Thoughts of a Youth Referee

I am addicted. Sometimes I wish I could quit, but every time I lace up, my blood starts rushing, my palms start sweating, and I can’t think of doing anything else.

That’s what soccer does to me. That’s what soccer does for me. Even when it’s hard and ugly, when I’m the focus of hate and on the receiving end of angry insults from people who are older and who should know better, as a referee, I can not shrink.

Life lessons can be found in the oddest places, like the well-manicured soccer fields that are my domain most weekends. It’s a shame the behavior of the parents, coaches, and players who populate these fields aren’t as well-manicured. More often than not, the opposite is true. They are conditioned to dislike me. But that’s precisely why I like this job so much. It’s the reason I’ve learned lessons that will help me in all facets of life. Some are obvious: Teamwork, leadership, nerve, certitude and daring. It taught me the value of hard work, responsibility, grit, and, most of all, standing firm when I’m all alone.

Being a soccer referee is one of the most valuable job experiences I’ve ever had, even if it’s one of the hardest. The reason might be surprising – refereeing is terrifying. The first time I stepped out on the field, I was 14 and I wanted to run away: far, far away from the players and especially the adults. The parents, many of whom are cultured professionals practicing law and medicine, are anything but when they line the sideline. They do not see a kid who happens to be a referee. They see an enemy whose decisions directly affect what they desperately want. Normal rules of culture and society do not apply. More than once, I’ve awakened one Saturday morning, dreading getting up and going. Never mind learning about the mechanics of a sport I love, or having a job that demands fitness and intellect for very little pay. When refereeing, I am under strict scrutiny by over-protective parents, competitive players and coaches, and die-hard fans; I am the object of insult, the center of riots, the scapegoat and whipping boy.

Field 12 is a case study. It was a U13 girls’ game with one team from Maryland and the other from Virginia. The teams had a history; both were top-ranked and serious rivals. Their games were always close and physical. From the start the players were aggressive and as it progressed they grew more and more reckless. Like always, the coaches were desperate to win, and the parents were loud and intense (It’s a joke among refs that parents in the DC area always take full advantage of the First Amendment).

Yet it was wonderful to watch. The skill of the players and the speed of the game were impressive. Unless you’re in the middle of it with a whistle. The score was tied 1-1 most of the game, but when there finally was another goal, the flag went up indicating that the scoring team had gained an unfair advantage by being offside. The goal had to be disallowed, and I had no doubt it was the correct decision. In a rational world, I would be praised for doing my job well under difficult circumstances, but soccer is not rational, even at this early age. I remember wanting the ground to swallow me whole. Parents, who were no doubt respectable and reserved almost anywhere else, were reduced to yelling at a girl one-third their age. Not just yelling, but hurling words with a vehemence and intensity that made even adult refs shake. “You’re an idiot!” said one man in a blue shirt. “Get a rule book!” screamed the Mom in expensive jeans. “You need to be reported. You’re incompetent,” said a heavy-set guy who never got out of his chair.

It took me a while to get comfortable with this environment. But then I began to understand. As the center referee, I am the cop when I’m on the field. I’m responsible for the players’ safety, for keeping the game flowing, for making the right calls, and for watching out for my assistant referees. Ultimately, the parents, players, coaches–even the assistant referees–are helpless without my auspice. I’m not saying it’s gotten easier, but the lessons learned on the pitch – preparation, focus, confidence, and flexibility – will help me in college and throughout life. I would not trade any of it.

You cannot be a referee without confidence and without certainty that your preparation and study give you the authority and standing that will validate you and, more importantly, protect you. I didn’t back down when recalling that goal because I knew I was right, and all their screaming and swearing couldn’t change that.

At the same time, soccer does not define me. It has taught me lessons that apply to life off the field and it complements me. In the same way singing brings out my passion and volunteering shows my willingness to help others, soccer exemplifies my devotion and determination. I love soccer, but it is a window into the larger me, not the total me.

That may be the best lesson of all.

- reprinted with permission of the author, who is a female youth referee in Maryland. This was a college entrance essay.

51 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Comeau says:

    I have had many coaches make comments but it has only made me a stronger ref. I believe that this young lady has proven that with her job she has learned many life lessons. This should be given out to all new referees no matter their age. Very well written.

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