Interrupting the Beautiful Game as a First Time Referee

It was 2007, and I was starting a new gig! I had nine years coaching youth soccer and 10 years as a player in high school and college, so of course, I thought I was ready to referee soccer.

I registered with my local chapter, went to class, passed the test, met with John, my mentor, and accepted my first assignment. I was fit. I knew the game. I even thought I looked good in my new uniform. Physically and practically speaking, I was ready.

Mentally? Well that’s another matter.

First Time on On The Field

My first assignment was a club level U-12 Girls game at a local Syracuse, NY indoor center. It was a cold February evening. Players warmed up. Coaches organized. Families and supporters looked on with anticipation. I recall still feeling chilled a few minutes before game time while John demonstrated how to work the score board. I know now that chill was nerves.

The plan was to shadow my mentor as he began the game. When I felt ready, we’d switch roles. John finally asked, and I said “Yeah, I got it” as confidently as I could.

The truth is I was reluctant. I felt silly and self-conscious, a grown man in my forties learning how to ref amongst two teams of little girls, as John, a 20-year veteran official complete with Italian accent and an international pedigree, watched and corrected my positioning.

Suddenly, there was a foul. One of these petite, ponytailed soccer players missed her tackle of the ball and caught her opponent’s foot, sending the larger girl flat on her face.

I froze. I saw what happened, but I did nothing. The ball skittered off as a couple players half-heartedly ran it down. Then I felt all eyes on me, as my mentor’s voice beckoned, “Dave, did you see that?”

“Yes.” I answered, as time flashed back to full speed.

“Well blow the whistle!” he commanded.

I heard my whistle and felt my arm motion for a direct free kick. My soccer referee career had begun with my first real call.

The Referee’s Moment of Truth

I realized that my biggest challenge was to master what I’ll call a “referee’s moment of truth.” Soccer is known as “The Beautiful Game.” It has flow, wide-open action, and strategy on the run. One side’s attack can become the opponent’s counter attack with one intercepted pass and well placed switch of field. As referees, we advocate for the game’s continuity.

Clinicians teach us to stop play only when the game’s beauty of ball movement turns to the ugliness of a foul. Our whistle can be a rude and disappointing interruption of the excitement and possibilities of the game’s flow. So, as I’ve learned from experience, we had better make it good.

A moment of truth begins when a referee whistles for stoppage; our timely decision to whistle involves multiple factors that need to be in our awareness and focus. It’s like knowing when to snap the perfect candid shot or making a smart comeback to a kidding remark or even knowing the answer when called upon in a meeting. That’s why I was hesitant at first. I was overwhelmed by all that must come together for a new referee – for any referee – in that moment.

Adopting the Referee’s Point of View

Our concerns include: knowledge of the rules, recognition of unfairness, determination of advantage, interpretation of player reaction, feel for the flow of the game, being in good position, application of mechanics, knowing the proper restart, unbiased focus, and confidence that you are about to make the right call.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – but only if we get it right.

My failure to make that first call was based on fear. I stopped in my tracks because something didn’t add up. Maybe I was sure about the foul, but I was unsure of the restart. Maybe I was afraid of a coach’s criticism. Maybe I’d lost my focus. I was not processing information fast enough to make a confident, timely call.

At those moments of truth, players, coaches and fans see them as just or unjust, depending on which side they’re on.

When I was a player, I could sense what had happened. I could see, hear and feel whether I got the ball or my opponent’s leg on a slide tackle, and I would expect a corresponding call by the referee.

As a coach, I knew what I wanted to see and lobbied hard to get the calls to go my way.

But as a rookie referee, I knew I had to transition away from the player and coach perspectives and biases that had become habit for me.

So what did I do?

I studied the rules. I imagined scenarios and their respective correct calls. I watched more experienced officials. I asked a lot of questions. Most of all, I worked on gaining confidence in my decisions and selling the calls once I had made them.
Our role is to maintain fairness and safety. Remember, it is the players who soil beauty with fouls and misconduct. It takes courage to reprimand their interruption of the game.

Your Turn

What first time or new experience has caused you to fully change your perspective or outlook on an activity, sport, or art you thought you knew? I had a mentor.
What are you going for next? Could you use some help, support, and encouragement to do it? Join us in the #365FirstsChallenge Facebook Group and let’s talk about it.

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