: “Your little boys, in their own way, followed your lead”. I submit that not only the “little boys” follow the coach’s lead but so do the parents.
    Sportsmanship starts with coaches. When children (and their parents) are under his or her care, the coach is a teacher, a babysitter, and a parent but most of all, she or he is a role model for the “impressionable sponges” and a guide for the adults who cheer the sponges on. Please coaches: remember, and teach the kids that this is a gentleman’s game. Act and have your team act accordingly.
    Mr. Kokolski says that soccer is life. During the game, the referee is the cop. He keeps the peace and makes sure players adhere to the “laws” (of the game). Carrying the analogy to an extreme, are coaches teaching kids to confront authority figures?
    I am sure a small part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the referee community that allows this behavior to go unchecked. The reasons or excuses are many – from lack of experience to being intimidated.
    One more part of the blame goes to the professional game. What impression is imprinted on a child when he or she sees Steve Nicol (as an example) constantly berate a referee with no consequences?

    Is it any wonder we cannot retain young referees?

    I will now step off my soap box.

  2. Please, please stay on your soapbox! This is one of, if not THE, largest issue in youth soccer today.

    The madness of abusing youth referees has to stop as it does nothing but demean the participants, the sport, and most importantly, the recipient themselves.