A few nights ago I found all my equipment and participated in a 2 hour, indoor, marathon game, in a league affectionately known as O.A.F., which stands for Old And Fat, both of which I qualify for. It is a fun series of pick up games for folks in the surrounding towns that like to get out and kick a ball around every now and then. Generally comprised of 30, 40, and 50 somethings, the play is fairly skilled and very well behaved. So it is truly a "friendly" game.
I'll be honest, it has been going on (4) years since I touched the ball in a match situation, basically since I started law school. Let's just say my first few shifts were not pretty, and the later ones while better, were not exactly stellar either.
Waking up the next morning and lying in bed, as I was not able to move at all because I was so sore, I reflected on something.
I recalled how very critical it is to have empathy as a referee. There are times when players are going to appeal to you for no reason at all and try to pull the wool over your eyes. There are times however, the majority of times, that players are going to get legitimately fouled, and you know what, it can f+($#ing hurt, a lot, as I again rediscovered the other night!
While a referee needs to stay impartial to objectively determine if, or if not, some event has occurred that requires intervention, a referee will garner more respect from the players if he can show empathy for a situation. Just remember objective does not mean aloof.
Asking questions like, "Are you okay?", or "Do you need the trainer?", are not out of bounds. They show compassion for what is going on. How many times have we been faced with a skilled player who gets fouled again, and again, and again, and after getting so frustrated at being fouled so many times they lash out at the referee for failing to call fouls? What did you do as a referee? Did you caution the skilled player for dissent? Did you speak with them to seek to understand? Or did you have the empathy to "feel" what was happening (and the refereeing vision) and caution the player making sure the star was not able to show their skills?
I would opine being empathetic to both players situations is key. Understanding the star is getting beat up and frustrated by not being able to show his skill, and the defender is there to stop the star at almost any cost will add clarity to what a referee has to do. When you then deal with the situation, you demonstrate your understanding of what is going on to all. While disagreements will occur about the action you take, you will garner the respect of ALL the players involved because you have made the effort to understand why they are there.
You may be surprised too, empathy is a two way street. It is not unheard of for a player to approach a referee during or after a match and offer words of support when the players know they are not making it easy on you that day.
A referee is not just a neutral observer, they are an active participant in THE game. Don't forget to be there.