Refereeing Young Children: More Teacher than an Enforcer (Part 1)

By Randy Vogt

When I started refereeing in 1978, young kids games were 11 vs. 11. I was paid $6 per game, or $4 if I refereed with a partner. Being given responsibilities and some authority while running up and down a soccer field was probably the best job that a teenager could have. Nearly all new referees will be given young children’s games when starting out.

In the 1990s, these games were switched to small-sided games to give each player more touches on the ball. Although this helped their development, it also helped the development of referees as they had fewer players to watch when officiating the game. With fewer players, it also limited the number of spectators — usually family members — watching the game. This is very important as the adults are the main reason for disciplinary issues in young kids’ games.

To some adults coaching or watching young kids’ games, the game in front of them is as important as the World Cup final. These way too serious adults appear to be living vicariously through their child and either need to learn to calm down or their child eventually quits playing. Unfortunately, these adults also have a dramatically negative impact on refs who we are trying to retain and develop.

Most adults in the younger age groups know little about soccer and the only games they have seen are their own kids’ games. Some adults with these age groups also believe that soccer is a non-contact sport. Their perception of what should be called and the reality of what should be called are two very different things.

Not knowing much about soccer, they will argue the direction of a throw-in as much as a penalty kick decision. As challenging as it might be, referees are never to talk down to anyone.

For problem coaches, as the field is small, I have found that cheating my position a bit toward the coach’s touchline works well as it gives you a somewhat similar angle to the coach and you are right there so if the coach dissents, you will hear it.

Coaches appreciate when you let them have their say but their commentary about officiating cannot be continuous. Certainly, refs cannot allow that to happen throughout the match and retain control of the game. Most youth leagues encourage refs to give a dissenting coach a caution and refs will need to do this to control the situation. Should the coach continue to complain, the ref needs to use the red card.

With problem parents who are not coaches, many youth leagues require the coach to control the parent. In that case, the ref is to seek the help of the coach. If the parent continues to yell, the coach receives a yellow card for the parent’s behavior should that league’s rules mandate it.

Regarding soccer’s only complex rule, offside is enforced in some young children’s games and not in others while a modified version is used in other leagues. It’s important for the ref to know that league’s rules before officiating and take a cell phone and appropriate phone numbers should a question come up.

Some leagues will let a young player take an illegal throw-in over again which I think is a good move. The ref should tell the player what was done incorrectly before the second attempt.

Especially in young kids games, very brief explanations should be given after some decisions (to help players, coaches and spectators understand what is happening) and handling fouls should be not be whistled unless they are very obviously deliberate.

It’s important that with handling that is not deliberate, the ref should indicate by a quick verbal commentary that the play has been seen and is not a foul as it’s not deliberate. That should keep the adults quiet as one of the few rules they are aware of is handling is against the rules but most don’t realize that it has to be deliberate to be whistled.

For clean tackles, the ref should indicate it’s fair by pointing to the ball and, if that does not get the point across, the ref could always say the challenge was fair.

The referee should not be too officious and is more of a teacher than an enforcer is most young children’s games. It’s important for the ref to know the rules but equally important how they should be applied. Refereeing from Law 18 (common sense) as much as Laws 1 to 17 will serve the referee well in young kids’ games.