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Aug 20/09
Are referees to blame for the escalation of violence in competitive youth soccer?

The percentage of USC competitive player injuries was up this year. Injuries ranged from a cracked ankle and broken leg to strained shoulder, concussion, etc., but it does not stop here.
The actions and disrespectful behaviour of some of the players we encountered was not acceptable by any standards. One player found herself on the end of a spitting attack, which was left as 'unseen' by the referee.
Next, after the conclusion of a U14 boys game the opposing coach interrupted a parent coach meeting, accusing one of our players of spitting during the traditional handshake. The irate behaviour of that coach and disrespect of the code of ethics in this scenario is another story. The issue here is: What makes coaches and players take matters into their own hands, in matters wrong or right during a game? What makes them 'fly off the handle'?
Is it possible that officials actually do miss incidents during play altogether?
Perhaps they detect the offence, but choose to ignore it for various reasons?
Maybe they do not know how to handle certain situations?
Who knows, perhaps the old 'the ref favours the opposing team' comes to mind.
While this is a possibility, we actually see inconsistent officiating across the board, which makes 'favouring the other team' slightly useless (even though, it could disguise it).
This in turn creates very irate coaches off the field and angry players on the field.
Not a good mix, by any standards.
The professional game has become faster and more physical. In youth soccer we see emulations of the pro game.
There are many unseen 'professional' fouls, which are committed during a game. Observant youth players might have learned a few by watching pro games and creatively insert them into their 'trick' repertoire. Some competitive youth coaches do not condone this, but in many cases do nothing about it. It can be assumed that some coaches even choose to 'improve' on these unfair tactics, such as pinching, poking, jersey pulling, pant pulling, verbal insults, to name a few (This gives a whole new meaning to Long Term Player Development). It seems normal that the recipient of such sneaky provocations will 'snap' at one point during the game, and one can almost be certain that a referee will catch this 'snap' right away, because it is almost always clearly visible to everybody. (Remember when Zinedin Zidan committed the famous 'head-butt' in retaliation).
zz headbutt
Fouls committed in retaliation are clear cut and always red card offences. The 'little stuff' that leads to it, usually is not noticed, or perhaps ignored.
Should referees at the start of the season, especially if they officiate in the youth system, be tested in regards to the age groups they work with? Should there be a briefing, including coaches, so everybody is on the same page?
Should these referees be assigned to one specific age division, so they do not get confused when officiating a U10 or U15 game?
Having seen and looked at many situations, involving bad officiating, unacceptable player actions and irresponsible coaches' behaviour (including parents) one must conclude that leadership has to be shown at the top, which is the Canadian Soccer Association, right down to the districts and leagues.
Some suggestions were brought forward in the interest of player development in Canada and in turn for referee development. This could be a stepping stone of how to deal with officiating in competitive leagues, which in this provincey officially start at age 12.
  • Development leagues must be TRUE to player development (not just in name).
  • Development leagues are U8 to U12, no scores are kept, emphasis on player.
  • Coaches and referees have no winning agenda, instead have the liberty to correct infractions and mistakes during a game, i.e. repeat a throw-in instead of handing it to the opposing team.
  • Coaches and officials have an open dialogue
  • Any violent and rough play must be dealt with in an educative manner. Alternatives must be explained and taught.
  • Officials communicate properly with players (showing that they are not dictators)
  • Officials stick with one age group throughout the season.
  • Competitive leagues start at age 13, 11 vs 11 (not age 12 as currently).
  • Leagues must test their officials to be fit, physically and mentally, to deal with the different age groups (showing a red card and telling a youth "I don't want to see your face again!" is not acceptable).
  • Referee associations must be very adamant to get the proper message to their referees.
The above examples are worth experimenting with. In some provinces this scheme might already in place, or at least partially implemented. One missing link will interfere with the success of such a structure. We all have to play our part. As a soccer player's parent it is your responsibility to make sure your child is in an environment that enhances a player's wellbeing for the long haul. Coaches and officials that do not fit into that environment must be re-educated or phased out. The player drop- and burn-out rate could become larger, if nothing is done at all.
Looking at the big picture, the drop out rate for referees is tremendous in Ontario. Citing verbal abuse and unrealistic pressure from parents and coaches, many opt to leave the unthankful position as a referee.
"Nationally, we train just enough to keep our heads above water and make up for the people who are leaving each year," says Joe Guest, director of referees for the Canadian Soccer Association.
Does this mean that in order to keep the numbers the bar of better officiating is not raised, perhaps even lowered?
Where in this vicious cycle is an opening to make a difference?