I stopped by a soccer game last year to watch a young player named Susie whom I had been told about. She loved game, worked very hard to be her best, and, I was told, was very good. It was a U-17 girls Division I game. Most of the players had more experience than Susie. Many had made the ODP team. This was only her second or third game at this level. It was clear from watching that she wasnít as experienced as the other players and that the game was a real challenge for her. But she was working very hard and seemed to be doing a pretty fair job of it.
The score was 1-0 with only minutes to play. One team was attacking madly while the other was defending and trapping furiously. Looking across the field, I saw the opposite striker constantly moving to try to stay even with the second to last defender so she wouldnít be in an offside position. Susie was trying her hardest also but her lack of experience was showing. She just didnít have the experience yet to read the game and anticipate when the pass was coming and when the defenders were likely to pull. She was getting caught out of position from time to time. One of those time occurred just as the attacking midfielder made a through pass and the defenders pulled (or the defenders pulled and then the pass was made, I wasnít sure, it was very close). Flag went up and the referee whistled offside just as the ball was one-touched into the net for what would have been the tying goal.
The coach went ballistic, running down the touchline toward Susie screaming at her. "If you canít stay in position you shouldnít be out here!" "You are the poorest excuse I have ever seen!" "You are a disgrace to the game!!" "Youíre terrible!" "You ought to go back to the house league where you belong!" Plus some unprintable words that the referee either didnít hear or chose to ignore. Fans and other players join in berating her, telling her how terrible she was.
Bravely Susie fought back the tears and completed the game. Later I heard from her parents that she was in tears all the way home in the car. "Why," she asked, "would the coach treat me that way? I may not have as much experience as the other players but I was trying my best. If I was wrong, I didnít do it on purpose. I tried to do the right thing. Doesnít he understand I am trying to learn. Why wonít he give me a chance to learn the game like the other players?"
Susie turned in her uniform that night. She has never set foot on the field since. She says she wonít ever subject herself to that humiliation again. The sport lost a truly fine young player who had a lot of potential.
This could never happen you say. Coaches never treat players that way. No? Did I tell you Susie was the Assistant Referee? It happens all the time!
Young Assistant Referees and young Referees are every bit as much a player as the other 22 on the field. They, like their fellow 22 players, are learning, are competing, are striving for excellence, are trying to practice everything they have been taught, are trying to "win", are hoping for a "well done" at the end of the game. They have no thicker skin than any of the other players on the field. Beratement, abuse, mocking, humiliation Ė they hurt as much for them as it would hurt for the other 22 players. Every time one of the young referees is driven from the game, soccer has suffered. The game is worst off.
Who is to blame? Certainly the coaches and parents who donít or wonít understand that young referees are learning the game just like the other players. Players donít learn the game by attending a class, reading a book, watching a video, or even by practicing. They learn the game by playing, making mistakes, learning from the mistakes, and correcting them the next time they play. Referees, those players in black, can only learn the same way. Coaches and parents must let those players learn and not drive them from the game the first time they make a mistake.
Referee assignors bear part of the blame when they worry more about putting bodies on the field than seeing that young referees develop at the right pace. I once had a Susie as an Assistant Referee working line for me in a boys U-17 Division I game played between two very good teams with a history of bitter rivalry between them. Susie was 13 years old. It was her second game. Not second game at this level. Not second boys game. Not second travel game. Second game ever!
Referee administrators, instructors, and everyone else involved in referee development bear part of the blame. Do we really train these young referees or do we just teach the class so they can pass the certification test? Are we committed to working with them throughout the season, helping to coach them week to week? Do we work as hard to develop our young referee players as coaches work to develop their players?
And finally, the referees are to blame. How many young referees work as hard during the week between games as their fellow players do? Most teams practice twice, maybe three times a week preparing for the next weekend. How many young referees spend any time during the week in practice or preparation for the game?
We all bear part of the responsibility for the tragedy of Susie, and Billy and Tommy and Jennifer and all the other young referees who are forced out of the game. Together we must improve the development of young referees and we must find a way to let them learn. As I am want to tell coaches, parents, and new referees, "I have never found a way for a referee not to do his/her first game Ė be it first ever, first in the middle, first travel, or first U-19." They canít become the future very good and very competent referee without doing that first game and probably getting something wrong. It is part of learning. It is part of the youth game of soccer.
Susieís story is all too real and all too sad. We must find a way to grow these aspiring young players and not let them be driven from the game.