We’re having a rather interesting debate with some parents in our league over how we handle the development of referees. It raises a number of interesting issues so I thought I’d share them with you all and see what you thought with our Question of the Week:

How Should Referee Development Be Handled?

Like most leagues, we have a referee development program which goes hand in hand with our player development program and league. We encourage new referees to take their Grade 8 or 9 certification course and start the younger ones out primarily as assistant referees (ARs). As they gain experience, they’ll work as centers in less intense matches, primarily in U8, usually with on experienced adult running lines. With a 6v6 format and players that are 6 or 7 years old (thus a slower game pace than say U10 or U12), it provides an ideal setting for them to get more experience and gain confidence. Scrimmages and matches between older teams playing less intense matches are also sprinkled in.

Our U8 division holds a festival at the end of the season where we match up teams with similar records to play 4 matches each. This took the place of our usual end of season tournament and no standings are kept. The idea being less pressure, the kids were too young, etc. So the games don’t really ‘count’ for anything – but it gives the kids a feel for what a tournament is like, two matches on a Saturday and the matches tend to be exciting since the teams have similar records and abilities.

Given that environment and it being the end of the season with the new referees having worked a fair amount of matches, we’ll put crews together for U8 that consist of mainly of the younger officials so they can get some confidence and more experience.

The problem we’ve found is, based on random observations of matches, the parents ride the refs MUCH more the younger they are. When adults work the center, they don’t complain as much. During a recent match we got complaints that the center was indecisive and making wrong calls. While they did miss a few, another adult referee who watched the game noted the bulk of the parent complaints over calls were due to a misunderstanding of the rules, not a bad call, which is unfortunate. Player confusion was the result of parents yelling out the calls before the ref could and, of course, teenagers tend not to be as assertive as an adult might be. We really try to make sure our parents know the rules and understand them, especially when moving from swarm ball U6 to the more organized U8. But as you all know, some parents will always question calls even if their code of conduct forbids it.

Afterward, a couple parents let us know they felt it wasn’t fair to their kids to have younger refs working the U8 games. The kids deserved adult referees we were told. We explained why we used them in U8 (to get them experience so we have better refs in the older, faster paced matched), but they weren’t swayed by that and felt if they paid registration fees like everyone else, all their matches should have adult referees.

Which leads to a problem where you can’t train your younger referees and eventually end up with a less experienced referee corp. If you want quality officials and enough of them to cover your growing soccer program, you HAVE to train new ones. If the younger ones can’t gain confidence somewhere, they’ll never be able to handle higher pressure matches in upper levels of youth or even adult play.

This surprised us to say the least. Now, it’s just a few parents with this opinion that we know of, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear it from others, though likely a minority. But it was still a surprise. 

So how does your league handle referee development? Do you use the younger divisions as a training ground for referees? Have you had parents who felt training referees in the younger age groups was unfair to their kids?

We tried to explain to the parents that 6 and 7 year olds are not going to come off the field going ‘I got robbed by the ref’ when they’re still trying to figure out the game themselves. Well, unless they heard it from their parents first. Mistakes get made by ALL officials, not just younger ones. The issue I’ve found repeatedly is that the teenagers aren’t as decisive and authoritative on the field as an adult, which is completely understandable and which is why we’re trying to build up their confidence with some real world experience. We have to give them the chance to become great even if it means a few calls get missed when a player is 6 years old.

What do you think?